Have you heard of supertasters? To my eternal regret, I have, because I’m one of them.
The label makes being a supertaster sound exciting, suggestive of a superior palate. The truth of the matter is that a supertaster is simply someone who “experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average”. Yes, that does mean a supertaster can detect hints of flavours that others may miss. A key identifier is an increased sensitivity to bitter flavours in particular; it’s usual for supertasters to dislike bitter foods and drinks.
A Guardian article about supertasters last year shares a wonderful quote from John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State University, who says of supertasterdom, “It’s not a superpower, you don’t get a cape and it doesn’t make you better than other people.”
I first came across the term several years ago, and immediately wondered if I might be a supertaster; I’ve always had a very strong aversion to virtually every food and drink commonly listed as items that a supertaster dislikes – grapefruit, carbonated water, several of the brassica family, many alcoholic beverages such as hoppy beer and dry wine. When we were little, my younger sister occasionally amused herself by merrily sucking on wedges of lemon; it made me wince just to watch!
The increased sensitivity to other tastes and textures (sweet, salty, umami, fatty) is less problematic. While I am known to have a sweet tooth, for me it’s very much about flavour – too much sugar blows out the other tastes, so I prefer fruity dark chocolate to cheap sugary milk chocolate, for example. I generally love creamy, fatty textures and the flavours that come with them. I like salty things but it’s all about balance; although salt is known to boost flavour it helps counter bitterness as well so I like it well enough but too much of it overwhelms the rest of the dish. Some chefs add so much salt to their food I wonder if they can taste it at all.
Embarrassingly for an Indian, I cannot tolerate heavy-handed use of hot chilli – it makes my tongue burn so much I can’t taste anything else at all. And the pain isn’t pleasant either. Chilli sensitivity is a pain in the arse, but I manage to cope with a low to medium level so I’m not totally limited to baby food!
Incidentally, children are usually supertasters and share an aversion to bitterness that most grow out of, so when they tell you they don’t like Brussels sprouts, they may not be lying!
Coffee is commonly cited as an ingredient that we supertasters tend to avoid and yet I drink gallons of it. But I always choose the least bitter instant coffee available; very, very light roasts with fruity rather than bitter notes, and always drink coffee with plenty of milk or cream and a frankly ridiculous amount of sugar (or dulce de leche in place of both). Coffee ice cream is one of my favourite things. Strong, dark, bitter coffee – as enjoyed by coffee aficionados – is a complete no-no for me; it’s far, far, far too bitter.
You might be wondering what causes this supertaster condition?
Current theory holds that the presence of a gene called TAS238 is involved, which seems to govern the ability to detect bitterness (usually tested via reactions to propylthiouracil) plus a higher than usual density of fungiform papillae taste buds on the tongue. Being a supertaster to some extent is not that uncommon – I’ve seen articles suggesting it’s as high as one in four. But the level of sensitivity varies and many supertasters are only mildly so.
It’s thought that this gene could be an evolutionary remnant; since many toxins are bitter, a natural aversion to bitterness would have steered our ancestors away from potentially unsafe foods.
Back in early December, Pete and I were invited to a food and beer matching event by Leffe. I don’t usually enjoy beer (the bitterness from the hops being the problem) but I have found the occasional lightly-hopped fruit beer palatable. Pete, of course, loves his beers.
To make the evening more of an experience, Leffe invited along The Robin Collective, a company that runs lively events for brands interested in exploring taste in a fun and light-hearted way.
As we sat down around the table, they handed out some tiny plastic bags of mysterious white powder, a pink pill and a tiny square of white paper. There were a few raised eyebrows!
With no idea what it was, we were asked to place the little square of white paper onto our tongues. Immediately, I grimaced with disgust at the intensely bitter taste flooding my mouth and asked if I could please spit it out. To my surprise, nearly everyone else looked at me in surprised disbelief, stating that the square tasted of absolutely nothing, or for a couple of them, very mildy bitter at most.
At this point, The Robin Collective revealed that the paper was a supertaster test (soaked in phenylthiocarbamide, which functions similarly to propylthiouracil). I was clearly towards the stronger end of the scale. The blue dye they asked us put onto our tongues next (commonly used to aid the visual identification and counting of taste buds) was a bust – the room was simply too dark to see, let alone count taste buds. It just looked as though we’d all eaten blue slushies! The white powder was sodium benzoate, another molecule which supertasters are more sensitive to, and can detect more flavours from.
After this, we moved on to our meal, matching courses with different Leffe beers, including Leffe’s new-to-UK Ruby, a pretty rosé beer featuring red fruits of the forest along with their blonde, brown and nectar (honey) beers.
At the end of the meal, The Robin Collective also had us experiment with miracle berry, a fruit which naturally interferes with taste receptors such that your perception of sour ingredients is that they are sweet. We chewed on the pink pills before proving the effect by sucking on a plate of lemon wedges, which tasted wonderfully sweet.
The beers were introduced by the very knowledgeable, charmingly enthusiastic and excitable Luke Morris, who has worked with many beer brands including Leffe. He told us about each beer, discussed the best food matches and guided us through our tasting.
As expected, different beers worked better or worse with different dishes.
Sometimes it’s a case of echoing the dominant flavour profiles in the dish with flavours also in the beer. Sometimes it’s better to contrast the beer and food. Either way, a great match can really make the food on the plate sing and likewise certain foods do a super job of bringing out different aspects of the beer.
Of the four beers we tried during the evening, my favourite was the fruity ruby – drinking it with the food helped to lessen the light bitterness and bring out the fruity flavours. Pete was keener on the brown beer, with the blonde in second place. For him the sweetness of the nectar and ruby beers was less appealing.
Kavey Eats attended this beer and food matching event as guests of Leffe.