Pot Luck

A Small Matter of Taste

NPR recently aired a fascinating story about the physiology of taste. The segment featured an interview with Barb Stuckey, author of Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good.

The book discusses the variety of tastes that we all experience. By this I do not mean salty, sweet, sour, etc. as much as I mean what we as individuals experience each time we sample a bite of food.

Depending on your particular taste-bud arrangement and anatomy, you are very likely getting something completely different out of your food than I do from mine.

"Hyper-tasters," as Stuckey refers to them, are people who have a denser pattern of taste buds across their tongue than normal. These people are more sensitive to taste than others, which could possibly explain why your little brother hates spicy food so much, or why certain individuals detest the subtlest whiff of cilantro.

There is a test that can be performed at home to determine your propensity for taste. It's very simple.

Basically, you'll need some blue dye and a cotton swab. Drying, then dyeing, your tongue brings out your taste bud arrangement, and you can measure the amount of bumps occurring in a quarter-inch diameter. The taste buds will remain pink, making them easier to count.

Less than 15 makes you a non-taster.

Having in the ballpark of 15 to 35 of these bumps, called fungiform papillae, within such a diameter marks average taste, and anything above 35 means you have an extraordinary palate.

Like Spider Man's powers, however, this can be both a gift and a curse.

An article in Smithsonian magazine features a talk with the research professor at Yale who began studying the ranges of human taste. The researcher, Linda Bartoshuk, admits to being a "non-taster," someone who has difficulty distinguishing between certain flavor profiles, such as the difference between skim and 2 percent milk.

"Hyper-tasters," it is found, shun richer, more boldly flavored foods, and often avoid foods high in sugars and fat. Lower cholesterol and less risk of heart disease follow individuals who are sensitive to these tastes.

Taste, like most everything else, is genetic. Certain people are just more sensitive to flavor than others, and while our tastes are further influenced by culture and family, to an extent, our taste buds may hold much more sway over our lives than we ever thought before.

From an evolutionary standpoint, taste served the purpose of letting us know when we had hit a particularly valuable food source. Something high in fat, for example, would have provided much-needed energy to our early ancestors. Being able to taste this essential nutrient would have given the holder of such a skill much better odds of surviving the crap shoot that is life, especially primitive life, but as times have changed, so have our tastes.

Scientists have long known that we have sensitivities to certain tastes: sweet, salty, umami, sour and, more recently, fat. Though studies show that early exposure and introduction to certain tastes can influence what we like, the idea that our taste-bud arrangement, something we cannot control, can dictate the kinds of foods we enjoy is really profound.

It (almost) provides an excuse to your significant other for not liking _________ food, whatever it is. Give them a break: It's their parents' weak genes.

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Sam Brown