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Beyond picky eaters: What science says about supertasters

You are exasperated: Your toddler is refusing food again – blanched broccoli and steamed fish with rice. She makes a face, and the more you try to push the food to her, the more she grimaces and very soon she starts to bawl.

In your exasperation, you try one last time and she grabs the bowl and flings it away, scattering the food you lovingly prepared onto the table and floor. You are getting hot under the collar but you try to suppress your growing frustration.

This scene is not that uncommon in most families, especially those with children of ages 1-2. It’s a daily battle to feed them or let them feed themselves. And you are clueless why your toddler rejects perfectly fine food that is purportedly good for them.

You ask your parents, your parents-in-law, your siblings, your friends, your colleagues, and they give you so many answers that you are confused. You googled online and resultant websites give tips and whatnot to coerce toddlers to eat their greens and don’t complain.

In reality, have you ever heard about the supertasters? Super-what??

It goes back to 1991. Professor Linda Bartoshuk, a psychologist, was the first to coin the term ‘supertasters’ in her article in Food Technology based on her experiments with some people that find propylthiouracil (PROP), a chemical compound, bitter, while others couldn’t even taste it.

However, it was way back in 1931 that Arthur L Fox, a chemist, discovered that some persons found phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) bitter, while some found it tasteless. He collaborated with Albert F Blakeslee, a geneticist, and let attendees of the American Association for the Advancement of Science taste PTC – 65% found it bitter, 28% tasteless and 6% describe other tastes. He also found out that genetics may influence taste, and some years later the TAS2R38 gene was discovered that’s a bitter taste receptor.

In the 1960s, Roland Fischer, a psychopharmacologist, was the first to associate PROP with food preferences and body type, paving the way for Bartoshuk and her colleagues to their findings that people are grouped into 25% non-tasters, 50% medium tasters and 25% supertasters.

Supertasters have more taste buds, called fungiform papillae than everyone else. Taste buds detect these five primary tastes: sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami. They are more sensitive to all tastes, especially bitterness.

Here’s a list of foods and beverages supertasters don’t like:

  • Certain alcoholic beverages – gin, tequilas, hoppy beers
  • Coffee
  • Green Tea
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Leafy Vegetables – Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collard Greens, Kailan, Kale, Kohlrabi, Savoy Cabbage
  • Root Vegetables – Dandelion Greens, Horseradish, Mustard Greens, Rutabaga, Turnip, Watercress
  • Soy products
  • Mushrooms
  • Anise and licorice
  • Less salted foods
  • Spicy foods

If they must eat these foods, they may salt them more to mask out the bitterness. However, not all is lost. As we grow older, our taste buds die, so for supertasters, their previously strong tastes are weakened and they may savor these abhorred foods again.

Conditioning together with societal and familial culture dictates the foods we eat. We eat what we eat from young, and if we have been eating certain foods since young, we are more likely to continue eating those foods. Conversely, we can learn to like abhorred foods throughout our lifetime and these foods just take a longer time to like.

How to know if your child is a supertaster? You can do this simple experiment at home: Soak some blue food coloring on a cotton bud, and with your child’s tongue sticking out, swab about a third of it. Take a card with a hole punched with a hole-puncher and place it over the tongue. Photograph it so you can enlarge the image and count the big ‘bumps’ of the taste buds. If the bumps are less than 15, your child is a non-taster; if 15-30 bumps, an average taster; and more than 30 bumps, a supertaster.

In a nutshell, humans are born picky eaters. Hardwired or not, from the time babies are weaned onto more solid foods, they start to acquire their likes and dislikes based on personal preferences, parental influence notwithstanding.

Parents can’t dent their children’s food preferences much, and only time and patience will tell if your child begins to like certain foods she previously abhors, from the various circumstantial, physiological and psychological factors intermingling to present to your child the delectability of these foods.

So don’t pick on picky eaters, let your child grow into liking what you cook for them, and gradually accept that she may not have the same taste buds as you!

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