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The Bitter Truth Behind Supertasters

August 23, 2017 Read Time - 3 minutes

About Author

Dr. Shikary is a graduate of the Ohio State University School of Medicine, and trained in pediatrics at UCSF in San Francisco. She specializes in holistic/integrative medicine and nutrition.

Supertasters. The first time I heard about this was through one of PlushCare’s engineers, Sas. He was so excited at the possibility of being one that I had to look it up. Supertasters, it turns out, is a misnomer. Sorry Sas. The term refers to people who specifically taste bitter more strongly than most people. This was first identified when researchers found that some people had a heightened response to PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and PROP (propylthiouracil). These people had a more bitter taste on their tongues than others. It is thought that this is possibly genetic in origin and related to the number of a specific type of taste bud known as fungiform papilla on the tongue. Supertasters can only taste bitter foods more strongly but don’t have a heightened sense of taste in general. Unfortunately, many foods taste bad to supertasters and they are also at increased risk of colon cancer for unknown reasons but possibly related to lower consumption of bitter vegetables. However on the plus side, because they tend not to crave sugar and fats, they are usually slim and have lower cholesterol profiles than non-supertasters.

The tongue only actually can taste five different types of flavors; bitter, sweet, salty, sour and savory. So why then why do some people have better “palates” than others for food? Food critics and sommeliers are admired for their impeccable ability to taste, but how does this work?  

How tasty or rather flavorful something is a complex interaction of taste, smell, and texture and how these three things are experienced by our brains along with the emotional experience our brain attaches to them. The tongue has taste buds which sense the fives senses of taste, but also has receptors for temperature, pressure, and pungency of a food. Another very important component of flavor is smell. Glands called the olfactory glands in the nose are involved in registering different types of smells. The complex activation of these receptors gets sent up to the brain that processes them all and then creates a distinct flavor that gets stored and remembered. All of us have our comfort foods, those foods that bring back memories of a great experience. This is because when we put something in our mouth, an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex gets activated and relays an emotional response to the frontal cortex which then processes whether that response is a good one or a bad one.  The temporal lobe of the brain also gets activated and saves this response so that when we eat the food again, we remember what it felt like.

Taste preferences are highly cultural and learned from a very early age. In fact, even what a woman eats during pregnancy and breastfeeding influences what her child will like when he starts to eat. To what degree this influences overall taste preferences, we are not sure. What we do know is that taste is a very complex sensation influenced by many factors including the taste itself, our genetic makeup, our perception and preconceived notions of the taste, the experience we had while having the taste and our cultural backgrounds. So have an open mind while trying a new food and even if you’re a supertaster, you might find that you like it.  rn

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