Not all taste buds are created equal.
Or, more specifically, not all papillae are. These are the tiny bumps studded across the tops and sides of our tongues, each home to clusters of cells that form our taste buds. Individual taste buds working in tandem pick up sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami stimuli, which our brains then process as unique flavors. Surprisingly, the quantity of these papillae can differ dramatically from human mouth to mouth, sorting people into three distinct groups determined by how many papillae they have: Supertasters, average tasters, and non-tasters.
Average tasters, as you might expect, possess a decidedly run of the mill number of papillae, and therefore interpret taste at more or less “normal” levels of intensity. Marinara tastes like marinara, mint tastes like mint, and snozzberries taste like snozzberries to these folks. About half of all people fall into this category. The other two taster groups get really interesting though.
For most of our lives, our cellular receptors for both taste and smell experience rapid cycles of cellular burnout and rebirth. Every 10-30 days, our bodies have an entirely new ecosystem of taste and smell receptors – remember, no two other senses are quite so interdependent as these. As we age, our regeneration rates slow down, and our bodies begin struggling to replace dying taste buds quickly enough. As the number of taste buds thin out, so too does our capacity to experience the full range and intensity of flavor that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Somewhere between 25 and 30% of people are born with papillae quantities similar to 70-year-olds. Fewer papillae means fewer taste buds, and a dramatically reduced ability to taste. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk coined the term “non-taster” to describe this group – a group in which she also falls – in a pioneering study on the topic of taste.
Bartoshuk found that non-tasters failed to register a bitter tasting chemical named 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP, whereas average tasters could pick up the taste immediately. Because bitter and sweet tastes share much of the same receptor framework, non-tasters struggle to pick up foods that fit these profiles. Non-tasters naturally gravitate toward spicy foods, and must be mindful of the ease in which they can overindulge on sugary sweets.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bartoshuk coined the name supertasters for the group with a higher than average number of papillae and taste buds. Supertaster tongues are visibly bumpier than 75% of their fellow humans, and their aversion to bitter tastes are equally pronounced. Supertasters often detest vegetables, as they interpret the inherent bitterness of many veggies at uncomfortably intense levels. Many types of beer and alcohol, coffee, chocolate, or bitter fruits like grapefruit and lemon are likewise avoided. Supertasters often overindulge in salting their meals in an effort to mask bitter notes.
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Via @wired – Photographer Brian Finke is no supertaster—which might come in handy when snacking on bee larvae and ants. To figure out if some one is a supertaster, a lab worker stains the subject’s tongue blue, photographs it, and counts the number of papillae on the tongue. Finke documented 10 labs, cooking schools and restaurants to explore the science behind great food. (📷 Brian Finke | @brianfinke) – #scientists #test #food #schools #cooking #supertaster #technology
How we interpret taste goes a long way in determining what fuel we put into our bodies. Non-tasters show a documented predilection toward high-fat, unhealthy foods, and higher rates of alcohol consumption and addiction. On the flip side, supertasters have markedly higher rates of colon cancer, linked to a diet that often eschews fibrous, high-nutrient vegetables.
If these taste profiles alone aren’t resonating with how you think your body in particular interprets taste, the internet is rife with instructions on how to survey your papillae count using blue food coloring and a cotton swab. You’ll need a few pals to compare your tongue against, or failing that, access to Google Images.