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Comforting Words for Supertasters. Wait, What’s That?

Is cotton candy too sweet? You might be a supertaster.EXPAND
Is cotton candy too sweet? You might be a supertaster.
Logan Weaver via Unsplash
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I’m the unlikeliest food writer ever; all my life I’ve been a picky eater. People might expect bad eating habits from kids, but if you’re still shunning foods as an adult, you’ll likely get roasted by your friends and family. I know this from experience.

But you may be able to avoid the mockery by blaming it on genetics. You can say “It’s science!” or “I was born that way!” or “I have receipts!” Supertasters are a thing, and there’s a way to confirm that you are one. I know that from experience too.

While a supertaster sounds like something you’d want to be (“I’m the best taster ever, everyone says so”), what it means is that your perception of taste is stronger than the average person's. It’s not that you recognize and identify more tastes or have an educated and mature palate, as a food critic or chef might. Rather, food actually tastes different to you than to most other people, and not in a good way.

In particular, bitter foods taste even more bitter, sometimes a whole lot more. To supertasters, who make up about 25% of the population, sweetness may be more intense. Spicy foods are less tolerable, since in addition to having more taste buds they also have more finely tuned pain receptors on their tongues.

Now, who wouldn't want an eyeball Jell-O shot?
Now, who wouldn't want an eyeball Jell-O shot?
Taylor Adams

Blue Tongues Aren’t Cute

The original DIY test for this inherited trait sounds like (and probably has been) a junior high science project. It involves blue food coloring, a mirror and a count of visible taste buds on a certain section of your tongue.

I decided to pass on that one. I’m sure I would lose count, plus I didn’t want a blue tongue. When I think of a blue tongue, I think of Jell-O shots, and like most alcoholic drinks, they taste nasty to me. So if you hate Jell-O shots, and by that I mean truly despise the taste of them, you’re probably a supertaster and don’t need a test to prove it.

If it’s proof you’re seeking, I recently found a website where you can order paper test strips to confirm what kind of taster you are. They’re coated with N-Propylthiouracil (PROP), and to test yourself, you simply place one on your tongue.

Things We Have to Do for Science

According to Supertaster.com, where I bought the kit, “the chemical applied to the Supertaster Test tastes bland, bitter or utterly vile depending on the genes you inherited for taste.” They’re clearly not marketing geniuses. Why would I want to taste something vile just to prove that bitter things taste worse to me than other people?

And yet, I did. My curiosity won out over my sense of dread, plus the kits (consisting of two test strips) were just $4.95 each, no infomercial required. I ordered five kits because there was a discount on five, plus an irresistible offer of a free BreathRx Gentle Tongue Scraper. (Marketing geniuses, I tell you.)

The kit arrived about a week later. The test strips come in a small, clear plastic bag with very simple instructions: Place the strip on your tongue.

At the moment of truth, what I tasted wasn’t gag-inducing, but it did taste very strong and extremely bitter. Despite the unpleasantness, I felt validated!

Till now, I’ve been sheepish about my ridiculously selective taste preferences while claiming an affinity with Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials. For everyone younger than us boomers the memorable line is, “He won’t eat it. He hates everything.”

I don’t hate everything — just coffee, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, radishes, olives, licorice, seltzer and mineral water and a long list of other bitter foods plus beer, wine and spirits. I don’t know what flavor profile lavender is, but I find it barely tolerable as part of a color scheme. I certainly don’t want it or any other floral flavor in my food.

Just can't with the dark chocolate? You definitely need to order the supertaster kit.EXPAND
Just can't with the dark chocolate? You definitely need to order the supertaster kit.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

Getting Your Texan Card Revoked Is Not Fun

Even the mildest jalapeño peppers get picked off my plate (or nixed completely upfront when ordering). Really hot salsa? Never gonna happen.

Overtasting sweet tastes also complicates things. Ketchup is gross, and I only tolerate it when it’s mixed with mustard. I had to surrender my Texan card because worse than not loving salsa, or Whataburger ketchup, I cannot stand sweet tea. And even if I’d forgiven Blue Bell for the listeria thing (I haven’t), overly sweet ice cream is a big nope.

Many supertasters can’t stand the bitterness of dark chocolate. For me, the sweetness of milk chocolate is worse. High-quality, mild dark chocolate tastes almost fruity to me, maybe because chocolate is a fruit. (Again with the science, although the latest is that the FDA has classified it as a vegetable. Go figure.)

Some supertasters also dislike fatty foods like avocados, full-fat dairy and even some meats. I grew up dreading Sunday pot roasts and particularly the potatoes and carrots completely steeped in meat fat. I literally cringe just describing it.

Shocking as this may sound, brisket always tastes good.
Shocking as this may sound, brisket always tastes good.
Chris Wolfgang

Some Foods Will Surprise You

But if all these things taste awful, what is there to eat? Plenty, if you know a few tricks.

Almost no one over tastes salty flavors, and saltiness can balance both bitter and fatty flavors. That’s one of the reasons smoked brisket is so good even if it’s fatty. Thank you, Cattleack Barbecue for helping me discover that moist brisket is the only way to go.

Sweetness also counteracts bitterness, but if a sweet and bitter combo doesn’t work for you, try something else. Sour flavors balance out both bitter and sweet foods, so citrus fruits can leap to the rescue in many a dish.

Parents use cheese sauce or ranch dressing to make bitter vegetables more palatable, and you can too. Even if you enjoy fewer foods than other people do, it doesn’t have to be awful to stretch your palate a bit.

Never Feel Obligated to Eat Things You Don’t Like

It’s not an easy thing to lose your Texan card, so if you have a friend who doesn’t like sweet tea, they might be a supertaster, and not disloyal, or worse, a fool. Cut them a little slack.

If you are the supertaster, be polite about it, but it’s OK to refuse food you don’t want to eat. The words “no substitutions” on a menu can be terrifying, but if the rule is hard and fast, it’s OK to leave food uneaten on your plate.

Strategically refusing food you hate makes sense in a lot of different scenarios. Decoupling shame from eating (or not eating) is probably a wise and healthy choice, too.

If you need to get more nutrients and a dish you don’t like has them, it’s probably worth it to make it more palatable. But those doughnuts at the office that no one enjoys but everyone eats? It’s OK to skip them.

And the store-bought birthday cake that tastes like eating nothing but sugar from a spoon? There is absolutely no shame in turning that down.

If friends are still poking fun at you, or if you have a hard time being firm when refusing food, it’s time to stand up and be counted. Make it fun, as in “This might sound wild, but have you ever heard of supertasters?”

Maybe ominous is more your style, as in “I just tested positive for a rare genetic variant. I can’t eat that.” It’s a step up from a made-up allergy. You’re welcome.

Whatever your conversational style or status as a taster, “I don’t want any of that,” is always an acceptable thing to say.

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