May 11, 2010 at 7:00 PM ET
Diane Mapes writes:
Being a “supertaster” may sound like a foodie’s dream come true, but in reality, it’s no picnic.
Coffee and alcohol are unpalatable – along with tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, strawberries, condiments and most sweets.
“I can’t stand cake,” says Michelle Triplett, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom and supertaster from Olympia, Wash., who spoke, coincidentally, on her birthday. “It’s too sweet for me. And when I drink beer, I gag. It’s like drinking urine.”
Supertasters detect components – like salt or bitterness -- in food that others can’t, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.
“[Supertasters] have densities of taste buds that are 10 to 100 times greater than the normal population,” he says. “As a result, supertasters are much more sensitive to spicy foods and they can taste … very mild flavors.”
Triplett, whose favorite meals are turkey sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, says the blander the better, since most everything else is, as They Might Be Giants put it in their song “John Lee Supertaster,” simply “too much.”
The condition is genetic, tends to affect women more than men and affects 25 percent of the U.S. population; non-tasters (people with a reduced ability to taste) make up another 25 percent with the rest of the population described as medium or normal tasters.
While there are some benefits -- supertasters tend to avoid sugars, salts and fats, so they suffer less from obesity and cardiovascular disease – there’s a potential downside. Supertasters often avoid green vegetables because of their bitter taste, so they miss out on cancer-fighting flavanoids and other nutrients.
“Many vegetables have bitterness in them -- like green pepper – so a supertaster may avoid [them],” says Hirsch. Other problem veggies include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, olives and spinach.
“When I get Brussels sprouts on my tongue, I immediately want to pull that whole patch of tongue off,” says Triplett. Tomato-based foods, apples and blueberries are also too potent for her.
Supertasters are also more prone to burning mouth syndrome, a condition in which a person’s tongue or mouth feels like it’s on fire.
“It’s horribly disabling,” says Hirsch. “You can’t eat food, you can only drink water and it can be quite painful.
If you think you’re a supertaster, a five-minute survey developed by Cornell University can help. There’s also a home test involving blue food coloring. Or a simple taste test – available for a small fee -- that uses a filter paper impregnated with a chemical known 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Non-tasters won’t taste anything on the paper; medium tasters will taste a small amount of bitterness. Supertasters, however, will find the chemical “stomach-wrenchingly bitter.”