The super history of supertasters

Last week, I posted a link to a story on the Atlantic, all about the history of research into supertasters — humans with the ability to taste a bitter compound called phenylthiocarbamide. It's a big part of why some people can't stand the taste of broccoli, and others love it. But that one piece isn't the full story. According to taste geneticist Stephen Wooding, it wasn't even totally accurate. Instead, he suggested three articles that anybody curious about supertasting should read. First, a history of the science that he wrote for the journal Genetics. Second, a long read by Cathryn Delude about research that might, someday, make broccoli delicious for everybody. And a University of Utah site that explains the genetics of taste.


  1. Interesting article. The part where it says:
    >This compound, which is found in common cultivars like cabbage and rapeseed, was recognized as a cause of goiter (ASTWOOD et al. 1949; GREER 1950). Thus, a mechanism through which natural selection might act on the PTC gene was suggested: individuals better able to taste such toxic compounds might better regulate intake and thereby avoid poisoning (BOYD 1950). This was a compelling suggestion, but it failed to explain the observation of both tasters and nontasters in chimpanzees and humans, for if the ability to taste such compounds were favored, then the taster allele should rapidly have reached fixation.

    made me think of Captain Cook’s sour kraut. Cook ordered that his crew be fed sour kraut to fend off scurvy. Being sensitive to bitter would push you away from sour kraut and if that’s the only source of vitamin C in your diet, you’re going to be in trouble. Conversely, if there are alternate nutrient sources, pushing away from cabbage and other alkaloids may protect you from poisoning. So the gene’s benefit depends on whether there are alternate  nutrients sources available in the host’s environment which would explain why its frequency doesn’t reach 100% or 0%.

    Secondly, my impression of the term supertaster was based on an NPR story some years ago involving a journalist who found a prof at Harvard who was both a super taster and master chef. I’ve forgotten the names of the people but the gist of the article was that the prof had figured out that supertasters had a hyper-abundance of taste buds on their tongues and were therefore more sensitive to smaller concentrations of the five basic flavors, not just bitter.

  2. My Mom was a super taster. She was also a single Mom who had been raised in war-time on rationing. Combine lack of money + british cuisine + super taster = terrible bland food.

    We all learned how to cook early-on out of self defence. :)

  3. I thought that being a super taster and being able to taste the compound were distinct, if sometimes related, things. Supertasters just having higher concentrations of the thingamabobs on the tongue and compound-tasters just having a sensitivity to the stuff.  

  4. I’ve always had sensitive senses of smell and taste.  I tasted supertaster strips on two occasions and holy crap were the horribly bitter right away!

    But supertasters shouldn’t consider themselves doomed to eat bland food, but equipped to enjoy good food as much as humanly possible.

    I used to dislike strong flavors, most vegetables (especially brassica), and couldn’t stand vinegars or mustards or spicy foods.

    But as a teenager I discovered a taste for strange music played loud, and I applied that to food, deciding that taste was in the mind.  Trying foods I’d previously disliked, I focused on the flavors, embracing their intensity and allowing myself to enjoy them.

    After a few years I realized I had gone to the other extreme as an enthusiast about very strong flavors– pickles, coffee, very spicy foods from all over the world, durian, even absinthe.

    Supertasters have a skill, and they should use it!

    1. I still eat mostly bland food, but I insist there are flavors in foods most people say have no taste. I don’t dislike all flavors, and the ones I dislike are subtle. So I do something similar in gravitating to some very strong herbs and spices to mask stuff I don’t like. I can’t quite get things potent enough to mask the ick in things like broccoli but it helps with some other things. 

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