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A supertaster is a person whose sense of taste is of far greater intensity than the average person.
Some studies also show that an increased sensitivity to bitter tastes may be a cause of selective eating.
The term originated with experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, who has spent much of her career studying genetic variation in taste perception. In the early 1980s, Bartoshuk and her colleagues noticed some individuals tested in the laboratory seemed to have an elevated taste response and called them supertasters.
This increased taste response is not the result of response bias or a scaling artifact but appears to have an anatomical or biological basis.
In 1931, Arthur L. Fox, a DuPont chemist, discovered that some persons found phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) to be bitter while others found it tasteless. At the 1931 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, 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 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[which?]. Today, PROP has replaced PTC in taste research because[clarification needed] of 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 tasters and supertasters. Research suggests 25% of the population are non-tasters, 50% are medium tasters, and 25% are supertasters.
The exact cause of heightened response to taste in humans has currently yet to be elucidated. A review found associations between supertasters and the presence of the TAS2R38 gene, the ability to taste PROP and PTC, and an increased number of fungiform papillae.
In addition, it's also hypothesized that environmental causes are likely to play a substantial role in sensitive taste. The exact mechanisms by which these may act are still unknown. An evolutionary advantage for elevated taste sensitivity is also still being determined. In some environments, a heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. However, an increased response to bitterness may limit approach behavior for various palatable foods.
The bitter-taste-receptor gene TAS2R38 has been associated with the ability to taste PROP and PTC. However, it has not been demonstrated to be a causal mechanism of the supertaster phenomenon. Still, the T2R38 genotype has been linked to a preference for sweetness in children, avoidance of alcoholic beverages, the increased prevalence of colon cancer (because of inadequate vegetable consumption), and avoidance of cigarette smoking.
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Women are more likely to be supertasters, as are those from Asia, South America, and Africa. Female supertasters have a lower body mass index and better cardiovascular health. This can be due to the fact that supertasters do not have a high predilection for sweet or high-fat foods.
The tongue's fungiform papillae are revealed with blue food dye.
Supertasters were initially identified based on the perceived intensity of propylthiouracil (PROP) compared to a reference salt solution. Supertasters consume more salt in comparison to those with average taste. Because supertasters have a larger sense of taste than medium or non-tasters, this can cause Image scaling artifacts. Subsequently, salt has been replaced with a non-oral gustatory standard. Therefore, if two individuals rate the same gustatory 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. Today, a phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) test strip is used to help determine if someone is a low taster. The general population tastes this as bitter about 75% of the time.
Many studies do not include a cross-modal reference and categorize individuals based on the bitterness of a concentrated PROP solution or PROP-impregnated paper. Supertasters tend to have more fungiform papillae and pain receptors than tasters and non-tasters. It is also possible to make a reasonably accurate self-diagnosis at home by carefully examining the tongue and looking for the number of fungiform papillae. Blue food dye can make this easier. Being a supertaster or non-taster is part of normal variation in the human population, as are eye color and hair color, so no treatment is needed to avoid cigarette smoking.
Specific food sensitivities
Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:
- Certain alcoholic beverages (gins, tequilas, and hoppy beers)
- Brassica oleracea cultivars (become very sulfurous, especially if overcooked)
- Grapefruit juice
- Green tea
- Watercress, mustard greens, horseradish, dandelion greens, rutabaga and turnip
- Soy products
- Carbonated water
- Anise and licorice
- Lower-sodium foods
- Hot-spicy foods
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
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