Taste, v., 1. To distinguish the flavor of by taking into the mouth, 2. To partake of, enjoy, 3. To perceive or recognize by the tongue.

Food is the most primitive form of comfort. ~Sheilah Graham

When it comes to food, we are all intrepid explorers. We’re surrounded by food that we love to eat or refuse to eat. Consider, though, that we might not be tasting the same thing—even when we’re eating the same thing.
     In anthropology, we study a culture’s rituals, beliefs, sacred objects, patterns of behavior. An anthropologist would be an excellent person, consequently, to give us some insight into the world of eating and taste, but, alas, they haven’t taken it on. 
     Food is at the center of our earliest stories and rituals, from Adam and Eve, to sacrifices and punishments. We date, celebrate, mourn, and comfort ourselves with food. The earliest social rules a child is taught are about eating. We fantasize about the delights of tasting our favorite foods.
     We’ve always had a fixation with sweetness—a complicated love affair chronicled by writer Joanne Chen in her book, THE TASTE OF SWEET (insert warm thick chocolate chip cookie approximately here). Sweet is a loyalty that will follow us to our last days. We bond with those who like foods we like and are puzzled by those who do not. What if, though, the way food tastes is quite different for many of us? 
     Even in the same bio-family, our tongues are radically different in the density of their taste buds, so we are not, in fact, tasting any food in the same way. Researchers who study such things have discerned three types of tasters: SUPER TASTERS, MEDIUM TASTERS, NON-TASTERS. It’s intriguing. 
     Supertasters experience taste with greater intensity than the average person, with extra taste buds. [They have one or two dominant alleles for the gene TAS2R28.] Supertasters perceive more nuanced flavors in food. They are more sensitive to bitter tastes and fattiness, often disliking raw broccoli, coffee-straight-up, and dark chocolate. Further, they perceive sweetness more, the textural aspects of dairy products more, and chili pepper hotness more. {They also tend to weigh less.} 
     While 25% of us are supertasters, another 25% are non-tasters (lowest density of taste buds), with 50% of us experiencing food as medium tasters. Some studies have shown that women and people from Asia, Africa, and South America are more likely to be supertasters. 
     Dr. Beverly Tepper, a food science professor at Rutgers University, studies taste genetics. She found that the bitter chemical 6-n-prophylthiouracil (PROP) distinguishes between those who are supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters. When she lectures, she offers her audience small filter papers embedded with the chemical to put on their tongue. Immediately, the differences are apparent. She reports, “It is absolutely striking. You can see it on people’s faces. Those sensitive to the compound usually grimace like a baby tasting its first Brussels sprout. The non-tasters look curiously around the room, wondering what the fuss is about because it tastes like a piece of paper to them.” 
     I’ve been offering students in some of my classes a chance to find out what type of taster they might be and gain understanding about why other people enjoy food differently. Last week my law students each placed a strip of PTC paper on their tongue and were shocked as they looked around and saw such different reactions. Yesterday, parents of incoming first-year students at one of my lectures had the same experience.
               Every glimpse into how we each experience the world differently is startling and, ultimately, delicious.




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    Continues to play with words, crayons, and odd possibilities.



    August 2011
    July 2011