The Joys and Disappointments of Being a Supertaster

Humans can all taste the same things, but things don’t taste the same to all people.

A man stands inside a large-scale model of the human mouth at the Corpus Museum in The Netherlands.  (Fred Ernst / AP )

Taste is the oldest of our five senses, and yet perhaps the least understood. It’s far more complicated than salty versus sweet: New research is dramatically expanding our knowledge of taste, showing that it’s intimately connected to obesity, mood, immunity, and more. In this episode, we get into the science of how taste works, why we taste what we do, and what makes supertasters unique. And finally, we hack our taste buds—for fun, but, in the future, maybe for health, too.

For thousands of years, the sense of taste was either looked down upon or misunderstood. The Ancient Greeks thought taste was humanity’s lowest and grossest sense, and the only thing many of us learned about taste in school—the tongue map—turns out to be completely wrong. In the last 30 years, however, thanks to the genetics revolution, scientists have finally started to understand more about how our taste buds work to detect chemicals in our saliva—and why. Researcher Paul Breslin and author John McQuaid help us understand the evolutionary reasons behind the five basic tastes—sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami—and biologist Thomas Finger compares the human ability to taste with that of cats, who can only taste umami, and catfish, which have tastebuds all over their skin and whiskers, not just in their mouths.

But while humans can all taste the same things, we taste them quite differently. For instance, some people, known as “supertasters,” taste everything more intensely than the rest of the population. Supertaster sounds like an enviable X-Men-style power—but is it? This episode, we meet Linda Bartoshuk, the scientist who coined the term back in 1991, and find out how to test if we’re supertasters ourselves. We discover the benefits as well as the disadvantages of having a heightened sense of taste, both today and in our evolutionary past.

Both Bartoshuk and food scientist Robin Dando are studying the connections between our sense of taste and obesity, mood, and even cancer. It’s new research, and there’s lots we still don’t understand. But their findings raise the question: Can we hack taste to help people eat better and avoid disease? From flavor tripping to digital taste devices, we try to trick our taste buds—with fascinating results.

This article appears courtesy of Gastropod.