There are a lot of foods I didn’t like as a kid that I like now. When I was a kid I would have happily survived on mashed potatoes and ice cream. I wasn’t a picky eater. I’d eat almost anything except liver and lima beans. I’d still happily survive on mashed potatoes and ice cream and I still don’t like liver, but as I grow older, I crave more and more intense flavors. I like things spicier, saltier, sweeter. I look for novelty in my food. Over the last couple of years, allergies have decreased my sense of smell, so my sensitivity to taste, I suspect, has been reduced. I have become, in the words of my friend and fellow foodie Pat Stansberry, a flavor whore.
I have a very good friend, an artist. She said to me one night while we were talking about art that she envied me my love of cooking and of food. She’s slim. I’m not. She picks. I wolf things down. I suspect she’s a supertaster.
Supertasters have more taste receptors on their tongue than the average in the population. About 25% of Americans are supertasters. About 50% of the U.S. are normal tasters and about 25% are nontasters—which doesn’t mean that they can’t taste anything, it just means that they need more to taste. For supertasters, the world is full of overwhelming tastes. Lots of vegetables taste bitter. Supertasters tend to have strong reactions to alcohol, Brussels sprouts (which are bitter, sometimes enjoyable to normal tasters and very bitter to supertasters) cabbage, coffee, grapefruit juice, green tea, kale, spinach and soy. They can also have strong reactions (sometimes pro and often con) to chilies (capsaicin) and cilantro. Although there is something going on with cilantro. Part of the population loves it and part of it thinks it tastes soapy.
I am curious about people and taste. Sometimes I gently quiz friends and acquaintances about their preferences for salty and sweet, olives, chocolate and potato chips. Tell me a little about what snack foods you have in the house and I can probably make you a pretty good meal. I can make you a good meal if you’re a supertaster, too. But I probably won’t like it as much as you do, because as I head closer and closer to the nontaster end of the scale, I’m going to find the whole thing a bit…bland. While you are probably finding tastes, good bad and indifferent, that I can only determine at a much larger scale.
There’s a couple of tests for supertasters, including an easy, if not very scientific one by the BBC.
If you are a supertaster, just let me know before you come over for dinner. That way I’ll know to lay off the fish sauce, the ginger and the Brussels sprouts.