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Are You a "Super-Taster?" How Genes Influence Your Sense of Taste

Your bad taste in food might not be your fault.

How do you trust your tongue? Specifically, how do you trust your sense of taste? It turns out that flavor is surprisingly subjective: It's not so much a quality of the food itself as it is your brain's way of processing of your sense of smell combined with your sense of taste. Depending on your genes, you might have unique sensitivities to different kinds of tastes, which can wield surprising influence over your diet and portion control.

Generally, humans can detect five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (technically called umami). Some argue that fat is a sixth taste, which would make sense in light of our evolutionary development. Taste has developed as a response to our environment in order to help us survive, in the same way our brains use anxiety or disgust to warn us. On that base level, sweetness draws us to sugar as a source of energy; umami signals that we've found a source of protein, and sourness alerts us that a food source has probably spoiled and should be avoided. The taste of certain foods is particularly divisive, like cilantro, which many describe as "soapy." Another contentious example is pork, which contains a compound that some people say smells like sweat or urine, some describe as pleasantly floral, and others can't even detect.

taste profile Cilantro: Herb or Soap?High Moving Seeds

Most people can be grouped into one of three groups: "super-tasters," "non-tasters," and people in between. How can you tell which one you are?

Super-tasters: 25-30% of the population

Linda Bartoshuk is a physiological psychologist at the University of Florida. After examining how the human gene pool predetermines different types of palates, she coined the terms "super-taster" and "non-taster" to note that some people are genetically sensitive to bitterness. "A supertaster is safer in a new environment, because they can pick up those bitters," said Bartoshuk, "but a non-taster eats better in a safe environment, because they like more foods."

Bitterness is the result of a chemical named 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). About 25 percent of the population have taste receptors that are so sensitive to PROP that they detect unbearable bitterness even at very low amounts of the chemical. As a result, they tend to consume more salt than others in order to mask bitterness. Super-tasters are also typically averse to hot, spicy foods because they have more taste receptors—the more taste receptors you have, the more pain receptors you have surrounding them. On average, super-tasters are less likely to smoke or enjoy the taste of alcohol.

Non-tasters: 25% of the population

Meanwhile, another 25 percent of people are non-tasters who possess fewer taste receptors than the majority of the population. Not only do they tolerate bitterness well, but they're typically satisfied with any food. If anything, their inability to detect PROP or other strong chemicals in food means they rely on potent seasonings and prefer hot, spicy foods with bold flavors. This also means that, on average, non-tasters prefer foods high in fat and sugar, and they have higher rates of alcohol intake.

Statistically, super-tasters tend to be thinner than non-tasters, but non-tasters tend to consume higher amounts of vegetables and have a lower risk of colon cancer. Additionally, as Harvard Health notes, "On the positive side, super-tasters, especially female super-tasters, have a reduced preference for sweet, high-fat foods, have a lower body mass index (BMI), and tend to have superior cardiovascular profiles."

"Normal" Tasters: 50% of the population

As for the rest of us: "normal" tasters make up 45-50 percent of the population. They tend to have a balance between foods they like or dislike but nothing that absolutely repels them. Similarly, they tend to use fewer seasonings or additives like salt or hot sauce.

But what does it all matter? Considering today's booming diet culture and wellness industries, it's surprising that taste profiles aren't more commonly discussed. People who are prone to overeating are often assigned the stigma of having poor self-control, while picky eaters are said to be difficult or entitled. In reality, people experience food wildly differently. As Bartoshuk says "People live in different worlds of taste intensity. Supertasters live in a 'neon' taste world, while others live in a 'pastel' world."