“Eat your vegetables.” How many times were you told this growing up? Fortunately, unappealing as vegetables seemed to be for many of us when we were young, over time, most of us acquired a taste for them and even began to like or even love them.
But for some people, the icky feeling toward vegetables never went away. Often, people like this have been labeled as picky eaters. But maybe they aren’t as picky as we think they are. Maybe there is a real reason behind their opposition. According to recent research, these people may be what scientists have called “supertasters.”
What is a Supertaster?
Supertasters refer to people who have a genetic predisposition to taste food differently than the rest of us. This means they are more sensitive to the different flavors in foods and more easily detect rich, sour, or bitter flavors.
At first, being a supertaster sounds pretty neat—almost like having a superpower. But it turns out these “super” taste buds aren’t as sweet as one would think.
Inside the mouth, the tongue has, on average, 10,000 taste buds that are being held down by little mushroom-shaped lumps on the tongue called fungiform papillae. Interestingly, some people have denser populations of fungiform papillae than others. 1
But this is not the only characteristic that contributes to one’s super taste. Recent research leads us to believe there is also a genetic component to taste as well. This is all due to the gene TAS2R38. Everyone inherits two copies of the TAS2R38 gene; however, there are two variants which can be inherited: AV1 or PAV. 2
A person who inherits one of each variation of the gene is considered an average taster. A person who inherits two AV1 variants is termed a “non-taster” as he or she is not very sensitive to different tastes or flavors. Contrastively, a person who inherits two PAV variants is called a “supertaster” and tends to find certain foods exceptionally strong and/or bitter.
How Were Supertasters Discovered?
Historically, research on the way we perceive taste is thought to be the result of a lab accident. In 1931, a researcher dropped a bottle of phenylthiocarbamide (PTC), sending the powder into the air. One researcher commented that the powder tasted horribly bitter, while others could taste nothing at all. Future investigations confirmed that about 70% of the people could taste PTC. 3
Then in 1991, a psychologist reproduced the experiments using 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Those who found PROP appallingly bitter were termed “supertasters.” 4
It is estimated that 25% of people are supertasters, with women being more likely to carry 2 PAV genes. 5 According to Jennifer L. Smith, Ph.D., R.N., from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine, supertasters are likely to find broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage exceedingly bitter and may also react negatively to dark chocolate, coffee, and beer. 2
The Negative Side of Supertasting
Having this hypersensitivity to foods poses a health threat as it is more difficult to incorporate heart-healthy vegetables into the diet, thus putting supertasters at an increased risk for certain diseases and vitamin deficiencies. Further, when dietary changes become necessary for a person, taste makes a big difference in diet adherence. Essentially, when foods don’t taste good, there’s a low chance you will stick to your diet.
In fact, researchers analyzed food-frequency questionnaires from 175 participants and found those with 2 copies of the PAV variant were more than 2 ½ times more likely to be in the bottom half when it came to the number of vegetables eaten. 2
Surprisingly, though, those classified as supertasters typically did not have an increased intake of sugar, salt, or fat. Although these flavors are effective ways to mask the bitter flavors found in many vegetables, supertasters generally ate less in avoidance of rich-tasting, calorie-packed foods. 2
How Do You Know If You’re a Supertaster or Just a Picky Eater?
Some people suspect children who refuse to eat vegetables are supertasters. However, it is thought there are more biological reasons why it is difficult to get children to eat their vegetables. First off, avoidance of bitter flavors has evolutionary roots as bitterness can indicate something is potentially dangerous. Additionally, along the same lines, it is presumed children avert from vegetables because they are not calorie dense, and calories are important for children to consume for growth and development.
Regardless of whether or not a child likes vegetables, research suggests it takes a child 8 to 15 exposures to a new food just to enhance acceptance of that food. However, parents often only give the food to a child three to five times before determining they don’t like it or won’t eat it anyway. Comparatively, most children are described as fussy eaters rather than supertasters and will grow out of their picky eating.
Similarly, our taste buds change over time. Our taste cells are regularly replaced throughout a person’s life and usually last only about 10 days. 5 Research further supports that the proteins found in your saliva change how you taste. With repeated exposure to certain items, such as vegetables or bitter-tasting foods, the taste becomes better—once the protein in your saliva becomes regulated. 6
Likewise, as we get older, our ability to taste decreases because we start to lose sensory cells and taste buds. In people over 50, the replacement rate slows down to the point where more cells are lost than are regained.
With all this in mind, odds are most of us are not supertasters. Rather, we’re more likely just picky eaters who have determined the foods we do not care to eat based on personal preferences. There is an important distinction between simply not liking a food and it being severely unpleasant to eat due to its bitter flavor profile.
Regardless, super-tasting taste buds could help explain the dissatisfaction and picky eating habits in some people. As we learn more about taste and “supertasters,” we can continue to improve our diet choices and make it easier for supertasters to include nutritious vegetables in their diets.