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17 September 2014
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Science of supertasters

Brussels sprouts - for some people these miniature cabbages are the highlight of their Christmas dinner, others shudder at the mere thought of them. Scientists now know that not all people experience tastes in the same way. This is mainly down to the number of taste buds on your tongue.

Brussels sprouts

The more taste buds you have, the more intensely you perceive tastes, especially bitter ones. People who are particularly sensitive are called supertasters. They can have up to twice as many taste buds as the rest of us.

Bitter chemical

Taste researchers divide people into three groups:

  1. Non-tasters
  2. Medium tasters
  3. Supertasters

Studies have shown that around 25% of people are said to be non-tasters, 25% supertasters and 50% medium tasters. These numbers can vary depending on sex and ethnicity. Women are more likely to be supertasters and so are people from Asia, Africa and South America.

Whether you're a non-taster or a supertaster or somewhere in-between depends on your sensitivity to a bitter chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Non-tasters can't taste the bitterness of PROP at all. Medium tasters sense the bitterness but don_t mind it, while supertasters find the taste of PROP revolting.

Children taste PROP more strongly than adults and, unlike adults, they always seem to sense the bitterness of the chemical. So it could be that certain flavours taste different to children than they do to most adults. This might explain why they're often fussy about their food.

Health effects

The supertaster gene could be a remnant of our evolutionary past, acting as a safety mechanism to stop us eating unsafe foods and toxins.

Nowadays, the supertaster gene appears to affect people's wellbeing in other ways. Take flavonoids for example. These are the healthy antioxidant chemicals found in fruit and vegetables. Flavonoids taste unpleasantly bitter to supertasters, so they often avoid foods which contain high levels of them. On the other hand, they tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, because they also shy away from very fatty, salty and sugary foods.

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