The supertaster unveiled: Overachieving taste buds could ruin your palate

Ask 100 people if they’d want to be “supertasters” and probably 99 of them would say yes. We have Superman, Superwoman, Supergirl (well, she was killed off, but she was still cool), so you’d think supertasters would have superpowers, right? Not. It sounds so appealing, like living in a delicious, taste-enhanced world, and I, of course, fancied myself a super-mega taster, able to describe a wine in a single bound. But as the theory came to light, I quickly realized a wine critic doesn’t exactly want to brag about this.

The term originated in the mid-1990s, when research revealed that some people possess a powerful sensitivity to bitterness. The study estimated 25 percent of the entire world’s population are supertasters (mostly female), 50 percent are normal tasters, and the remaining 25 percent fall into the nontaster category. The three slots divide along gender and racial lines, with 35 percent of Caucasian women fitting the super bill, but Asians, Africans and South Americans also heavily weigh into the super class.

Despite the name, being a supertaster isn’t so super — it’s actually a prison sentence to a uniquely overintense experience. We’re not talking about an ecstasy-like, feel-good intense but a gag-reflex intense. One out of four people on the Earth has more fungiform papillae on their tongue — the little bumps on the surface that house your taste buds — rendering them intolerant to many foods. Basically, they taste too much. Anything bitter, such as black coffee, Scotch, grapefruit juice or most vegetables, supertasters avoid. And really sweet items, such as artificial sugars or spicy foods, are too powerful. Sooo … basically, the foodstuffs that please my palate, they can’t stomach.

The reasoning could lie in the bumps. Back in Paleolithic times, we needed more sensitive receptors on our tongues to determine if scavenged food was edible. As we evolved and grocery stores replaced our hunter/gatherer instincts, the increased number of receptors became less and less useful so, apparently, we’re phasing them out — 75 percent of us already have.

To determine if your annoying “sauce on the side, no broccoli in my sautéed vegetables, can you make sure that’s not Thai hot” habits could actually be the result of your super tongue (and not, as your mom said, your “pickiness”), there are ways to test yourself. One way is applying an apparently nasty medicine (that treats hyperactive thyroid), propylthiouracil, to your tongue and analyzing your perceptions. Most people can’t perceive any flavor at all, but supertasters shudder from the terribly bitter substance. A much easier way is to apply a small dab of blue food coloring on the tip of your tongue and count the pink bumps. The denser the bumps, the higher likelihood you are a supertaster — 64 per square centimeter is the average taster.

If I were a supertaster, which I am thankfully not — I have a career-saving, generic tongue — I probably wouldn’t be a proficient wine critic (“Way too much fruit, offensive acids and tannins, where’s my favorite boring, tasteless chardonnay?”). Plagued with too many buds, I’d be overwhelmed by all my favorite foods: green tea, fruits, vegetables and, of course, wines of all flavors — alcohol tastes quite bitter and irritating to a supertaster. They lean toward the bland (light beer, anyone?), and their sensitivity to acidity keeps them far away from astringent sauvignon blanc, Spanish albarino or even pinot noir. Even the sensation of alcohol sets off their touchy tongues — so don’t expect to find Listerine in their medicine cabinets.


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