Friday, January 05, 2007

I TOLD you that lettuce tastes like gasoline!

So Amy is reading this book, and in it the subject of "supertasters" came up. The book goes on to explain that supertasters, in general, will sense tastes much more intensely than the average person, in particular, bitter tastes, or for some people, sweet tastes.

This is not really new information to us, but it caused me to dive a little deeper into the subject this evening during some downtime. I knew from an experiment a few years ago that I qualified as a supertaster, and for those that know my eating habits, this is no surprise. Amy did as well, although to a slightly lesser degree than I did. Here's the test.

Swab some blue food coloring on the edges of your tongue. Take a piece of paper in which you've punched a 3-hole-punch type hole, and lay it over your tongue. Count the red bumps in the circle. While these aren't your tastebuds themselves, these little bumps are where your taste buds live.

If you have more than 30, you're a supertaster. 15 would be about normal. Less than 5 is a "non-taster", i.e, the guy that will eat anything. I have about a trillion I think. Well, not really, but depending on what part of my tongue I put the circle on, I had anywhere from 37 to "they are packed in there so close I can't possibly count them without a still photograph and photo-enchancement."

And, as it turns out, whatever you see there is probably in greater density down the back of your tongue (way back, as in, down your throat).

So I did some research and it's pretty interesting and "taste science" is a pretty new area, relative to the technologies out there. About 25% of people will be supertasters or non-tasters, and 50% will be normal tasters. For the supertasters, the variety of foods liked/disliked can vary wildly (much more so than with the other groups), but in general they are less likely to enjoy fruits (hello, Amy), and vegetables (hello, Jeff) because they taste so bitter.

In fact, what might taste intensely bitter to a supertaster might have no taste at all to a normal taster. This explains that I call the Lettuce Phenomenon (TM). You see, a lot of people don't understand how bad lettuce tastes. In fact, a suprisingly high number of people have told me that lettuce has "no taste" or "almost no taste at all" to which I respond -- "if you knew that that lettuce really tasted like, I assure you, you wouldn't be eating it".

Further evidence is the McDonald's Lettuce Factor (TM) in which I am able to determine that there is a piece of lettuce shrapnel on one side of a burger simply by tasting the other non-lettuce side. I've also been able to tell when lettuce *was* on a burger but was removed before it was handed to me. And finally, after years of wondering why, once in a while, my fries from McDonalds/Wendys/etc. tasted faintly like lettuce, I learned that the often-bored crews at these fine establishments will sometimes toss a piece of lettuce into the deep fryer, because the the high water content of the lettuce will cause a bit of a mini-fireworks display. Mystery solved.

The funny thing is, while most people that read this won't even believe me, those that are supertasters will know exactly what I'm talking about.

It also turns out that most kids err to the supertaster side and then move towards normal during adulthood. This is the explaination for why there are foods that you hated as a kid, but like as an adult. You think your pallet is more refined, but in fact, you just can't taste the food anymore. Haha.

Amy was asking me why I thought supertasting existed in people, and I told her that it was so that some of us would survive the Taco Bell/tainted Spinach/E. Coli outbreaks. As it turns out, this is not that far from the truth. The supertasting gene (and I didn't mention above, but they have traced this to a single gene), is thought to have evolved from areas where the ratio of poisonous plants to edible plants was highest. The ability to detect small amounts of bitterness saved us while our cohorts keeled over while choking down green onions from Taco Bell. Likewise, the non-taster gene evolves from areas where that ratio is lowest, allowing for the greatest taste tolerance in areas where almost everything is food.

Foods most often enjoyed by supertasters include meats and fats. Again, this is shocking news, I'm sure. Foods often disliked by supertasters include alcohol (hello again, Amy), mustard (hello Jeff), vegetables with the exception of corn, potatoes, and green beans (I'm not making this stuff up), raw tomatoes, coffee (Amy again), and peanuts & peanut butter (hello Jeff).

Also interesting is some association with texture and tasting. Supertasters identify texture as something that is likely to be a key factor in food dislike. Apparently (much to my surprise), for normal tasters texture was most likely to be noted when it contributed positively rather than negatively, and for non-tasters, well, they could care less about texture. However, no one has figured out why there is this texture association, but I speculate that perhaps the little bumps we counted earlier also contribute to how much you "feel" the food as well as taste it.

This also contributes to supertasters not liking foods with, what they call "double textures", for example, a sauce with bits of stuff in it, or as I have lovingly referred to this in the past, sauce with "chunks of nasty". At least I'm not alone. This too is tied to the same gene and is suspected to be evolutionary like the poison thing. Basically mixed textures (in the wild) could mean, dirty or contaminated instead of clean and pure ("boy, this water is chewy. oh well, drink up!").

And finally, while people, in general, can develop a "taste" for just about any edible food, this is not always the case with supertasters. The bitterness of the food in question can, in some supertasters, trigger an actual gag reflex (hello Jeff), in which case it is very unlikely that the person will ever be able to tolerate the food.

For me, peanut butter and rice are two foods I don't like, PB for taste, and rice for texture, but neither one actually triggers the aforementioned gag reflex, so maybe there's hope. However, pretty much all raw vegetables do, as well as raw tomatoes, as was reflected in an unfortunate childhood dinner-table incident involving a slice of salted tomato, a napkin, and a dash for the toilet.

I hope you enjoyed this little lesson on supertasters. While it does nothing except confirm that I'm a freakish eater, at least I know I'm not alone. See you at McDonalds.

PS - in the research, I also learned that the little diagram we all learned in school about the parts of the tongue and where you taste sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, is all a load of bullcrap. You can taste all of the above at any one tastebud, and there is no association at all with tastebud location and sensitivity to a particular taste. Spread the word! :)


craig said...

i hesitate to post this at 10:20 on a friday night, but i fall in a class of supertasters who gag at the taste of rolling rock or heineken. no joke. i will literally puke at the taste whether or not i've had anything else to drink.

Amy said...

Amen to that!

Jeff said...

Ah Craig - Don't confuse supertasting with the simple ability to identify beer that sucks! Green bottles = light penetration = skunky beer, almost every time. While I've never had Heineken in a keg, I suspect it's a lot better (or at least I hope so!)

"The" Bucia said...

OH NO---Not another Guilt Trip for dear old mom and dad. Sorry about the tomato thing. Thank goodness you like Bucia Toast:)

Dana said...

I assume that I'm a 'normal' taster.........there are somethings I can't stand (seafood) and somethings that I like that you 'supers' hate........aka, lettuce! Let me know if there is any poision in something I'm about ready to we'll be serving almost all of the things you can't tolorate today at the Colt's party - oops! Hats off to your super tongues! GO READYS!

P.S. I'm going to just take a guess here, both of your children are also supertasters! (Possibly not Hailey though - time will tell. I think she might just be slightly brainwashed. hee hee)

Stacey said...

I just find it so interesting that you and Ames found each other in a world so full of "normal tasters". Fate I guess!

Linda said...

Very interesting research.
Unfortunately, I continue to wish that MY tastebuds were a bit more selective! At least I wish they would "supertaste" the high calorie stuff!!

If only I had known all this when I was young - and my parents were trying to trick me into eating liver!!

J Newton said...

If you have two plates of cookies. One with nuts, and one without nuts, the cookies with no nuts will always be eaten first. Why? Because the supertasters will only eat the cookies without nuts, and the non-tasters will eat the first cookie they see. So, if you are making cookies for a large group, LEAVE OUT THE NUTS!!!!!!! Also, if you are ordering pizza for a large group, LEAVE OFF THE VEGETABLES!!!!! I was at a dinner a month or so ago, and they ordered three pizzas. Two supremes, and one with beef, onions, and mushrooms (yeah, I know mushrooms aren't a vegetable, they still suck on pizza). I could not believe it.