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Take the Supertaster Test!

May 2, 2016

Have you ever heard the term ‘supertaster’ being used and wondered what it really means? Well read on, this blog is all about defining what the term means and sharing with you, ways in which you can find out whether you are one of them!

If you have had the chance to read my blog about taste then you will already know that the human tongue can only detect 6 basic tastes; sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami (savoury) and fat. You will also know that these compounds are detected by taste receptor cells that are contained within taste buds on the tongue. To add a bit more biology to that, we have four different types of papillae on the tongue that house our taste buds and in turn our taste receptor cells, as shown in the diagram below:

The Tongue, By OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tongue, By OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tasters generally fall into three categories of anatomical taster based on their number of papillae and therefore taste receptor cells on the tongue; supertasters, average tasters and non-tasters. I say anatomical because the presence of taste receptor cells is only going to allow a person to taste if the neural pathway that relays taste stimuli to the brain is still intact.

The principle of being a non-taster should also be explained. As a name it suggests that non-tasters cannot taste, however what it really means is that they cannot taste to the same level as a average taster i.e. they have below average taste sensitivity.

Approximately 25% of the population are considered to be supertasters, 50% average tasters and 25% non-tasters. So what does this mean?

Supertaster status simply means that you have a higher number of taste receptor cells than the average person, and as a consequence have a greater sensitivity of taste. This might sound like an advantage, but the reality isn’t necessarily so sweet! Supertasters tend to taste ALL things more intensely than the average taster – that includes bitterness, acid and salt which in medium-high concentrations are unpalatable to even the average taster. In addition to heightened taste sensitivity supertasters also tend to experience a more intense reaction to irritants on the tongue such as the carbon dioxide bubbles in fizzy drinks that cause a prickling sensation or the capsaicin in chili that causes a burning sensation.

Non-tasters don’t have it so bad. They may be able to really enjoy that pint of IPA or bitter ale that a supertaster cannot stomach. They may also consume a lot more bitter, green, cruciferous vegetables that are great for the health, because to them they aren’t unpalatably bitter. Something else to remember is that 70-85% of flavour is actually detected by olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity, not by taste receptors on the tongue.

What does this mean for product developers and chefs?

Chefs and product developers should find out if they themselves are supertasters. If so, then when tasting their creations, they should be aware that they aren’t necessarily representative of the general population of tasters and should ask some ‘average joes’ to come and sample their food for them too!

How do I find out if I am a supertaster?

PROP/PTC Test

PROP (propylthiouracil) and PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) are compounds that are administered to the tongue either as a liquid, or on small papers. When administered you can tell very quickly if someone can taste it or not; some people will have no, to little, reaction at all whereas others will instantly screw up their faces and likely spit it out as it is intensely bitter to them. There are also people that may detect mild to moderate bitterness but not so intense that they are revolted by it. As you may have guessed, it is those people that can taste the intense bitterness that are considered supertasters and those that detect mild to moderate bitterness are average tasters. Research shows that only around 5% of people can detect the intense bitterness from PROP.

To try this test for yourself you can purchase PTC papers online from Powder for Texture.

Or, you can try the method below. It’s  messier but also more fun than the PROP/PTC test!

Materials:

  • Hole reinforcers (or a piece of parchment/wax paper with a hole punched in it)
  • Blue food colouring
  • Glass of water
  • Magnifying glass
  • Mirror
  • Pen and paper

Method:

  1. Take a drop of food colouring and apply it to the tip your tongue either by using your finger as an applicator or dropping it directly onto the tongue – be careful not to touch the bottle tip to your tongue for hygiene reasons!
  2. Take a mouthful of water and move it around your mouth before spitting it out.
  3. Swallow to clear any excess liquid from your mouth. This helps to dry your tongue a little. You can also dab your tongue with paper towel.
  4. Place the hole reinforcer or piece of paper with the hole punched in it onto your tongue where it has been dyed and use a magnifying glass and mirror to count the number of papillae that are within the hole. Note that the papillae are the ‘bumps’ that are not stained blue).

Results:

Tongue and Taste Buds, By Saurabh R. Patil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tongue and Taste Buds, By Saurabh R. Patil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The number of papillae that you count can be used to indicate what type of anatomical taster you are as follows:

  • 0-15 papillae suggest that you are a non-taster
  • 15-35 papillae suggest that you are an average taster
  • 35+ papillae suggest that you are a supertaster

To learn more about Sensory Science and how it can help to grow your business contact Sarah Cowen or John Hale, or visit us at www.halefood.com.