It’s not a superpower, but the genetics behind being what some call a “supertaster” might make for a pretty good argument against eating your broccoli.
Supertasters have the good fortune, or misfortune, of having highly refined taste receptors. And that discerning palate is genetic.
Supertasters, who make up about a quarter of the population, live in a kind of high-definition technicolor world of taste. For most of the rest of us, it’s a more monochrome world of flavors. That can be both a good and a bad thing. Supertasters’ refined palate means that they have a heightened bitter taste perception, for instance. Their heightened tastes make salty foods seem saltier, and sweet foods sweeter.
There are a few things going on.
For one, studies have shown that supertasters actually have more fungiform papillae. These are the mushroom-shaped projections on which our taste buds lay. On those taste buds are receptors that specialize in detecting five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, a savory, meat-like taste. Scientists think some people may be unable to detect certain chemicals based on what taste receptors they have.
Along with more taste receptors crowded onto their tongues, genetics is at play. Supertasters also tend to have a variant in the TAS2R38 gene that enables them to perceive the bitterness of the chemical called “PTC.” PTC isn’t usually found in the human diet, but it is similar to chemicals present in vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts.
23andMe’s Bitter Taste trait report looks at a customer’s likelihood of tasting bitterness.
A small study published several years ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked specifically at individuals who were called “moderate tasters.” Scientists looked at how the expression of their TAS2R38 genes related to their perceptions of bitterness. The researchers found that bitter taste perception was correlated with the amount of TAS2R38 gene expressed in the subjects’ taste buds. The gene expression also correlated with self-reported caffeine consumption, though not as strongly.
For the quarter of people who are supertasters, a coffee, or an IPA beer might be harshly bitter, but for about a third of the population who have very low taste perception, they may not notice any bitterness at all. Most of the rest of us fall somewhere in between. Such stark differences in how we perceive taste are programmed into our DNA.