On the face of it, being a supertaster sounds like a desirable trait: The ability to perceive a cacophony of flavours while others discern a whisper. But unfortunately for those with superlative tasting abilities — thought to be between 25 to 30 per cent of the population, according to Scientific American — it doesn’t always equate to foods being more appetizing. In the case of bitter foods, it can even make them inedible.
According to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association, people who are genetically “hardwired” to be more sensitive to bitterness can end up avoiding “heart-healthy” vegetables — including bitter greens (arugula, dandelion greens, endive) and cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts) — as a result.
The palatability of bitter foods lies in a specific gene, researchers from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine in Lexington, Ky. found. “Your genetics affect the way you taste, and taste is an important factor in food choice,” said study author Jennifer Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in cardiovascular science. “You have to consider how things taste if you really want your patient to follow nutrition guidelines.”
One of at least 25 bitter receptors on the tongue, TAS2R38 has two genetic variants: AVI and PAV. Through their study of 175 people, researchers discovered that those who inherit two copies of PAV — so-called supertasters — are more likely to be susceptible to the flavours of bitter compounds (e.g. sulphur in brussels sprouts) than those who have two copies of AVI (non-tasters, 25 to 30 per cent of the population), or one of each (average tasters, 40 to 50 per cent). Supertasters are also nearly three times more likely to eat fewer vegetables than those who do not have a pair of PAV.
“We’re talking a ruin-your-day level of bitter when they tasted the test compound,” said Smith of supertasters. “These people are likely to find broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage unpleasantly bitter; and they may also react negatively to dark chocolate, coffee and sometimes beer.”
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, whether participants were supertasters or not had no bearing on their consumption of fat, salt or sugar. “We thought they might take in more sugar and salt as flavour enhancers to offset the bitter taste of other foods, but that wasn’t the case,” said Smith. She added that the research team aims to follow-up the study using genetic information to determine if certain spices might help mask the bitterness in vegetables, ultimately making them more appealing to supertasters.