Marthèlize Tredoux: The “supertaster” phenomenon

The global wine industry is expected to be worth around $303 billion by 2016. The global restaurant industry is forecast to reach a value of $2.1 trillion this year. A dizzying amount of money. Both industries built almost exclusively on a single sense: taste. The sense of taste is a remarkable one, arguably the most complex of the basic senses. Being human teaches us we taste with our tongues. Biology 101 teaches us that our tongues contain taste buds which chemically register sensations when substances come into contact with them.

How we understand the sense of taste has changed over recent years. Everyone is familiar with the basic tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (umami was only added recently: a meaty, savoury taste strongly associated with soy, MSG etc.). Beyond these basic tastes, the tongue can also distinguish between a number of others such as astringency, fattiness, metallicness, hotness (spice) and coolness (fresh, minty sensations). We’ve discovered that the outdated idea of a “tongue map” – that certain parts of the tongue are exclusively responsible for certain tastes – was entirely mistaken and that taste is a much more complex, somatosensory pathway, closely linked to smell.

Now, hold on to your capes and tights, winos. It is purported that there are humans among us who may look unremarkable, but specimens who carry in their DNA a mutation that gifts them with a superpower of which the rest of us mere mortals can only dream: they are supertasters – people who experience the sensations of taste in an unusually – sometimes overwhelmingly – strong way.

TongueOk, I may have oversold that a bit. But there really are so-called supertasters about, though the exact nature of their enhanced powers of taste is still being studied. A simple test to count the amount of fungiform papillae (structures on your tongue that contain taste buds) within a set area of your tongue can indicate whether you are a supertaster: stain your tongue with blue food colouring, use a hole-punch sized ring to determine the area of your tongue you’ll be looking at and count the pink (unstained) bumps, they should stand out on the blue background of your stained tongue. It is thought if you have 15-30 of these papillae in the hole-punch sized area, you’re an average taster and if you have more than 30, you’re a supertaster.

Before you rush off to Smurf your tongue, it may be more complicated than that. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University has been studying the genetic variations in taste perception and coined the term “supertaster”. She found that most people perceive no taste of a chemical called PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil) but a small percentage find it incredibly bitter to the point of unpleasantness. This minority are supertasters and while anatomically they do seem to have a higher concentration fungiform papillae on their tongue than average tasters, there may be a number of other genetic and sensory components that also cause remarkably increased sensitivity.

As an avid or serious wine taster, you may feel envious of this superpower if you are not so genetically predisposed, but in many cases a supertaster is so sensitive that alcoholic beverages are unpleasant to consume due to the intensity of the alcohol. Supertasters working in the food industry report often disliking certain foods or tastes so much it makes their work difficult. It seems then that supertasters don’t automatically make superstar wine tasters or chefs.

Some people are undoubtedly inherently better at sniffing, slurping and swirling their way through wine tastings, identifying descriptors ranging from the glaringly obvious to most obscure, but acutely identifying wines and descriptors also has a large sensory training aspect – you can learn how to be better at it without being a genetic Superman amongst sommeliers. So keep tasting, keep practicing. You’ll be flinging around obscure wine descriptors in no time.

On a related note, if you do fancy yourself as someone with super(b) tasting abilities, you might want to put your money where your supposedly overdeveloped tastebuds are and have a go at the South African Wine Tasting Championships. The second leg of the championships are held in Cape Town on 27 June and the final leg in Durban at the end of August. Participants have the opportunity to taste a number of wines – different cultivars and producers – and then move on to a blind tasting where they must identify seven wines correctly. Winners form each region compete in the National Finale in September where the team will be chosen to represent South Africa in the World Championship held in France in October. Find out more here.

• Marthèlize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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  1. Jonathan SnashallMay 20, 2015 at 11:41 amReply

    my theory is that women are better because they have to ‘filter’ better when preganant and breast feeding while the Asians – well with so many intense and complex flavours and aromas in their food…. they for eg start chilli tolerance in utero
    Ja my dancing definitly improves after fine wine.

  2. KwispedoorMay 20, 2015 at 11:21 amReply

    Perhaps, Jonathan, but the more we taste, the better we dance.

  3. Marthelize TredouxMay 20, 2015 at 10:23 amReply

    Spot on, Jonathan. Thanks for adding pretty much every point I had to skip because of word count – as well as the stats on Asian tasters. Very interesting.
    If I’m not mistaken, Bartoshuk was (one of) the first people to make the connection between people experiencing a bitter aftertaste with saccharin to PROP, though I think the first discovery of bitterness sensitivity related to PROP was in the 1930’s.

  4. Jonathan SnashallMay 20, 2015 at 10:13 amReply

    An easy test is take one packet of saccharin (artificial sweetner) and mix it with two-thirds of a cup of water, and then taste it. For some, there will be a dominate sweet taste, indicating that they are an undertaster, while others will notice a dominate bitter taste, indicating they are a supertaster. Those who find balance between sweet and bitter are regular tasters.

    Propylthiouracil (PROP), is a prescription-only thyroid medication so you need a friendly chemist or a family member / friend on the drug. In this test, widely used by taste researchers, people are made to taste PROP and if they find it repulsively bitter, they’re deemed a supertaster (or undertasters if tasteless).

    Women are much more likely to be supertasters than men (35 per cent of women vs 15 per cent of men) and more Asians are supertasters than the rest of the world. Like dancing, Caucasian males have the lowest rate of supertasters of any known group.

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