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May 15, 1997
Stick Out Your Tongue And Say Ah
By James Laube
Espresso seems way too bitter, so you sweeten yours with two spoons of sugar? Don't like cooked broccoli because it tastes burnt or pungent? Don't worry. There's nothing wrong with your palate. You're probably a supertaster.
A new study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science indicates there are three categories of tasters among us: the non-taster, the average taster and the supertaster.
A single gene may determine who is which. The study indicates that about 25 percent of the population are non-tasters and another 25 percent are supertasters, with a majority of the latter being women.
I've had the pleasure of tasting with many supertasters around the world, and many winemakers truly have supersensitive palates. I've also known about non-tasters from conversations with Wine Spectator readers. Many non-tasters rely heavily on wine ratings when buying wine. They may not appreciate wine, but their spouses and friends do, and they want to pour wines with flavor and character.
Genetic supertasters, the study says, react much more intensely than others to sweeteners, bitterness and the creamy sensation of fat in food. Supertasters find the caffeine in coffee more bitter and seem to eat fewer so-called "cruciferous" vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, which to them taste super bitter. Supertasters also find alcohol more distasteful, and some evidence suggests that supertasters are less likely to be alcoholics than are tasters or non-tasters.
One survey of women, for instance, found that supertasters tend to be a little slimmer and have lower overall cholesterol in their blood, as well as a better ratio of good cholesterol to bad. No one is sure exactly why, although one possibility is that when supertasters taste food it tastes so good that they don't need to eat a lot.
Male supertasters tend to like more fat and sugar in their foods, according to the research, while female supertasters do not--for reasons unknown. Scientists identify supertasters by putting a small quantity of a chemical called PROP (for 6-n-propylthiouracil) on people's tongues. Supertasters immediately find it intensely bitter. Tasters find it somewhat bitter and non-tasters taste nothing at all.
While you probably don't have any PROP in your medicine cabinet, you can do a rough simulation at home using a drop of ordinary blue food dye, a standard gummed reinforcing ring used to strengthen the holders in binder paper and a magnifying glass. Just put the ring on the tongue near its tip (but not on the tip), dab some blue dye in the hole in the middle, remove the ring and count the tiny pink circles amid the blue background.
If there are more than 40, the person is probably a supertaster; between 20 and 40, a taster; and under 20, a non-taster. This helps explain why some people, often children, find some vegetables so awful, while others think they're pretty good.
How good is your taste? Take the test. I did. My wife and I followed the steps, putting the gummed ring on my tongue and using a drop of blue dye. She counted more than 40 tiny rings on the tip of my tongue. (Remember, only the tiny pink circles count--not all the circles you'll find!) Next we tried the test on her and I counted more than 50 rings. But I already knew she had good taste.
Next, we tried it on our kids, and they got a kick out of that. Both of them had more than 40 rings; we decided that our daughter, the youngest family member at age 8, had the most pink rings and perhaps the best taste buds. Naturally she hates broccoli and is the pickiest eater in our household.
Now it's your turn. You'll feel a bit ridiculous sticking your blue-dot-colored tongue out while someone else counts the rings. But you'll probably get a good laugh out of it, too. Who knows, you might be a supertaster and just didn't have the proof.
James Laube, a tasteful senior editor of Wine Spectator, also writes weekly columns for Wine Spectator On-Line.
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