Cringing at these flavors may be linked to certain health woes.
There’s a big stigma against so-called picky eaters, especially among adults. It may be true that some picky eaters just never ventured out of their comfort zone, but for others, a different phenomenon may be taking place.
About 25 percent of the U.S. population is extremely sensitive to a bitter chemical in food called 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP, according to Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. This group of PROP-sensitive people are classified as “supertasters.” While average tasters only perceive a slightly bitter flavor from PROP, supertasters may cringe at it.
If you look at the tongue of a supertaster, it actually contains visibly more papillae—the tiny projections on the tongue that contain taste buds—compared to average tasters or non-tasters (who can’t detect PROP at all). Papillae help you detect the flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
Supertasters are particularly known for disliking bitter foods like kale and other veggies, but they also seem to be more sensitive to sweet, salty, and umami flavors. They’re also more likely to find spicy food painful, since pain receptors surround taste cells on the papillae; more papillae mean more pain receptors.
Does Being a Supertaster Affect Health?
Being a supertaster doesn’t guarantee health woes (or advantages), but there are a few commonalities that supertasters are prone to.
First and foremost, supertasters tend to eat fewer vegetables. Being sensitive to even slightly bitter flavors, supertasters are more likely to dislike the flavor of veggies and avoid them. Consequently, they may miss out on the benefits of nutrient-rich, low-calorie, and high-fiber non-starchy vegetables.
Supertasters also consume higher amounts of sodium. Salt helps mask bitter flavors, so supertasters are more likely to be heavy-handed with the salt shaker. There are several health risks linked to high-sodium diets, including high blood pressure.
But it’s not all negative. Supertasters also tend to eschew hypersweet foods, so they are spared of the health effects of America’s love for rich sweets. There are several benefits of eating less sugar—one of which is that supertasters tend to have a lower body mass index, on average.
Another benefit? Supertasters tend to find the taste of alcohol unpleasant, and they typically drink less than average tasters (and especially nontasters, who have the greatest alcohol intake and an increased rate of alcoholism). Similarly, supertasters are also less likely to smoke cigarettes.
Being a picky eater might be stigmatized, but being a supertaster has pros and cons. Regardless of your food habits and preferences, if you’re concerned about your diet and its effect on your health, speak with a doctor or registered dietitian for tips for the healthiest you.
Feeney E, O’Brien S, Scannell A, Markey A, Gibney ER. Genetic variation in taste perception: does it have a role in healthy eating? Proc Nutr Soc. 2011 Feb;70(1):135-43.
Super-tasters and non-tasters: is it better to be average? Cambridge, MA: Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 2016. (Accessed on March 20, 2019 at https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2016/05/31/super-tasters-non-tasters-is-it-better-to-be-average/.)