There are a few people out there with superhuman tongues. As cool as that sounds, even these seemingly powerful beings have their own version of kryptonite: celery and ginger, to name a few.
Sound like some fictional superpower? Nope, it’s a real thing. In 1991, a scientist named Linda Bartoshuk at Yale University discovered that about 25 percent of all people possess this genetic trait—she dubbed them “supertasters.” It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: individuals who have hypersensitive taste buds, due to a higher density of bumps known as fungiform papillae (which contain the taste buds) on the tongue. And guess what? There’s an easy test to find out if you’re one of the gustatorily blessed—more on that later.
To foodies, it kind of sounds like hitting the genetic lottery. Imagine all the euphoric sensations while devouring a heaping bowl of rich Thai curry or decadent ice cream sundae, or working as the most gifted sommelier in the world. But being a supertaster isn’t all fun and games. Many of them tend to cringe at the bitterness of the aforementioned celery and ginger, as well as grapefruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach, and kale—all foods rich in vital nutrients.
Some may even have a stronger perception of oleogustus, the taste of fat. But nowadays scientists believe supertasting doesn’t necessarily always equate to a dislike of the foods in question—it may just lead to eating them conservatively. A few studies have shown that a heightened sense of taste can regulate cravings and consumption of fattening foods, and result in leaner bodies and lower cholesterol.
But a strong aversion to bitterness may present some complications to health. It turns out that some supertasters have shown a higher risk of developing colon cancer, according to a 2005 study conducted by Bartoshuk and her colleagues. In the study of 251 men, the number of colonic polyps present was directly proportional to the subjects’ sensitivity to bitterness. This could be due to the simple fact that those who don't like veggies may shy away from them, and therefore miss out on some of their cancer-fighting compounds. In a broader sense, passing on cruciferous veggies can also mean a diet that’s lower in certain vitamins and minerals as well as fiber.
Supertasters don’t have to live a life completely devoid of these foods they normally find unpalatable though. While some big food companies have been known to add excess salt and sugar in order to cut bitterness in packaged foods, including vegetables, there are ways to do it with more wholesome ingredients. Try any of the following recipes and see how your tongue fares.
- Salt and Vinegar Brussels Sprouts Chips: The tartness of apple cider vinegar just might change your mind about bitter Brussels sprouts.
- Brussels Sprouts With Sour Cherries, Prosciutto, and Hazelnuts: With a little sweetness from raw honey, sourness from cherries, and plenty of saltiness from prosciutto, here’s another Brussels sprouts game-changer.
- Kale Caesar Salad: Salty nutritional yeast, bacon, and anchovies bring balance to a nutrient-rich kale salad.
- Broiled Grapefruit With Ginger: Sounds like double-trouble to some supertasters, but this is a treat that turns grapefruit into an irresistible dessert, thanks to the healthy sweetening powers of honey. Even the ginger, in candied form here, is transformed with a little raw sugar.
Also, here’s a tip for soon-to-be parents: eating bitter foods during pregnancy (if you can stomach them) might be a good idea. The flavors of foods consumed during the prenatal period get infused into the amniotic fluid the fetus floats in, creating a familiarity that can influence a child’s preference for them down the road, when they eventually start eating solids.
Okay, so you’re dying to know—are you a supertaster? Watch the video above to learn how to find out. All you need for the test is:
- Blue food coloring: This will allow the individual papillae (bumps) to stand out.
- Loose leaf paper hole reinforcements: Count the papillae within the hole.
- Magnifying glass + flashlight: To get a clear look at the individual bumps.
It takes just a few minutes (and a partner) to reveal whether you’re a supertaster—you’d have 30+ papillae on a concentrated area of the tongue. Plain old regular tasters have 15 to 20 papillae, while “non-tasters”—yup, some people have relatively fewer taste buds than normal, resulting in a duller palate—have less than 15. Even if you’re the latter, good for you—then you get ALL the grapefruit.
Produced and Directed by: Liza Glucoft
Director of Photography: Naeem Munaf
Editor: Stephanie Provence
Illustration by Karley Koenig