Do you find the taste of certain green leafy vegetables repulsively bitter? Do sodas taste sickeningly sweet? Do spicy foods make your mouth burn to an intolerable degree? If so, you could be a supertaster. Supertasters have a higher density of taste buds than usual because of a mutation found on the TAS2R38 gene. These people can taste compounds that are usually tasteless including certain chemical defenses produced by plants.
Plants use various chemical defenses to deter predators. One of sect of these defenses known as Alkaloids are stored in plant tissues. These extremely bitter chemicals are released when animals or humans chew on the plant tissues.
The plant family Brassicaceae produces alkaloids and includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and turnips. When chewed, these plant tissues release chemical defenses (glucosinolate and myrosinae), which react to produce noxiously bitter tasting substances like goitrin. Goitrin is structurally similar to certain chemicals known for their bitter taste [such as PROP (6-propyl-2-thiouracil) and PTC (phenylthiocarbamide)]. Some people find these compounds very bitter while others can barely taste them. These differences in taste are because of the TAS2R38 gene. This gene is responsible for the expression of a sensitive bitter taste receptor that responds to these chemicals.
How many taste buds or fungiform papillae a person has directly corresponds to how sensitive a person is to different tastes. Supertasters are so sensitive to these chemicals because they may have up to 70 times more taste buds than the average taster.
Supertasters are acutely sensitive to a wide range of chemicals including caffeine, quinine (a chemical found in tonic water), sucrose and saccharin (chemicals found in sugar and artificial sweeteners) and capsaicin (the active ingredient in chili peppers). These individuals find that caffeine and quinine taste extremely bitter, sugar tastes extremely sweet and capsaicin burns.
Jake, a supertaster friend of mine, states that diet coke and other caffeinated and artificially sweetened beverages “just taste like chemicals.” He avoids caffeinated beverages and sticks mainly to fruit juice. However, he thoroughly enjoys the added bite of spicy foods that his supertaster status yields.
So, are you a supertaster? Find out in my other article, “Science Experiment – Taster Status” to find out! In that article, I will detail two science experiments to determine your taster status.