What exactly is it like to be a super taster? One food writer spills the nitty-gritty … and it isn’t all pretty.
Tell people you’re a “super taster” and most will immediately assume you’re bragging about a delicate, critical palate. The term doesn’t denote someone with an expert set of taste buds, however—just someone who has a predisposition to detect bitterness in food more easily.
This is not always a social advantage. Let’s take, for example, the art installation-slash-dinner party I was on assignment reporting about more than a decade ago. Pen and notebook in hand, getting a feel for the food, I took a bite of a simple pesto crostini that came my way. It looked innocuous enough, but one bite in and I was frantically waving at the rest of the guests like a drowning woman, telling anyone who would listen that somehow poison had gotten into the pesto.
It hadn’t, it turned out: The “pesto” was simply a cheese-free mix of dandelion greens and parsley, with very little olive oil mixed in. To me, it tasted horrible, but the odd looks other guests gave me tipped me off to the fact that perhaps my palate was a little different than theirs.
My self-inflicted experiment had a predecessor: In 1931, Dupont chemist Arthur Fox reportedly dropped a bottle of phenylthiocarbamide (a fairly innocuous crystalline compound) at his lab. A colleague got a taste as it floated in the air, and commented that it tasted horribly bitter. Fox, on the other hand, couldn’t taste anything at all. In 1991, Yale University’s Linda Bartoshuk did similar experiments with 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). For those who found it extremely bitter, she coined the term “super taster.”
About half of the population are “normal tasters,” and another quarter are “non-tasters”—people who tend to find food quite bland. You may have heard that whether or not you’re a super taster—which about a quarter of us are—is simply a matter of the number of taste buds, or more specifically fungiform papillae, reside on the surface of your tongue. There are tests you can do to measure how many of these you have. But some say the science is a bit more complicated, and involves genetic predisposition. (Here is a great deep dive on the topic.)
Shortly after my pesto incident, I groused at my local watering hole that I just had found out why I didn’t enjoy Amaros, nor Fernet, nor mustard greens. My friends were all drinking Campari and soda that summer. I refused to come within a 10-foot striped straw of the stuff, which tasted only bitter to me.
Incredibly, my bartender friend produced a DIY super taster test from behind his bar—just tiny strips of paper dotted with phenylthiocarbamide, the stuff Fox’s colleague hated. He handed strips to my five fellow bar-goers and me. One said, “Hmm, maybe tastes a tiny bit metallic?” Another said he tasted nothing.
Me, I fell off my barstool. It was the most intense bitter taste I’d ever experienced. I slugged a pint of water, then asked the bartender if he had milk. It was a lot like the experience of accidentally biting into a hot pepper—but with bitterness.
I’ve since learned that supertasters are more inclined to like salt, which can mask bitterness (I have a “salt tooth,”) can be sensitive to things that are super-sweet (I hate dulce de leche), and are often are fussy eaters (I refused to eat vegetables till I was 20). The good news is super-tasters can decide to push the boundaries of our palates. I do: I’ve taught myself to tolerate drops of bitters (because the Old Fashioned is one of the best drinks of all time), and tend to roast bitter vegetables to transform them into a more palatable form for me.
Now I can pretty much play with the others, but you can keep those shots of Fernet for yourself.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.