I Have Way More Taste Buds Than Most People. It’s Not Always Super.
What it’s like to taste food much more intensely than the average person.
The word super has such positive connotations. A supermarket has everything you could want under the sun. Superman will save the world. So you would think that being a supertaster would be, well, super!
I am here to let you know that there is nothing super at all about being a supertaster, and this is especially true if you are a cook and a food writer. The 25% of the population designated as supertasters have on average between 50-100% more taste buds than the rest of the world. Less than 1% of people are designated as super-supertasters. I am one of them.
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Being a super-supertaster is not super. It is monumentally annoying. I had always been frustrated by some of my food issues, which most people chalked up to pickiness, until I was at an event where they did a series of tests for supertasters, and I was at the top of the charts.
On the one hand, it was something of a relief. As someone who is a passionate cook and eater, it was always a mystery to me that there are so many foods that just don’t taste good to me, foods the rest of the population loves and craves. So it was comforting to discover that a large percentage of my no-go foods were just because of my biology. I already knew that my cilantro aversion was enzymatic, but this diagnosis made everything else make such perfect sense.
The simple truth is that I just taste more than the average person. And in many cases, what this means is that foods most of the world loves can just taste like crap to me.
Some prime examples include the “stinky” cheeses, particularly blue cheeses, even the creamiest ones, taste like bile to me. Many varieties of mushrooms taste like dirt or mud. Offal, those prized organ meats that most foodies appreciate for their funky richness, even ones considered mild like foie gras or sweetbreads, all taste like copper and rot to me. I love a flaky white fish. Give me halibut and turbot and Dover sole all day long. But more full-flavored or oily fishes like mackerel or swordfish, or any but the most subtly flavored of the crustaceans? They taste like I presume cat food tastes like. I can do squid, octopus, the occasional scallop, but anything else that comes in a shell from oysters to lobsters are in the no-fly zone for me. Seaweed lands in the place that reminds me of how fish food flakes smell, so if you spot me at a Japanese restaurant, you can bet I’m ordering the chicken teriyaki.
Taste buds are also surrounded by pain receptors, so more buds means more sensitivity. Which makes me a total wuss when it comes to super-spicy food. I will make my chili as hot as I can stand it, and my husband will let me know that it is well-spiced, but not spicy, as he adds hot sauce to his. I’ve been known to order mild dishes at our favorite Thai place and still have them be so spicy to me that it renders them inedible.
This whole supertaster thing can wreak havoc when your job is centered around food. Recipe testing with ingredients you can’t choke down is a nightmare. I am gifted with a husband who is both a normal taster and has a terrific palate, and thankfully also works from home. When I got assigned a piece on liver and onions, he became my tongue. He said it was delicious. I’m taking his word for it.
It can also complicate your social life. The list of foods I can’t eat or would prefer not to eat is long. I love when pals invite us to dinner, but when they inquire about dietary restrictions, I have to just pick the couple of things that are most difficult for me and hope for the best. I have perfected a way of eating things that don’t taste good to me by taking small bites and immediately a mouthful of water, essentially eating what I am sure is a delightful, well-cooked piece of salmon as if I am taking a series of pills. Hoping my hosts don’t notice.
We are so fortunate to have dear friends who are chefs—really great chefs—and yet I am always the teeniest bit nervous when dining at their restaurants because generosity is part of their DNA and they often cannot resist sending extra plates to the table. It is very uncomfortable when someone you adore is trying to make your evening special and sends you a round of oysters or a slab of house-made paté, and you have to hope your dining companions can cover your share to prevent mortification.
There are some benefits, however. I’m a cheap date. I’ll never order the foie gras or the lobster or the caviar on you. Because of my sensitive buds, I am really good at sussing out ingredients in a dish for replicating later, and my seasoning is always on point because I can taste the subtleties in dishes that a lot of people do not and can make tiny changes that really make them sing. If I tell you something is off, stop eating, because I can taste when something is past its prime well before a normal taster will sense anything bad. I’m not going to get me a comic book series, or a snazzy spandex outfit, but trust me, if I look at you over the buffet and point at something and shake my head no? You’ll be glad I was there.
Have you too always been something of a picky eater? Want to know if you are a supertaster? There is a kit you can get on Amazon that will give you a definitive answer. It won’t change anything about how you eat or what you like, but at least the next time someone looks down their nose at you for passing on the paté, you’ll have a medical hall pass.