Like What’s a Super Taster?

My talents at work!

My talents at work!

One of the silly, little things that inspired me to try food writing was learning that I am, in fact, a supertaster. As a supertaster there are certain flavors that ignite greater sensations from my tastebuds. It’s a gift that allows me to better pick up on the nuances within foods and discern the ingredients and flavors behind a meal. In my childhood, my grandparents often tried to swap their homemade sauces with commercial or frozen variants. They have yet to sneak something past my tongue!

I first discovered my supertasting status at the book reading for author Joanne Chen’s A Taste of Sweet at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop. To demonstrate the variety of perceptions in peoples’ sense of taste, each member of the audience was invited to lay a strip of  phenylthiocarbamide or PTC on their tongue. For some, PTC elicits no feeling at all, but for others, especially supertasters, the chemical leaves quite the bitter taste. In my case, I found the experience so heinous that I ripped the strip off my tongue in seconds but continued to gag for several minutes. At the end of the tasting lesson, I learned that both the ability to taste PTC and the trait of supertasting can be linked to the simple but wondrous mechanism of genetics.

Being a supertaster can come as a double-edged sword for a food writer. Sometimes, there are flavors that are too overpowering for me. The amount of saltiness in a bag of potato chips can send me into a coughing fit. There are certain foods that I will never enjoy, including alcohol, coffee without a ton of sugar and milk, grapefruit, sauerkraut, extremely spicy foods, and bitter leafy greens (though as I age, my taste for kale does seem to be growing).

Now, one might think that supertasters might not make the best food critics based on our sensitivities, which rarely match up with the rest of the population. However, I’ve found that truly delicious meals can be appreciated by anybody. The love, dedication, effort, preparation, presentation, and creativity behind good food all contribute to one’s enjoyment, taste only representing a single facet, though a very important one. In the end, I believe that we supertasters just have a greater appreciation for the meticulousness that goes into preparing our meals–an appreciation that I hope to spread through my writing.

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2 thoughts on “Like What’s a Super Taster?

  1. We conducted a PTC taste test in Honors Biology during my freshman year of high school. Though initially disheartened by the realization that I was effectively a “non-taster,” I’ve come to appreciate its consequences. For one, I have never encountered a food whose flavor repulsed me so much that I couldn’t eat and appreciate it. The bitterest greens and funkiest cheeses are palatable to my less-discerning taste buds, so it’s easier to “force” myself to eat healthily because many of the off-flavors associated with some foods do not deter me as they might a regular or supertaster. Additionally, my brain has compensated for taste deficits by compensating in the thermal and textural departments. I am hypersensitive to slight variations in the temperature of different foods, allowing me to detect subtle thermal contrast between ingredients or components in a dish (think warm chocolate chip cookie + vanilla ice cream). Furthermore, I can sense the precise physical dimensions of a food; the diameter of the granules, the smoothness, the geometry of chip fragments as they shatter, the malleability of toffee, etc. The fact that supertasters and non-tasters alike can extract such an awesome quantity of data from the environment makes the exploration of the culinary world such a joy – for everyone!

    • Thank you for your insights, Matt! It’s amazing how genetics can alter our range of perceptions from both the world around us and even something right on the tip of one’s tongue. Not being able to enjoy coffee is kind of a bummer, but being able to detect the subtle flare of saffron in a dish of paella is something I will treasure for my entire life. I think that people would do well to follow your lead and try and see what they are most attuned to in their foods.

      Apparently, there was a study that indicated caffeine from coffee or tea could damage one’s supertasting abilities. I, for one, first realized the true depths of my sense of taste when I stopped salting and sugaring my foods. Now, I realize that many chefs add differing levels of seasoning to improve the flavor of their dishes–the trap is that habit of always flavoring your food before your tongue even touches it. While manual application of salt, pepper, and sugar don’t present too much of a problem for me, parmesan cheese is an entirely new vice as I find it difficult to resist adding that extra pungent kick to salads and pastas.

      I read about a survey of male and female supertasters that indicated that supertasting was more common amongst women. Additionally, it found that female supertasters were pickier eaters and usually ate less than non super tasters. However, no such trend appeared for male supertasters.

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