Spending my entire adult life cooking for others, it has always amazed me the differences in what people like and don't like about food. Taste, texture, look plus about another hundred different factors affect our personal preferences. How may taste buds that you were born with is another interesting factor!
Have you ever noticed that some people are a lot pickier about the food they eat than other people are? They might be more selective because they are supertasters! To supertasters, the flavors of foods are much stronger than to average tasters. Whether or not someone is a supertaster comes down to the taste buds on his or her tongue.
Do you hate the taste of broccoli? Or think that grapefruit is extremely bitter? If so, you may be able to blame it on your taste buds! Taste buds, located on small bumps on the tongue called fungiform papillae, are each made up of about 50 to 150 taste receptor cells. On the surface of these cells are receptors that bind to small molecules related to flavor. Each receptor is best at sensing a single flavor: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or umami. The sum total of these sensations is the "taste" of the food.
The number of taste buds varies from person to person. People who have relatively more taste buds are called supertasters. To supertasters, foods may have much stronger flavors, which often leads to supertasters having very strong likes and dislikes for different foods. Supertasters often report that foods like broccoli, cabbage, spinach, grapefruit and coffee taste very bitter. The opposite of supertasters are non-tasters. Non-tasters have very few taste buds and, to them, most food may seem bland and unexciting. The people in the middle are average tasters. Which kind of taster do you think you are?
Supertasters—since they start out with significantly more taste buds than the rest of us—may be more resistant to the taste deprivations of aging. However, being a supertaster isn’t all a bowl of strawberries. Supertasters’ sensitivities can make for picky eaters. They can be overwhelmed by strong tastes—astringent red wine, spicy dishes such as Szechuan chicken or Texas chili—and their low threshold for bitterness may lead them to avoid such healthy, but tangy, foods as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Supertasters are more sensitive to flavors than the rest of us are. To supertasters, sweet and sour are more intense, capsaicin—the chemical that puts the burn in hot peppers—is positively painful, and mildly bitter flavors that to damped-down, middle-of the-road tasters are pleasant—the edge in black coffee, for example, or the zing in hops-heavy beer—are, at best, off-putting and at worst, repulsive.
Scientists generally identify somewhere between five and twelve different fundamental tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory or “meaty”), plus—possibly—such newbies as calcium, kokumi, piquance, coolness, metallicity, fat, and carbon dioxide (which last puts the sparkle in soda water and champagne). Evolutionarily, our sense of taste developed to steer us toward foods high in nutrition and to warn us off poisons.
For example, children are drawn to sweets, most likely because at early stages of growth and development, there’s a particular need for high-energy foods. Pregnant women tend to become more sensitive to bitter tastes, presumably to protect vulnerable fetuses from potential toxins. However, taste is a complicated phenomenon: there’s more to it than simply landing a lick of lollipop or a dollop of dill pickle on your tongue. Taste is inextricably entangled with all the other senses: sight, touch, sound, and smell.
Sight: Foods taste blander if we can’t see them, and sometimes, blinded, our ability to even tell what they are vanishes altogether. Our ability to identify fruit drinks, for example—cherry, orange, lime, grape—turns out to be largely a matter of color. If we can’t see what we’re drinking, we only accurately identify fruit juices by taste about 20 percent of the time. We’re also easily foiled by visual expectations: if fruit drinks are dyed in unusual colors—say, orange juice deceptively colored purple—we tend to think it’s grape. One study showed that people given orange-tinted water cheerfully perceived it as orange-flavored.
Touch: a matter of texture, is often a factor in why people claim to dislike the taste of mushrooms or olives.
Sound: impacts taste when it comes to crispness and crunch. In taste tests, people find that louder, crunchier potato chips taste better; and nobody likes a squishy crunch-less apple.
Smell: The big player in taste, however, is sense of smell. In fact, without smell, most foods don’t taste of anything much. About 80 percent of a food’s flavor, according to one estimate, comes from smell. Furthermore, it doesn’t come from what most of us think of as smell: that is, the satisfying whiff up the nose of frying bacon, simmering soup, or baking bread. Taste is most powerfully impacted by retronasal smell—odors that enter the nasal passages from the back of the mouth, usually as we exhale or swallow.
Our ability to taste drops off with age, In part this is because the number of sensory cells that pick up on aromas in the all-important nose begins to decrease, and in part it’s because we start to lose taste buds as well. In both cases, these cells are in a constant state of turnover—they die and are replaced—but in people post-fifty, the replacement rate slows down to the point where more cells are lost than are regained.