The Super Tasters
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How is one bitter receptor on the tongue responsible for all these differences? One theory is that people who are tasters, and in particular, super-tasters, seem to have more taste buds. And people who have more taste buds, it follows, may experience most taste sensations more intensely.
Perhaps because of this, super-tasters also seem to pick up on food nuances. When Tepper asked study subjects to describe a range of dairy products they tasted, the super-tasters used lots of adjectives—creamy, thick, rich, buttery, sticky, syrupy and milky. The non-tasters used just a handful of words to describe what they ate. "They perceive something different," Tepper explained, "and they clearly know what they like, but they have difficulty describing it."
All of which may be useful for predicting who will grow up to be a food critic. Tepper, however, is looking for a connection that could have larger public health implications: How does PROP taster status affect weight?
Two years ago, Tepper found that women in their 40s who were super-tasters were 20 percent thinner than non-tasters. The super-tasters appeared to eat less overall, be it bitter vegetables or fatty foods. The super-tasters had a body-mass index of 23.5; the medium tasters had an average of 26.6, and the non-tasters nearly 30. (A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese.) So far, she has only seen body-weight correlations to PROP status in women, not men.
As director of the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory at Rutgers University, Tepper often collaborates with food companies, helping test their products while furthering her own research on taste sensitivity.
But before you run out to have your PROP status tested, you should know that there are plenty of exceptions to these rules. Tepper is herself a super-taster. ("That little disk is so bitter to me, it blows the back of my head off," she explained.) And yet, she likes all the foods she theoretically should hate. "It took me a number of years to develop a taste for them, but I like hot food; I like briny olives; I like anchovies; I like broccoli and Brussels sprouts," she admitted. "After a while I thought, 'I don't even support my own hypothesis, so how is this going to work?' It's rather obvious: It's not just taste genetics that's influencing people's behavior and food preferences. There are so many other factors. And we can't just forget about all of them."
One significant factor is food adventurousness, or a willingness to try unfamiliar foods. "We decided to add just a single question to our surveys: How often do you try new foods?" They found that super-tasters who are not food adventurous are the ones who hate everything. As a super-taster who is also food adventurous, Tepper's food preferences make perfect sense.
Another trump card is a person's ability to fight food urges, called "restrained eating." People's self-control, particularly if they are concerned about nutrition or their weight, seems to override taster status, so that statistically, it has no effect on body-mass index.
So this one gene does not control weight—or definitively determine what foods you like. Nor does it mean that super-taster children are destined for a vegetable-free life. Tepper recently looked at a group of preschoolers to understand when these genetic differences appear. (The results appeared this July in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). She offered the kids carrots and red pepper along with the more bitter cucumbers, raw broccoli and black olives (which, while not technically a vegetable, are viewed that way by children).
The children showed clear signs of their PROP status and food preferences at this early age. The non-tasters spontaneously ate almost a serving of vegetables, including more of the bitter ones. But the taster kids were no slouches, eating almost a half-serving of vegetables of their choosing.
"It is possible to get vegetables into kids if you pay some attention to their genetic predispositions. What's ultimately valuable is what someone selects or doesn't select when they are given a variety of choices," Tepper said.
One question she has is whether mothers, who make most of the menu decisions at home, are offering vegetables that they may not like themselves to their children, and giving them an opportunity to develop a preference for them. (continued)
Profile written by Julie Flaherty, Editor, Tufts Nutrition.
Homepage photo by Vito Aluia. Tepper photos by Thomas E. Franklin.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Tufts Nutrition. It ran online on January 22, 2007.