Today I found out how to tell if you are a supertaster. What’s a supertaster you ask? More or less, it’s just someone with a heck of a lot more taste-buds than the average person. Specifically, someone with more than about 35 papillae per 7mm diameter circle on their tongue. Papillae are tiny structures on your tongue that contain your taste-buds. It turns out, about 25% of people are supertasters; 25% are non-tasters; and the other 50% are somewhere in the middle.
All these extra taste-buds tend to make supertasters hyper sensitive to tastes, due to the increased intensity of any given taste they are detecting. Researchers estimate the supertasters experience flavors about three times stronger than the average taster.
Because of this, supertasters tend to hate green vegetables, grapefruit juice, certain alcoholic beverages, coffee, green tea, soy based products, overly sweet things, and generally are just considered “picky eaters”. It turns out though, that it has nothing to do with personality with supertasters, as is often implied, and more to do with the fact that they can taste things that the people labeling them “picky eaters” and ridiculing them for it, can’t. So don’t get bitter at them, they can’t help it.
There are two primary ways to detect if you are a supertaster or not. The first and less “do at home” friendly, is to get some propylthiouracil (PROP), a prescription only thyroid medication drug. In this test, people are made to taste PROP and if they report a bitter taste they are either a medium or a supertaster (non-taster’s can’t taste PROP; supertasters find it repulsively bitter). They then are given a reference stimulus to determine how an individual scales their description of what they are sensing. With this, they are trying to determine if someone says something is “extremely bitter”, do they mean the same level as someone else that just says “bitter”, but has a different notion of how strongly to describe some sensation. From this reference stimulant, usually auditory, they are able to determine if someone who tastes the bitterness is a supertaster or just a medium taster.
Now for the more “do at home” friendly version.
- Piece of thick paper such as a 3×5 note card or construction paper
- Blue Food Coloring
- Magnifying Glass
- Cotton Swab (optional)
- Hole Punch (optional)
- Poke a hole in the paper approximately the size of a standard paper hole punch hole (should be 7mm or .27 inches in diameter; most hole punches range between 6mm and 8mm).
- Now rub some of the food coloring onto your tongue with a cotton swab or your finger. You will notice under the magnifying glass that the food coloring will tend to show up on your tongue, but the papillae will stay pink-ish, looking like little pink bumps on your tongue.
- Place the hole on the paper over the part of your tongue that has the food coloring and press gently, so as not to move the paper while you are counting.
- Use the magnifying glass and a mirror to count how many papillae you see on your tongue through the hole in the paper. The papillae should appear like tiny pink dots surrounded by blue food coloring.
That’s it. If you counted close to 35-ish or more, you are a supertaster. If you counted between 15 or more up to around 35-ish, you are a medium taster. If you counted less than 15, you are a non-taster. Obviously there are ranges within each group, but that’s generally how the three groups are classified. But beyond labels like “supertaster”, the more papillae you counted, the strong you taste things.
- Body type has been found to be closely related to ability to taste. Supertasters tend to be thinner and have less cardiovascular problems due to dislike of fatty foods.
- The term “supertaster” was first coined by Psychologist Linda Bartoshuk and her colleagues in the 1990s. In their research, they noticed some people tested in their experiments seemed to have a much higher taste response. However, they only coined the phrase and further studied the differences between taste sensitivity; the difference in ability to distinguish taste strengths had already been discovered. Specifically, work was done about 70 years previous by A.L. Fox, a chemist, who noticed that some people reported phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) as being bitter, while others couldn’t taste it. Later, Roland Fischer, in the 1960s, discovered that PROP, which was later used by Linda Bartoshuk for her research, could not be tasted by non-tasters and by some medium tasters, but was extremely bitter to supertasters.
- Though supertasters have a significantly lower risk of developing cardiovascular and weight problems, they run a much higher risk of colon, gynecological, and other cancers than non-supertasters. This is thought to be due to a drastically limited intake of green vegetables, due to their disgusting taste to supertasters.
- Women are much more likely to be supertasters than men (35% of Women vs 15% of Men)
- Asians are much more likely to be supertasters than the rest of the world
- Caucasian males have the lowest rate of supertasters of any known group.
- In The Simpsons episode “Father Knows Worst”, Homer eats a stick of burning coals and becomes a supertaster.
- The alternative rock band They Might Be Giants has a song called “John Lee Supertaster” about John Lee, a supertaster and the bass player for the rock band Muckaferguson, who “can’t drink coffee or beer” and “loves ice cream and pie”.
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