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Feb 19, 2012 10:08 AM

Supertaster skepticism: is the any real scientific evidence that Supertasters actually exist?

I've been running across a few references to so-called 'Supertasters' and most of it just comes across as Pseudo-Science gibberish.

Are supertasters really just picky eaters looking for an excuse to refuse to eat their vegetables?

Are there peer-reviewed journal articles that support this assertion?

I just find it all a bit hard to swallow.

There are a lot of references to the number of papillae on the tongue:

and this quote:

Professor Bartoshuk said: "Super-tasters perceive all tastes as more intense than do tasters and non-tasters."

But this just doesn't gel to me with the way the brian is known to work in other respects. For exampel the brain is very very good at 'normalising' the light data received from the eye under different conditions - so that we see much the same way.

I just don't see how the brain would not re-normalise for taste in much the same way.

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  1. I have no answers for you but I, too, have wondered about the scientific validity of the supertaster phenomenon.

    Is this the same thing as the cilantro enzyme? Because I question that too - only because some people I know who hated cilantro in the past have come around to it. If it was really a biologically determined thing, that shouldn't happen too often, right?

    1. There is a lot of evidence to support the concept that not all people taste equally. As for your comparing sight to vision, lots of people need glasses, some people are blind, there are even a few very rare individuals who can actually see ultra violet light, so why would you doubt wide variances in people's ability to smell and taste?

      Those two "senses" are tightly locked together. Hold your nose and you won't sense half the flavor of things you do when you can smell as well as taste. It's like olfactory glands shed light on and amplify what the taste buds pick up. And vice versa. They validate each other.

      There is a theory in medicine that obese people taste differently than "normal" sized people, and that this causes them to overeat. I think that may be true of SOME obese people, but at this juncture of time, I don't think science or medicine is close to having a clue to what causes all cases of obesity. Certainly the American diet is grossly responsible for much of it in this country, and my own belief is that it is directly linked to the ways in which American agribusiness has modified our food supply. Some agree with me, some don't.

      As for individual abilities to taste, I have written about the chile phenomenon on these boards several times. Two different people may or may not get the same "kick" from the same chile pepper. In my own family, when my kids were still in school, my husband and daughter perceived salsa opposite of the way my son and I perceived them. What was hot for Rick and Christie was mild for me and John. And vice versa. I now have a friend who cannot handle the heat of the relatively mild green Tabasco sauce (mild jalapeno) but downs Sriracha straight by the cupful. She uses it as gravy on baked potatoes!

      In France, there are men in the perfume industry who draw VERY handsome salaries because of their sense of smell. They are commonly referred to as "noses," and can smell a perfume and tell you what is in it and how it is formulated. And that's what most of them do for a living: Design new perfumes.

      When I was younger, I had an ability that some of my chef friends envied, and a few shared. I could go to a restaurant and taste the chef's super secret specialty and go home and duplicate it. Unfortunately, as you age your senses diminish to a greater or lesser degree. I doubt that I could still do that.

      Oh, and for the record, "re-normalizing" is an individual thing. It has nothing to do with the norms for all people. There are "chile heads" who have to have hotter and hotter chiles to get their endorphin highs because they "normalize" the intense heat as they go along. It doesn't matter what you are "normalizing" or "re-normalizing," you are ONLY doing it for yourself.

      Bottom line is that if you don't have a fairly acute sense of taste and smell, chances are you're never going to be a great chef. That's just the way the cookie crumbles. '-)

      1. "Are supertasters really just picky eaters looking for an excuse to refuse to eat their vegetables?"


        "Are there peer-reviewed journal articles that support this assertion?"

        Decades worth. One of my favorite conclusions from studies of supertasters is that they prefer saltier foods than normal tasters.

        2 Replies
        1. re: FoodPopulist

          My husband and daughter can both taste things in food that I cannot. I found this out when I tried to "hide" vegetables in their soups and sauces but they could always taste them and I'd be busted.

          They can even tell me when our Britta filter needs to be changed because of the change in the taste of the water - and when I clean the unit, I can see that they are so right! The irony is that I do not have that ability, but I am the only cook in this family. BTW: they both like salty food, while I am addicted to sugar...coincidence? I have no idea, but this is an interesting thread.

          1. re: Claudette

            My son and I can always tell when the Pur filter needs changing. The others not so much.

        2. The thing that occurs to me is that supertasting would affect *taste* only - ie, salt, sweet, bitter, sour. However, most of the flavour in most foods actually comes from smell, as you can tell if you've every had a cold that stopped up your sense of smell completely.

          So supertasting would affect the broader underlying taste, rather than the details, which might affect the balance of flavours in the food, rather than making all flavours equally stronger (which the brain would more easily compensate for).

          2 Replies
          1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

            From what I understand, supertasters often require a different balance. Since they can taste bitterness where normal tasters can't, they often want the other flavors to be stronger to cover up the bitterness.

            1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

              I certainly don't read everything that comes down the pike about supertasters, but I don't recall ever reading anything that said it is a taste buds only ability. I don't think you can separate taste from smell. And I, for one, can certainly smell sweetness. Sugar -- just plain old in the bag S&H cane sugar -- has an aroma I can easily identify. Honey has a smell. And chiles.... Well, 'nuff said.

              I'm always interested (and amused!) when they have those smelling (and sometimes tasting) challenges on Top Chef (or whatever) where the contestants have to identify foods and spices while blindfolded. When someone gets them all (or most) right, I watch that person like a hawk for the rest of the series to see where that ability lands them. Which is not to say a really excellent chef can't be knocked out for other reasons. I wish they'd give up Restaurant Wars and do more with the taste/smell challenges. I haven't seen those in a while, but then I'm not a slave viewer.

              There is soooooo much that is still unknown about the human brain and our senses. It's fairly recently that umami has been widely recognized as a taste outside of Japan. When you stop and think that there is so very very little difference between human DNA and that of the great apes, it's gotta say something about how much variance nature can get out of so little. I suspect the sense of taste/smell in humans is no exception.

            2. In answer to the OP's question there have been numerous studies done on supertasters, going back to at least the 1930's, although the term 'supertaster' wasn't coined until much later (1990's).

              You might not agree with the data, but data does exist.

              My father was a supertaster, unfortunately he found it more of a problem than a gift, as he largely didn't care what he was eating. The fact that food a lot of people thought was fine was not fine to him was an annoyance. My mom on the other hand loves the tastes and smells of food, but her palate was in the more normal range, and it drove her nuts that she couldn't taste the nuances my dad could. In their senior years now, neither of them have a particularly sensitive palette.

              4 Replies
              1. re: KaimukiMan

                I don't eat most of the things supertasters don't like. It doesn't matter to me what the "condition" is called, or even that someone has given it a name.

                I pretty much hate:
                - Brussels sprouts
                - cabbage
                - kale
                - soy products (I loathe, hate, abhor, and detest tofu)
                - tonic water

                I don't hate, but don't consume much in the way of:
                - coffee (during a six-week bout with flu/bronchitis, many years into being a coffee lover, coffee tasted bad to me; it still does)
                - green tea (I don't hate it; it just doesn't taste good enough to drink instead of black tea)
                - carbonation in drinks such as in soda, beer, etc. (the only one I'll drink is San Pellegrino, or maybe a Coke with less-than-stellar pizza)

                I love grapefruit juice, though, and kalamata olives, though I only eat kalamatas with other things, antipasto-style. I don't like any other olives, though.

                I like a little heat in some food, though as I age, I find I sometimes only want a little bit of hot.

                1. re: Jay F

                  Interesting. So are you disliking the sight, texture, taste or smell of these foods and drinks?

                  For me - I like all the things you don't, especially Tofu. However, I can hypothesize, based on reported experience, why you dislike these items (these are just guesses):

                  Brussel sprouts & Cabbage - These, if prepared or seasoned incorrectly, can have an overly rich and permeating taste to them. The smell, like cabbage, has an aroma similar to, and is often confused with the odor of compost or rotting vegetable matter.

                  Kale - Leafy and robust, these plants are bitter, strong and lingering - again all in preparation.

                  Soy Products - I'm guessing here that you really just dislike the tofu for texture and appearance reasons, then logically you canvas the entire soy group as bad. What about soy-bean burgers?

                  Tonic Water - Quinine has a strong taste, and this flavor rich bubbly beverage is best served over vodka or gin with fruit. Often times, barmen use improper ratios when preparing these drinks, and the Tonic flavor overpowers.

                  Coffee - You associate the flu experience with the coffee, and thus your flavor database says no-no to you.

                  Green Tea - You don't hate it.

                  Carbonation - I'm guessing you had some bad (vomiting?) experience with a carbonated beverage - perhaps the Tonic, so the mouth-feel causes your brain's battle stations alarm to come on.

                  Kalamatas Olives - The extreme saltiness of these is what makes them okay for you, but only when disguised by companion food. Their appearance is not as abrupt as the green olive, nor do they have the mashy soft pimento in them. You don't like the milder olives because the taste is earthy and subtly brine, and the flavor of them probably crosses into your dislike of the soy or cabbage group.

                  1. re: MaxSeven

                    I do hate the smell of cooked cabbage. When I was a kid, I would leave the house when anyone cooked it (which, thankfully, wasn't all that often). They stopped making it when they realized it made me leave home.

                    It's almost, but not quite the same with Brussels sprouts. Since they aren't quite as smelly, I've tasted them chez any number of friends who insist I only *think* I don't like them because "you haven't tried *my* Brussels sprouts." The truth is, everybody's Brussels sprouts taste more alike than different.

                    There's no way I would even taste cooked cabbage, though.

                    I put kale in some minestrone-like soups I made last year, since it's supposed to be so healthy, and it just ruined the soups with its sour, nasty taste. Smell wasn't a factor.

                    I wouldn't eat a soy-bean burger with your mouth.

                    One of the first drinks I ever had was a G&T. I thought it was so nasty, I didn't drink alcohol again for years (age 24).

                    I don't *think* I associate coffee with being sick, as I only had a cup or two before switching to tea. If I were affected by the association, I think I'd want to avoid tea, which I drank all through the illness.

                    I don't associate carbonation with vomiting at all. I don't like to drink sugar, for the most part. I'm perfectly happy to drink San P. And as for tonic, no, no associations. It just tastes bad to me.

                  2. re: Jay F

                    you want a good high-strength kenyan cappuchino:fresh. tastes just like grapefruit to me.