If little Suzy cleans her plate while sister Sally balks at broccoli, you might just chalk it up to their genes, researchers advise.
To some people, foods like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and grapefruit just taste too bitter to tolerate even though most people find the same servings just fine. The broccoli-averse aren’t really finicky eaters so much as they are “supertasters.”
Food scientists have long categorized people as being either “tasters” or “nontasters,” according to how acutely they perceived flavors. But evidence suggests there is another category, the supertasters, whose preferences are highly dependent upon their extraordinary sensitivity to bitter flavors.
“It wasn’t something we expected,” said Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University’s Department of Medicine. “But we found so many people we studied whose sense of taste went beyond the normal range, that we just sort of started calling them supertasters around the lab.”
Bartoshuk, who presented her findings Sunday at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that roughly one-quarter of the general population are nontasters who have fewer taste buds than average, half are classed as tasters with an average supply of taste buds, and one-quarter are supertasters with oodles of taste buds jammed onto the tip of their tongues.
But the overall picture is more complex than that, she said. Among Caucasians, about 35 percent of women are supertasters, but only 10 percent of men are. And the percentage of nontasters among Asians is much lower than among whites. Other ethnic differences remain to be studied.
Besides sensing bitter tastes with greater intensity, the supertasters also perceive sweets as being sweeter and fatty foods as being creamier, Bartoshuk said.
The research paints a very complex picture with no clear indication whether it’s good or bad to be a supertaster.
On the positive side, studies show that older and middle-aged women who are supertasters tend to have less body fat than other women their age, said Laurie Ann Lucchina, also a Yale researcher.
“We can speculate that these women eat less fatty foods,” she said.
But on the negative side, supertasters may avoid fruits and vegetables that contain bitter-tasting substances known to help prevent cancer, said Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Michigan’s human nutrition program.
Drewnowski is conducting a five-year study to determine if there is a relationship between women who are supertasters and their risk of breast cancer.