Some people are more sensitive than others to compounds in foods that create certain flavors. These people are called supertasters. The term may suggest that food tastes better to supertasters — that it tastes super, even. But that is not the case. Much of what tastes bland to those possessed of ordinary taste-talents, or can’t be perceived by them at all, has an identifiable taste for supertasters.
Supertasters are born with a heightened sensitivity to flavor. Even a person with a keen awareness of flavors can’t be considered a supertaster unless she comes with the right equipment. That equipment seems to reside in the surface of the tongue, among the fungiform papillae — the structures that support the taste buds. Everyone has these structures, but supertasters have more than most, and they therefore have more taste buds distributed throughout the tongue.
While this physiological difference seems to account for supertasting abilities, there may be other factors at work. The tendency also appears to be related to sex hormones, as most supertasters are women. The genes that determine supertaster status may have been heavily selected in the days when avoiding plants in the wild that were bitter, and therefore poisonous, made for better health and longer life.
The laboratory test that determines whether someone is a supertaster involves a substance called propylthiouracil (PROP). For ordinary tasters PROP is flavorless, but it has a powerfully bitter flavor for supertasters. A look at the tongue can also help determine whether someone is a supertaster. The surface of a supertaster’s tongue will appear especially bumpy with fungiform papillae. Using blue food coloring to dye the tongue shows the bumps in greater relief.
But a supertaster may not need a test to determine her status. If a person is a supertaster, the taste of some foods will be unpleasant to her. She can gauge her intense dislike of, say, broccoli, against the milder reactions of others to the same food. An accumulation of unusual taste reactions will suggest that she is indeed a supertaster. Other foods mildly bitter to ordinary tongues but extremely so to supertasters are coffee, dark chocolate, and soy. Supertasters also find the flavor of sugary and fatty foods overwhelming.
Bitter vegetables contain alkaloids helpful to cell repair, and supertasters may miss out on the benefits of these. But because supertasters don’t enjoy sugar or fat, they tend to suffer from obesity and cardiovascular disease less often than the rest of the population.