Brussels Sprouts
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.

19 thoughts on “Taste

  1. I’m no scientist, but you know, I’m reasonably sure that the second answer for all 5 questions is the one a supertaster’s most likely to pick. It’s inherited from my mama’s side–my dad gets bored when we’re out and mama and I are discussing what went into the sauce.

    I don’t eat Brussels sprouts, but I love ginger and mango salad’s not mango salad without the fish sauce.

  2. It’s pretty clear that children start out akin to supertasters and as they age, they move toward the nontaster end of the scale. It’s evolutionary–children crawling around in the underbrush survive better if they spit out bitter, sharp tastes. They don’t poison themselves as easily.

    While there are foods I don’t particularly like, and foods that don’t like me (red chile messes with by lower digestive tract), in a good-guest sort of way, I can eat anything. If fried with bacon and onions, this includes liver.

  3. Olives and dry red wine used to be iffy when I was younger. These days I am afraid to buy olives. They last hardly a day, and one worries about the weight. As for wine, I am not sure what I crave more these days: the buzz or the interesting flavours displayed by the quality offerings.

    BTW, try “flavour whore” – it’s a palatable alternative to “food snobb”

  4. My fame in my family was that I ate almost everything (liver, eggs, and lima beans). My husband’s fame was that he grew up eating almost nothing except white meat chicken, mashed potatoes, and apples. While he’s grown into Chinese and Mexican and Thai and Indian foods (spicy doesn’t bother him) and he’ll tolerate Brussels sprouts because he knows I love them, he finds chocolate and coffee and olives “overwhelming”. He won’t eat fish or seafood. He’ll eat lamb, but that’s just it–he’ll eat it, but he doesn’t look forward to it. I’m not sure he’s a supertaster, although the thought has occurred to me before. But some flavors certainly seem to overwhelm him.

  5. I’ve had allergies since I was a kid. My sense of taste certainly has suffered because of it. Strangely, I think cilantro and watermelon are extremely bitter.

    I do like brussels sprouts. (And thank you for the lovely picture on this article; it really pulled me in.) The way I like to cook them takes away a lot of the bitterness. I cut them into halves, or quarters if they are big, and stir fry them in about half an inch of water, with the juice of half a lemon and a little bit of butter, in a tightly covered pan. If I get the amount of liquid right, it’s almost all gone by the time the sprouts are done. If they get dry, add water so they don’t scorch. The sprouts should come out tender, cooked all the way through, and with a balance between the sprout, lemon and butter flavors. I’m basically a mad scientist in the kitchen. This was an attempt to recreate a recipe my grandmother made. It came out very differently, but I liked it anyway. I would be interested in what people think and any pointers on how I could improve it.

    A friend, who is an excellent cook, makes a heavenly dish of choucroute. Her technique is to wash the sauerkraut several times to get the sulfur out, before cooking it in wine with spices. I can eat sauerkraut but I don’t find it very palatable. Her choucroute is something else.

    Historically, many peoples have subsisted on very bitter foods that required careful processing to make them edible. The California Indians lived on acorns that, from reports I’ve read, are quite delicious when processed, although maybe a bit bland. Basically, I think people can eat just about anything once they figure out a way to process and cook it. What’s more interesting are foods and drinks where people deliberately seek out bitter and strong flavors. My friend who carefully washes her cabbage also enjoys drinking straight vermouth, so go figure.

  6. One other issue, for me at least, seems to be that I’ve settled into eating the same foods all the time.

    Eating is too often a background event, something I do while I’m focussed on doing something else, like, uh…. surfing the net constantly.

    Newness in tastes still is as much noticeable as strong or weak tastes.

  7. Rory, can you chew Dentyne gum?

    My husband pointed out that when he was a kid, Dentyne was so strongly cinnamon he couldn’t stand it. Now, while he doesn’t partcularly like it, it isn’t a kind of minor assualt on the tongue.

  8. Actually, I went through a phase of being addicted to Cinnamon Altoids a couple of years ago. This was during a lengthy quit from tobacco. Got so bad that I was getting mouth ulcers from the burn. Had to go cold turkey from them….

    But I do remember Dentyne being unbearably strong when I was a kid.

    I’m pretty sure that I’m not and have never been a super-taster, of course. I have no gourmet in me.

  9. I’m a supertaster on the high end — finding out about the differences in the way things taste to individuals solved a lot of mysteries for me.

    Taste sensitivity does decrease the older you get, though I’m still too sensitive to ‘bitter’ to get much out of coffee or broccoli.

    I recently had the mystery of why I like my food salty explained — salt will partially decrease mild bitter notes, so I’m getting closer to what the “true” pleasant taste of some foods are to normal tasters.

    Capsaicin sensitivity is actually another genetically-based reaction — if you have the right sensors, you’ll experience a mediated pain reaction that heightens the taste of the food without being actually painful. If you don’t have the right genes, you’ll just find peppery food to be painful and unpleasant, no matter how hard you try to ‘get used to it.’

  10. I like chipotle and artichokes and Kudo’s peanut butter bars and asparagus (I really like asparagus) and olive oil and tomatoes and I sometimes eat spam on Ritz crackers and I love spinach and the meat pies you get at the Egyptian place on the corner and falafels? I love those effers.

    No way am I taking that taster test.

    I sometimes slather a piece of whole wheat with sour cream, add a layer of leftover green beans and roll that mother up and eat it.

    Butterfinger Crisp bars kick ass. I love salted licorice.

    Hello. My name is Erin O’Brien. This is the light and the truth. This is the sound of falling water.

  11. Thank you for an interesting blog. Your description of your childhood-to-adult taste maturation reminds me of my own, although I think I was probably a bit pickier of an eater as a child. I took the BBC test and rated as a “supertaster”. No surprises there.

    But I think I might also be a super-smeller, too. If my wife puts the bakeware in the same cabinet as the scented candles (grrrr!), I can barely choke down anything that gets baked on it because the flavor of the candles ruins it for me. I also frequently smell things that nobody else around me smells at all. I know I’m not just imagining it, because a few times when the smell got much stronger, others around me (who had been teasing me about my vivid imagination) started to smell it, too. But I’m almost always the first.

    There is something really weird though that I wonder if you’ve ever heard anything about. Very often, in baked goods, there will be a flavor for me that tastes exactly the way Palmolive dish detergent smells. Only I and my sister seem to be able to taste it. It’s very strange, too, because it doesn’t taste strong at first, but once we’ve had a bite, it seems as if we become sensitized to it after a few seconds. There have been times when I’ve taken a bite of a cookie or cake and then a few seconds later I would gag if I even caught a whiff of it because the soap-like smell was overpowering, like one of the strongest things I’ve ever smelled. Meanwhile, the people around me are enjoying the cookies and have no idea what my problem is.

    Do my sister and I have some rare genetic disorder that makes us taste some substance in baked goods that doesn’t affect normal people?

    BTW, in high school, when we were tasting that chemical that some could taste as being bitter and some couldn’t, it was strongly bitter to me, although I doubt that has anything to do with the baked goods anomaly. I can also taste the sulfites in most wines. It gives a flavor note a little bit like burnt hot dogs. Although I’ve gotten used to the flavor of sulfite as a normal part of the wine flavor, I do prefer non-sulfited wines.

  12. Oh, by the way–despite being a “supertaster”, I’m also a flavor junkie. Sure, I taste the bitterness in many foods, but that’s just fine with me. I like bitter flavors. Coffee, dark chocolate, and most chili peppers and tomatillos have a nice bitter edge to them that I thoroughly enjoy. And when it comes to the heat of chilis, I’m a total addict. I love salsas that taste so good you don’t want to stop eating them, even as you’re covered in sweat and feeling some pain. This is a taste I have developed only during my adult years. As a child, I wouldn’t have touched a chili pepper with a ten-foot pole.

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