A supertaster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. Some 35% of women and 15% of men are supertasters. Supertasters are more likely to be of Asian, African, and South American descent. The cause of this heightened response is unknown, although it is thought to be related to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene, the ability to taste PROP and PTC, and at least in part, due to an increased number of fungiform papillae. Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. It may be a cause of picky eating, but picky eaters are not necessarily supertasters, and vice versa.
The term originates with experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk who has spent much of her career studying genetic variation in taste perception. In the early 1990s, Bartoshuk and her colleagues noticed some individuals tested in the laboratory seemed to have an elevated taste response and took to calling them supertasters.[dubious ] This increased taste response is not the result of response bias or a scaling artifact, but appears to have an anatomical/biological basis.
In 1931, Arthur L. Fox, a DuPont chemist, discovered that some individuals found phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) to be bitter while others found it tasteless. At the 1931 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fox collaborated with Albert F. Blakeslee (a geneticist) to have attendees taste PTC: 65% found it bitter, 28% found it tasteless and 6% described other taste qualities. Subsequent work revealed that the ability to taste PTC was genetic in nature. In the 1960s, Roland Fischer was the first to link the ability to taste PTC, and the related compound propylthiouracil (PROP), to food preference and body type. Today, PROP has replaced PTC in taste research due to a faint sulfurous odor and safety concerns with PTC. As described above, Bartoshuk and colleagues discovered that the taster group could be further divided into medium and supertasters. Most estimates suggest 25% of the population are nontasters, 50% are medium tasters, and 25% are supertasters.
The bitter taste receptor gene TAS2R38 has been associated with the ability to taste PROP and PTC; however, it cannot completely explain the supertasting phenomenon. Still, the T2R38 genotype has been linked to a preference for sweetness in children, avoidance of alcohol, increased prevalence of colon cancer (via inadequate vegetable consumption) and avoidance of cigarette smoking.
Identifying a supertaster
Supertasters were initially identified on the basis of the perceived intensity of propylthiouracil (PROP) compared to a reference salt solution. However, because supertasters have a larger sense of taste than medium or nontasters, this can cause scaling artifacts. Subsequently, salt has been replaced with a non-oral auditory standard. That is, if two individuals rate the same physical stimulus at a comparable perceptual intensity, but one gives a rating twice as large for the bitterness of a PROP solution, the experimenter can be confident the difference is real and not merely the result of how the person is using the scale.
Many studies do not include a cross-modal reference and simply categorize individuals on the basis of the bitterness of a concentrated PROP solution or PROP impregnated paper. It is also possible to make a reasonably accurate self-diagnosis at home by careful examination of the tongue and looking for the number of fungiform papillae. Blue food dye can make this easier. Being a supertaster or nontaster represents normal variation in the human population like eye or hair color, so no treatment is needed.
Specific food sensitivities
Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:
- Certain alcoholic beverages
- Brassica oleracea cultivars
- Grapefruit juice
- Green tea
- Soy products
- Carbonation in drinks such as in soda, beer, etc.
Other foods may also show altered patterns of preference and consumption, but only indirect evidence exists:
- Tonic water – Quinine is more bitter to supertasters
- Olives – for a given concentration, salt is more intense in supertasters
- Science of supertasters BBC
- Bartoshuk, Linda M.; Duffy, Valerie B.; Miller, Inglis J. (1994). "PTC/PROP tasting: Anatomy, psychophysics, and sex effects". Physiology & Behavior 56 (6): 1165–71. doi:10.1016/0031-9384(94)90361-1. PMID 7878086.
- Bartoshuk, L. M. (1991). "Sweetness: history, preference, and genetic variability". Food technology 45 (11): 108–13. ISSN 0015-6639. INIST:5536670.
- Fox, AF (1931). "Six in ten 'tasteblind' to bitter chemical". Sci News Lett 9: 249.
- Bartoshuk, LM (2000). "Psychophysical advances aid the study of genetic variation in taste". Appetite 34 (1): 105. doi:10.1006/appe.1999.0287. PMID 10744897.
- Roxby, Philippa (9 December 2012). "Why taste is all in the senses". BBC News Health.
- Duffy, Valerie B.; Davidson, Andrew C.; Kidd, Judith R.; Kidd, Kenneth K.; Speed, William C.; Pakstis, Andrew J.; Reed, Danielle R.; Snyder, Derek J. et al. (2004). "Bitter Receptor Gene (TAS2R38), 6-n-Propylthiouracil (PROP) Bitterness and Alcohol Intake". Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 28 (11): 1629–37. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000145789.55183.D4. PMC 1397913. PMID 15547448.
- Bufe, Bernd; Breslin, Paul A.S.; Kuhn, Christina; Reed, Danielle R.; Tharp, Christopher D.; Slack, Jay P.; Kim, Un-Kyung; Drayna, Dennis et al. (2005). "The Molecular Basis of Individual Differences in Phenylthiocarbamide and Propylthiouracil Bitterness Perception". Current Biology 15 (4): 322–7. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2005.01.047. PMC 1400547. PMID 15723792.
- Hayes, J. E.; Bartoshuk, L. M.; Kidd, J. R.; Duffy, V. B. (2008). "Supertasting and PROP Bitterness Depends on More Than the TAS2R38 Gene". Chemical Senses 33 (3): 255–65. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjm084. PMID 18209019.
- Mennella, J. A.; Pepino, MY; Reed, DR (2005). "Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Bitter Perception and Sweet Preferences". Pediatrics 115 (2): e216–22. doi:10.1542/peds.2004-1582. PMC 1397914. PMID 15687429.
- Basson, Marc D.; Bartoshuk, Linda M.; Dichello, Susan Z.; Panzini, Lisa; Weiffenbach, James M.; Duffy, Valerie B. (2005). "Association Between 6-n-Propylthiouracil (PROP) Bitterness and Colonic Neoplasms". Digestive Diseases and Sciences 50 (3): 483–9. doi:10.1007/s10620-005-2462-7. PMID 15810630.
- Cannon, Dale; Baker, Timothy; Piper, Megan; Scholand, Mary Beth; Lawrence, Daniel; Drayna, Dennis; McMahon, William; Villegas, G.Martin; Caton, Trace; Coon, Hilary; Leppert, Mark (2005). "Associations between phenylthiocarbamide gene polymorphisms and cigarette smoking". Nicotine & Tobacco Research 7 (6): 853–8. doi:10.1080/14622200500330209. PMID 16298720.
- Prescott, J.; Ripandelli, N.; Wakeling, I. (2001). "Binary Taste Mixture Interactions in PROP Non-tasters, Medium-tasters and Super-tasters". Chemical Senses 26 (8): 993–1003. doi:10.1093/chemse/26.8.993. PMID 11595676.
- Lanier, S; Hayes, J; Duffy, V (2005). "Sweet and bitter tastes of alcoholic beverages mediate alcohol intake in of-age undergraduates". Physiology & Behavior 83 (5): 821. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.10.004.
- Sipiora, M.L; Murtaugh, M.A; Gregoire, M.B; Duffy, V.B (2000). "Bitter taste perception and severe vomiting in pregnancy". Physiology & Behavior 69 (3): 259–67. doi:10.1016/S0031-9384(00)00223-7. PMID 10869591.
- Drewnowski, Adam; Henderson, Susan Ahlstrom; Levine, Alisa; Hann, Clayton (2007). "Taste and food preferences as predictors of dietary practices in young women". Public Health Nutrition 2 (4). doi:10.1017/S1368980099000695.
- Drewnowski, Adam; Henderson, Susan Ahlstrom; Barratt-Fornell, Anne (2001). "Genetic taste markers and food preferences". Drug metabolism and disposition: the biological fate of chemicals 29 (4 Pt 2): 535–8. PMID 11259346.
- Dinehart, M.E.; Hayes, J.E.; Bartoshuk, L.M.; Lanier, S.L.; Duffy, V.B. (2006). "Bitter taste markers explain variability in vegetable sweetness, bitterness, and intake". Physiology & Behavior 87 (2): 304–13. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2005.10.018. PMID 16368118.
- "Health Report – 22/12/1997: Super Tasters". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 2013-08-29.
- Reed, Danielle R.; Tanaka, Toshiko; McDaniel, Amanda H. (2006). "Diverse tastes: Genetics of sweet and bitter perception". Physiology & Behavior 88 (3): 215–26. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.05.033. PMC 1698869. PMID 16782140.
- BBC Supertaster Test
- Online 'Mendelian Inheritance in Man' (OMIM) 171200 (thiourea testing)
- How we taste – and the truth about 'supertasters'. An interview with sensory scientist Juyun Lim of Oregon State University and winemaker John Eliassen (March 29, 2011)