Drinking as a supertaster
Jun 20 2018
Do you despise coriander due to its soapy taste? Or find IPAs overwhelmingly bitter? You might be a supertaster.
This phenomenon could be responsible for our disliking of many foods and drinks, and establishing whether we are supertasters or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, non-tasters, could help us to learn more about our preferences and even help chefs to shape their menus.
What is a supertaster?
The term ‘supertaster’ dates back to the 1990s when Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University found that some people reported a bitter aftertaste to saccharin – an artificial sweetener. According to a report by The Guardian, Bartoshuk found that the tongues of supertasters were densely populated with papillae (taste buds). Roughly 25% of people are supertasters, 50% are classed as ‘medium tasters’ and 25% are non-tasters. According to The Guardian report, women and people from Asia, Africa and South America have higher percentages of supertasters.
One quick test could reveal whether you are, indeed, a supertaster. Or worse, a non-taster. The laboratory assessment involves tasting a drug called propylthiouracil (or PROP) which is commonly used to treat an overactive thyroid. If you find the taste extremely bitter, you’ll be classified as a supertaster.
Characteristics of supertasters
For supertasters, sugar will taste sweeter, sodium will be saltier, and bitterness is utterly unbearable. However sensations also come into play. Carbon dioxide bubbles and chilli peppers will feel more pronounced. Other findings from studies revealed that fat is reported as creamier, and that supertasters are less likely to enjoy alcoholic drinks, coffee and rich desserts.
Many assume that the world’s top chefs and foodies must be supertasters, however it can also be a hindrance. Johnny Zhu, development chef at The Cooking Lab, told The Guardian: “I have a preference towards certain things and I sometimes don’t give other foods a fair chance. For instance salad is just repulsive to me.”
Among the foods supertasters commonly dislike are: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, coffee, grapefruit juice, coriander, horseradish, liquorice, mushrooms, tonic water and olives. Supertasters may also dislike tannic wines, or wines that have sharp, intense flavours. Bitter pale ales, IPAs, gin and tonics (due to the quinine in the tonic) are also often unappealing to supertasters. In his book The Science of Wine, Dr. Gary Pickering, professor of Biological Sciences and Psychology/Wine Science at Brock University says: “I would speculate that supertasters probably enjoy wine less than the rest of us. They experience astringency, acidity, bitterness and heat (from alcohol) more intensely, and this combination may make wine – or some wine styles – relatively unappealing.”
Adapting to suit tastes
Due to the quinine in tonic, the classic British G&T can be insufferable to supertasters. However alternative mixers with non-bitter fruits such as strawberries and raspberries may do the trick. And while the craft beer movement may terrify your overly sensitive taste buds, there are plenty of beers out there that will suit those who dislike bitter tastes. Wheat beers, brown ales and lagers are your best bet. Riesling wines are recommended for those who often find wine to have a bitter taste.
The restaurant industry has recently started devising tasting menus tailored to your taste buds. Last year, chef Timothy Roberts of Vox Table in Austin, Texas, personalised his menus for different tasters. Before the meal began, people were asked to test their taste buds with chemically coated paper strips, and then fill out a brief questionnaire. Using this information, the chef amended his menu according to whether the guests were supertasters, non-tasters, or somewhere in between.
Customisation is an integral part of dining and drinking experiences today. Peoples’ tastes and dietary requirements should, of course, be taken into consideration at all times, however it’s exciting to see chefs and mixologists take on board the levels of bitterness, acidity or sweetness that their guests are sensitive to, to guarantee that everyone enjoys their meals equally.