From beer to coffee, bitter flavors are things that most of us have to learn to enjoy over multiple tastings. Scientists have long assumed that our ability to even taste those flavors is rooted in self-defense — a way to root out and avoid potentially poisonous plants in the diet of our hunting and gathering ancestors. But new research suggests that the ability to taste bitter flavors isn't strongly tied to hunting and gathering lifestyles, which leaves researchers at a loss for why the skill might have evolved. My hypothesis, based on experience with espresso and IPA lovers: Perhaps there's an evolutionary advantage to beverage pretentiousness.
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.
Supertasters are seemingly normal humans who have more bumps on their tongues — a difference that allows them to taste more intensely than average people and (as a side effect) to detect bitter flavors that most of us miss. And they were discovered by accident, when one scientists could taste the chemical dust released in his laboratory and his colleague could not.