Thursday, 10 October 2013

Day 4 of Digest Super Week: The supertaster who researches supertasting

Professor Charles Spence
Charles Spence: I study supertasters

Everyone would like to be a supertaster, right? “Supertaster” is the name given to those individuals (roughly a quarter of the population) who are more sensitive than the rest to tastes, especially to the bitter taste in foods such as Brussels sprouts, endive salad, and coffee. It is worth noting that not everyone who you might imagine being a supertaster, is. Jeffrey Steingarten, for example, the famous North American food critic turned out to be a non-taster when I gave him a tasting strip (the simplest way to assess taster status in the lab). It turns out that some supertasters may have as many as 16 times more papillae on their tongues than some other non-tasters.

Recently, researchers have shown that supertasters not only have an advantage when it comes to tasting (literally) the food. All those extra taste buds also give the supertaster an enhanced ability to experience the oral-somatosensory texture of foods as well. What is more, work from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory here in Oxford together with Unilever Research has also demonstrated that supertasters are also less likely than non-tasters to be misled when a food is coloured inappropriately. All of these findings kind of make sense, but the latest observation that has got the scientists really scratching their heads is why it should be that supertasters also appear to have enhanced olfactory abilities as well – this work from Gary Pickering and his group in Canada.

That said, while supertasters may have an enhanced ability to detect certain food-related stimuli it’s not so obvious that we would really all want to be a supertaster. In my family at least, it turns out that my father, who would force the rest of the family to finish the vegetables on the plate (and that includes those Brussels sprouts) lives in a different taste world than the rest of us who all hated the taste of this most bitter vegetable. When I gave my family the tasting strips recently, it turned out that my father was a non-taster while the rest of the family were tasters. Indeed, given the fact that taster status tends to run in families, early researchers (and here we are talking back in the 1930s) even considered using a person’s response to one of the tasting strips as a cheap paternity test.

Charles Spence is professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford.

--Further reading--

Find out if you're a supertaster courtesy of Dara O Briain's Science Club on the BBC.

The multi-sensory perception of flavour - Charles Spence on his mouth-watering research.

Tomorrow we meet a Super-ager - a woman whose brain does not show the usual signs of ageing.

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