What Is a Supertaster and Could You Be One?

What’s your ideal superpower? Super speed? Super strength? How about super taste? You don’t have to be bitten by that radioactive spider to experience tastes far stronger than the average person. Although this skill might not get you a spot with the Avengers, supertasters do have some advantages — and drawbacks — when it comes to food. Find out what it means to be a supertaster — and whether you could be one, too.

How we taste food

As humans evolved, taste was essential for survival. Bitter and sour tastes told people what they were eating might be poisonous while sweet and salty tastes often meant the foods were high in nutrients.

There are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (or savory). Some people also recognize fat as a sixth basic taste. “What is generally categorized as ‘taste’ is basically a bundle of different sensations,” according to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. “It is not only the qualities of taste perceived by the tongue, but also the smell, texture and temperature of a meal that are important.”

Adults have about 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds, each of which has dozens of sensory cells. These sensory cells respond to the chemical components of a taste by activating nerve cells, which in turn pass information on the taste to the brain.

Each sensory cell differs in its sensitivity to the basic tastes. About half can read multiple tastes at varying degrees while others specialize in only one taste. “This means that a particular cell might be most sensitive to sweet, followed by sour, salty and bitter, while another has its own ranking,” the institute says. “The full experience of a flavor is produced only after all of the sensory cell profiles from the different parts of the tongue are combined.”

So humans are able to perceive a vast amount of flavors. But why are some people so much more “super” at taste than others?

What makes supertasters different?

man tasting soup from the pot while standing in the kitchen

You can thank your parents for your sense of taste. “There’s a spectrum of taste sensitivity — scientists who study the subject divide the world into ‘non-tasters,’ ‘medium tasters,’ and ‘supertasters,’” according to Harvard Medical School. “These groups are not defined arbitrarily. They’re based on the genes we inherit.”

About a quarter of people qualify as non-tasters, according to a study that pioneered research on supertasters. While they don’t completely lack taste, the sense is diminished — especially for bitter and sweet flavors. They often have to douse food in seasoning to make it to their liking. Furthermore, as the name suggests, medium tasters fall somewhere in the middle. They make up about half of the population, enjoying most tastes without finding them too bland or overpowering.

Roughly a quarter of people are supertasters. Many tastes — especially bitter — are exaggerated for these people, sometimes to the point of pain or irritation, Harvard Medical School says. For instance, supertasters find foods, such as coffee or kale, intensely bitter. But supertasters also find it easier to pick out nuances of food, allowing them to appreciate quality flavor combinations more than most.

So why the difference in tasting ability? The answer lies on our tongues. “The number of fungiform papillae — the structures on your tongue that contain taste buds — on the front of your tongue correlates with your level of taste,” according to Harvard Medical School. The more papillae you have, the higher your taste sensitivity is, though this generalization has been debated.

The pros and cons of being a supertaster

Is supertasting a superpower you want? Not necessarily. These are some of the pros and cons of being a supertaster, according to Harvard’s School of Public Health.

  • They don’t eat their veggies: Because certain vegetables, such as kale, have a bitter taste, supertasters tend to avoid them. Consequently, supertasters might be at a higher risk for health issues, such as colon cancer.
  • They avoid high-fat and sugary foods: Because foods come off as exceptionally sweet or fatty to supertasters, they tend to consume less of them. Thus, many supertasters have a lower body mass index and are in good cardiovascular health.
  • They consume more salt: Salt helps to mask the bitterness that supertasters dislike. So they tend to put more salt on their food, consuming more sodium than the other tasters.
  • They drink less alcohol: Again, it’s the bitter flavor of alcohol that turns away supertasters. They’re also less likely to smoke — a huge health benefit.
  • Certain foods cause them pain: Supertasters tend to dislike hot and spicy foods due to pain or irritation. This is possibly because they have more pain receptors surrounding the taste cells in their mouths.
  • They might be picky eaters: Because supertasters find tastes so extreme, they might become picky eaters. And that could result in more serious consequences than just having trouble finding something you like on a restaurant menu. According to Harvard Medical School, a study from 2009 “found that 10 year-old children who were supertasters were more likely … to be shorter than other kids, suggesting that the ways kids taste food may affect their development.”

Even though you might be genetically predisposed to liking (or disliking) certain foods, you still can work to eat a healthy diet. Still, you might want to find out what kind of taster you are, so at least you have a reason for your picky food habits.

Determining whether you’re a supertaster

portrait of teenage blonde girl sticking out her tongue dyed blue

Want to determine what kind of taster you are? Although this isn’t a foolproof method, you can create your own test to count the papillae on your tongue.

Scientific American details how to complete the popular DIY study that involves staining your tongue with blue food dye to highlight the papillae. Here are the basics of the test:

  1. Put a drop of blue food dye on your tongue, take a mouthful of water, swish it and spit. The remaining dye should make all of your tongue blue, except for the papillae.
  2. Using a hole punch, punch a hole out of a piece of wax paper. Place the wax paper on your tongue, and count the papillae within it (just the large bumps — not the really small ones).
  3. Repeat using as many volunteers as possible for comparison.

If you count more than 30 papillae, you’re considered a supertaster, according to Scientific American. Average tasters see about 15 to 30, and non-tasters count fewer than 15.

And if you’re still curious, check out a taste-testing kit that gauges sensitivity for the bitter chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil, which is what the pioneering study on supertasters used. Supertasters found it “intensely bitter” while average tasters classified it as “moderately bitter,” according to the study. And non-tasters couldn’t taste it at all.

Regardless of whether you try one of these tests or determine your taste level based on your food preferences, in this case there actually is some accounting for taste.

Main image credit: Pablo_K/Thinkstock

49 comments

Paula A
Patricia A23 days ago

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Jack Y
Jack Y2 months ago

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Jack Y
Jack Y2 months ago

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John J
John J2 months ago

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John J
John J2 months ago

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Gino C
Past Member 5 months ago

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Glennis W
Glennis W5 months ago

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