Are you a supertaster, nontaster or taster?

May 06, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

Much of what we mean when we say a food tastes good is that it smells good. Try holding your nose while you eat, and the flavor just isn't the same. Think about how bland food tastes when you're stuffed up with a cold. Our sense of smell, centered in the nose, intensifies our experience with a food with aromas and warns us of a spoiled food before it enters our mouth.

Taste refers to the ability of the tongue's taste buds to perceive four things: salt, bitter, sour and sweet, and perhaps a fifth taste sensation described as meat-like savory. Taste buds are important. However, to distinguish between different food flavors, for example the taste of chicken versus turkey, requires olfaction or smell.

There are two routes to the receptors in the top of your nasal passage that process odors. The most obvious one is directly through your nose. When you smell coffee brewing, you are processing the odor directly through your nose.


The second route starts in your mouth. When you eat an orange, you release volatile compounds in the orange. If you chew with your mouth open, some of these volatiles may reach your olfactory receptors through your nose. Other compounds will reach the olfactory receptors in your nose through the back door, behind your mouth.

Your friend doesn't like the meal you've spent all day preparing. Your child is fussing about eating her vegetables. You are a bad cook? They're too picky? Perhaps neither. People aren't just being picky when they say they like their food a certain way. There are definite individual differences in the sense of taste; people vary in their ability to smell and taste.

According to taste and smell researchers, we are born with a preference for sweetness and a dislike for bitterness, but our sense of smell starts out as a blank slate. We develop both senses through experiences. Many of the smells we love are associated with home or a sense of security - baking bread, fresh flowers and smoke from a fireplace. We also can educate our sense of taste by carefully studying and comparing variants of a food. That is how people learn to identify wines.

About one-quarter of the population are supertasters, one quarter are nontasters and the rest are tasters. Supertasters may have more than a thousand taste buds per square centimeter on their tongue and nontasters less than 40. Hormones, such as estrogen, are thought to play a role in taste perception. Not only are women more likely to be supertasters than men, but taste perception tends to increase in women in response to high levels of hormones. Many women perceive bitter tastes more intensely during the first trimester of pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of the supertasters are women.

The sense of taste may be heightened or diminished by a number of factors.

The quality of the stimulus, previous exposure to it, temperature, age and overall health play roles in taste perception. One way to compensate for the loss of taste sometimes seen with illness and aging is to concentrate on contrasts in texture, temperature and flavor. Touch and hearing also play a role in our enjoyment of food. For instance, a crunchy, mixed greens salad with spicy dressing, followed by cool sherbet and the bitterness of black coffee can provide a sensory bonanza for the person with a diminished sense of smell.

The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension agent, home economics, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

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