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The Science of Supertasters 

It’s a tale as old as time. Growing up, your family tried to instill a love of broccoli and other leafy greens in you, but it never quite took. Now, you might be an adult who still doesn’t appreciate certain veggies, coffee or spicy foods. Perhaps you’d even go so far as to call yourself a picky eater. If so, have you ever considered whether you might be a supertaster? 

While being a supertaster might sound like a covetable superpower, the one in four people who find themselves with this ability might not always see it as a blessing. When it comes down to it, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: What is a supertaster? Join us as we answer this and all your other burning questions related to supertasters.  

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a — Supertaster? 

Our tongues are covered in tiny buds called taste papillae, which come in three forms: fungiform, circumvallate and foliate. Fungiform papillae are mushroom-shaped and found on the front of your tongue. They contain a combination of taste buds and sensory receptors that detect taste and touch sensations. These taste receptors bind to food molecules and give your brain an indicator of what you’re eating. 

The taste buds on your fungiform papillae can detect five primary flavors while you’re eating, including: 

  • Sweet 
  • Salty 
  • Sour 
  • Bitter 
  • Umami (savory tastes, often associated with broths or meaty food)

If you find yourself wondering exactly how many taste buds supertasters have, you’re not alone. While there aren’t studies with these exact findings, some statistics have been gathered based on at-home taste bud-counting tests that count the number of taste buds people have on a six-millimeter section of their tongue: 

  • Supertasters are more likely to have approximately 35 to 60 taste buds per six-millimeter section. 
  • Average tasters make up approximately 50% of the population. They have about 15 to 35 taste buds per section. 
  • Non-tasters are likely to have 15 or fewer taste buds per six-millimeter section. As the name would suggest, non-tasters often notice less flavor in their food. 

Picking a Supertaster Out of a Lineup: Characteristics to Look For 

If you feel like you might qualify as a supertaster, but you’re not quite sure, there are a few telltale characteristics to look for, including:  

Picky Eating 

Many supertasters have a laundry list of foods they wouldn’t dare touch unless they were stranded on a deserted island — and even then, it would be a challenge. To their credit, there is a scientific reason behind their finicky food preferences. Scientists believe that many supertasters have the gene TAS2R38. 

This particular gene increases a person’s perception of the bitterness in various foods and drinks. Many supertasters that have taken part in scientific studies often find that they’re extremely sensitive to a chemical called propylthiouracil (PROP). This chemical is often used in research to measure a person’s sensitivity to notes of tartness. Because PROP has an easily detectable bitter taste, supertasters often note an extremely bitter taste when given the chemical, more so than average or non-tasters.  

Camouflaging Bitter Flavors by Overcompensating With Other Flavors 

Broccoli and spinach may leave an overwhelmingly bitter taste in the mouths of supertasters, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the nutritional value veggies offer. To mask the bitterness, some supertasters add sweet, salty or fatty flavors to foods they wouldn’t eat otherwise. This makes certain bitter-tasting foods more palatable so supertasters can have their vegetables — and their nutrients too.  

Preferring Salty Flavors (But Hold the Extra Salt) 

You may assume that someone who perceives the delicate differences in salty, sweet or bitter flavors would steer clear of foods that are too salty. On the contrary! A recent study showed that supertasters preferred foods that were high in salt. While there’s no conclusion as to why they feel this way, researchers believe that it may be because salty flavors cut out some of the bitterness from certain foods, like cheese. 

While a lot of supertasters prefer saltier foods, that doesn’t mean they are keen on reaching for the saltshaker during every meal. For average tasters and non-tasters, salt adds more flavor to otherwise bland food. But if you’re a supertaster, that same food probably has significantly more flavor to you, so it doesn’t need the added salt. 

Avoiding Smoking or Alcohol 

While average and non-tasters may not notice the subtle bitter notes in some beers, citrusy seltzers and certain hard liquors, supertasters often taste these flavors front and center on their palette. While it’s not always a determining factor, the tangy aftertaste can turn alcohol into a no-go for some supertasters. Similarly, the additives and tobacco in cigarettes can also leave behind a bitter essence, making them even more unpleasant to those with extreme taste buds.  

Whether you’re a superhero physician in the making or a working professional interested in developing your understanding of human physiology, you can step up your game with the University of Florida’s Graduate Certificate in Medical Physiology. This program allows you to earn your certificate entirely online in as little as one semester. Our well-rounded courses contain relevant coursework that will prepare you for National Board exams, the MCAT or other standardized tests in the medical industry.  

Take control of your future today by applying to our online Graduate Certificate in Medical Physiology program. 

Sources:
https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2010/06/16/127880219/for-supertasters-a-desire-for-salt-is-in-their-genes 
https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/supertaster#supertaster-quiz 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5766753/