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.
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!19 Comments to "Supertaster Me"
I’ve often wondered if I’m slightly one too. I cannot bear grapefruit or bitter coffee, I dislike bitter marmalade too. I am definitely a latte girl through and through. Coffee icecream is one of my favourites, as yours is, but espresso makes me wince.
A dab of wasabi last night, in some tuna nigiri, actually was so painful it made me want to spit out the food. I’d even scraped most of it off. I hated it so much! I was almost in tears with the pain. And the fact that I had to give away the rest.
Wine just tastes of alcohol to me. I never get the fruitiness, and it ALL tastes exactly the same to me, even the most pricey, though I love to cook with it. Being allergic to most forms of alcohol probably doesn’t help matters…
Yes, I’ve tried to explain that ALL (non dessert) wine just tastes like vinegar to me. White vinegar, red vinegar, all vinegar. People refuse to believe me, and insist that “this is a sweet wine”, offering me something that might be labelled as medium or even sweet but not dessert. Nuh, no thanks. Not as vinegary as dry wines but still enough acidity/ bitterness to make my jaw muscles clench and the taste just isn’t good to me. Everything is overwhelmed by the bitter. It’s not that I don’t like any acidity though, I love balsamic vinegar and I love the sweeter style of pickles and chutneys. It’s really the bitterness, but also some sourness, I struggle with. And chilli/ wasabi heat.
I was with you up to the coffee ice cream bit ! Don’t think I’m a super taster though, would be interesting to test … maybe that what’s behind my love for junk food …
also hate Marmalade and only taste wine … cider for me
Love of junk food probably because it is usually high in fat and umami, both of which we crave! I love cider but mostly the sweeter, weaker French style. The dries are too dry.
By the way, I liked your twitter comment that I’d described myself as Indian, when you think of me as English. I guess I meant racially/ genetically there. I always say British, I completely think of myself as British. But genetically I am Indian, and as I was thinking on the genetics, that’s what I was referring to in this case — people assume I love/ can tolerate chilli, in no small part because I’m Indian!
Interesting. I’m pretty certain CT is a super taster and if I’m not sure about flavours in chocolate for example, I always ask him. Interestingly he did a survey amongst his root growing friends on what they thought about eating mashua – it’s always made him feel physically nauseous. Out of about 70 people who responded, the vast majority ate it quite happily and didn’t get the bitter/floral flavours that he did. Incidentally, I don’t like it either, but it doesn’t make me feel sick.
Yes, when Pete tries wines, coffees, beers, and so on I often have a good sniff. I’ll talk about different scents I pick up, the kind of thing that makes wine critics sound pretentious. Pete will sometimes be dubious but then on tasting, it’s quite common for the scents I detect to be there on his palate. They wouldn’t be there on mine, which would just scream “vinegar, vinegar, vinegar!” at me!
Don’t think I’m a super taster even though I avoid bitter foods like the plague. Sounds like a fun evening though!
You may be, Michelle, one in four people are, to some degree!
Kavey, I don’t have an aversion to bitter foods, so I’m not a supertaster. But, like you, I often think dishes have been oversalted or overspiced. Not that I don’t like herbs and spices and the allium family, but people so often overdo them.
Yes, I agree, the over-salting thing is not just a case of me being oversensitive — Pete has felt the same about some of the dishes that have made me gag with the salt level and he’s not supertaster at all.
Love this! I’ve done lots of Supertaster testing, and naturall, EVERYONE always want to be Super. I’m not, as it happens. Maybe that’s why I’ll eat any old scrofulous bit of tat in my search for culinary enlightenment. Or perhaps I’m just greedy?
Greedy is good! Why does everyone want to be super? It’s as least as much a pain in the arse as it is any kind of boon. A friend on twitter said she has also seen it referenced as hypertaster rather than supertaster, which is great as it removes that impression people have of supertasters being superior.
Sounds like an interesting event Kavey! 🙂
Yes, quite unusual and fun, though uuugh, that little bitter square of paper was disgusting!
Great event to attend!
Fascinating read Kavey, at first thought being a supertaster would seem a good thing, but I can see that it is not always easy.
No, there’s no real benefit I think. I can often detect smells before other people, and I can distinguish hints of flavours (though it doesn’t come with an in-built ability to identify what every flavour is, which people sometimes expect). But the oversensitivity, especially to bitters, means a lot of foods and drinks which I don’t enjoy at all.
I have always suspected I’m a super taster as I can always detect the slight chemical-ness of sweetener in foods, for example, and am always the first to notice if something in the fridge is even slightly turning. I’d love like to find out for sure. Thanks for sharing – very interesting!
IO think there are sites online that sell the testing stuff you need so you could find out!