Science is now telling us that we are divided into two kinds of people: supertasters and normal tasters. The super-sensitive tasters among us have more fungiform papillae on their tongues – bumps – that hold our taste buds. Supertasters can taste bitter substances that normal testers can’t, and many tastes are much more intense for them.
The way that scientists discovered that humanity is divided into supertasters and normal tasters is a fascinating look at how science stumbles upon discoveries. This one happened at a DuPont chemical lab in Wilmington, Delaware in the 1930s: a bunch of chemicals exploded and one scientist not only smelled the chemicals, but tasted them. The other scientist didn’t detect anything.
In November 1931, A.L. Fox, the chemist who made the discovery, presented a paper at the National Academy of Sciences:
“Some time ago the author had occasion to prepare a quantity of phenyl thio carbamide, and while placing it in a bottle the dust flew around in the air. Another occupant of the laboratory, Dr. C. R. Noller, complained of the bitter taste of the dust, but the author, who was much closer, observed no taste and so stated. He even tasted some of the crystals and assured Dr. Noller they were tasteless but Dr. Noller was equally certain it was the dust he tasted. He tried some of the crystals and found them extremely bitter. With these two diverse observations as a starting point, a large number of people were investigated and it was established that this peculiarity was not connected with age, race or sex. Men, women, elderly persons, children, negroes, Chinese, Germans and Italians were all shown to have in their ranks both tasters and non-tasters.”
According to an article in live science, about a quarter of the population qualifies as supertasters; they have many more bumps on their tongues. Another quarter of the population is so lacking in these bumps that they qualify as nontasters. Linda Bartoshuk, a physiological psychologist at the University of Florida, says, “Supertasters live in a ‘neon’ taste world, while others live in a ‘pastel’ world.”
For supertasters, bitter tastes are more bitter, but sweet tastes are also sweeter. “Supertasters are more sensitive to the burn from ethanol, the sweetness of sugar, the burn of chili peppers and the astringency of red wine,” said John E. Hayes, a professor of food science at Penn State.
These variances matter because they influence how and what we eat when we’re kids and help to determine our eating behaviors as adults. Researchers still don’t know which genes determine how many tastes buds we have but evolution may provide a possible explanation for the variance.
Bartoshuk speculates that when our nomadic ancestors entered a new environment, they had to find out which native plants were safe to eat. And because plants often contain defensive toxins that taste bitter, the supertasters detected the bitterness and avoided those plants. “A supertaster is safer in a new environment, because they can pick up those bitters,” said Bartoshuk, “but a nontaster eats better in a safe environment, because they like more foods.”
Women are more likely to be supertasters than men – 35 percent of the population compared with 15 percent of men. Bartoshuk noted that the higher percentage of supertasters among women may be due to an instinctive protection of a fetus when a woman is pregnant.
I found this research fascinating. It takes one of our five senses and illustrates how that sense has evolved in an extraordinary way in some people so that it’s become a kind of psychic sense. In ancient times, this sense would make it unlikely that you would die from eating a poisonous plant. Maybe in the 21st century its purpose is the same: to detect certain chemicals or toxins in food that, if ingested, would harm us in irreparable ways.
In fact, now I may have a supertaster in my new novel, Fastwalkers. It takes place in a dystopian world where people with psychic ability are considered to be mutants and are rendered mute. The general populace is oppressed and contained by a certain kind of terror campaign run by Enforcers. I can see how the oppressed may decide to poison Enforcer foods. The synchro for me, I think, is that in my search for news about new discoveries in the quantum world, where it seems that synchronicity is born, I stumbled upon an element I can use creatively.
I love it when this kind of stuff happens.