IntroductionWhat Are You Missing?
A humble tortilla chip changed my life.
Most people who are obsessed with food have a different kind of epiphany. Their eye-opening, revelatory moments take place in storybook locations: a first taste of cheese made from unpasteurized milk in Aix-en-Provence. Or a fish, just plucked from the water and given a quick steam in banana leaves on a beach in Vietnam. Or a forkful of deconstructed gazpacho in Spain that made them understand—no, really understand the local fascination with chilled tomato soup.
There’s always a moment, but mine was much less romantic and, instead of opening up a world of flavor, it taught me just how little I knew about how to taste food.
My moment happened in a laboratory in Foster City, California, at the northern tip of Silicon Valley. In 20,000 square feet of stainless-steel lab bench tops with overhead fluorescent lighting, surrounded by homogenizers, colloid mills, dough sheeters, impingement ovens, pH meters, and tube-in-tube heat exchangers, I encountered a tortilla chip that would change my life.
I had just arrived at Mattson, the food development company where I still work as a professional food inventor. Our founder, Pete Mattson, had asked me to help with a project for a snack food company. Like many other companies, this client had enlisted our services to help it develop a new product. Our team had been tweaking the client’s formula for a tortilla chip that would be sold in grocery stores. To me, there didn’t seem to be much room for creativity: tortilla chips are little more than cornmeal, salt, and some kind of fat. I mean, come on. How hard coult it be?
One morning as I arrived at the office one of our food technologists called me into the food lab. “Barb,” she asked, “can you come taste tortilla chips?” It was 8:30 a.m.
It would take a couple of years before I’d get used to bizarre requests like this at inopportune times—a unique benefit of my job as a food developer. Could I taste frozen garlic puree at 10:00 a.m.? Could I taste meat lovers’ pizza right after lunch? And would I mind a quick spot of oatmeal before heading out to happy hour?
Yet the discussion that day was revelatory. My new colleagues debated the tortilla chip prototype, and as I listened, it seemed as if they were speaking a different language—one that I knew existed, but didn’t understand. John wanted to add a touch of sugar to promote caramelization in the moisture-removal step. Teresa thought it needed a savory edge; she suggested adding autolyzed yeast extract. Pete, a self-professed saltaholic, wanted to add salt, applied topically with a bit of citric acid for zip, both ingredients ground into the finest particulate size we could achieve. Particulate?
The discussion turned to whether the chips should have a fresh corn flavor or a more masa harina–like flavor. The choice would determine whether or not we’d soak the kernels in calcium oxide, a processing aid that gives the corn a distinctly tortilla-like flavor that’s different from the sweet flavor of corn on the cob. There was talk of using a coarser grind of milled cornmeal to affect the mouthfeel. I’d never heard the word mouthfeel. Other terms like up-front and finish were used in ways that were unfamiliar to me and I learned new ones like rheology, mouth-melt, lubricity, and tannin.
All this from three different chips fried at three different temperatures. I tasted them, but couldn’t tell much of a difference between them, and so I just listened as my more experienced colleagues dissected each chip, verbalizing the nuances as if each was as distinct from each other as a slice of bread, an apple, and a chicken wing.
I wondered what I was missing. Clearly, we’d all been sampling the same chips. Why were they able to identify so many more tastes, flavors, textures, and aromas than I was? Were they just better tasters than I was? Did they have better genes? Or was it training? Practice? Experience?
This was my moment, my revelation: the tortilla chip showed me that I had no clue what was happening when I tasted food.
Later, after five or six years of working with our chefs and food technologists, I began to trust my palate and became less terrified of voicing my opinions as I tasted prototypes alongside them. I had learned the science of taste by being thrown into the frying pan of food development, shaken around for a few months, then tossed into the fire for a few more years of seasoning. Along the way, I picked up the language, a sort of Food Speak.
I even surprised myself with a newfound skill: I could take one bite of a food, consider it for a millisecond, and know exactly what it was missing that would give it an optimal taste. For instance, I would know in less than a second if a sauce was missing acidity. More important, I knew what ingredient would give it the right type of needed sourness within the pH range we were targeting without overwhelming the other tastes and aromas.
Years later, at a client meeting, I was giving a presentation to a group of marketers at a Fortune 500 food company, trying to convince them that a combination of tomato solids and enzyme-modified cheese would deliver high levels of a taste we refer to as umami, making the product I was advocating irresistibly delicious. I stopped, looked at my audience, and saw a roomful of blank stares.
Umami, a taste we describe as savory, brothy, or meaty, is one of the five fundamental building blocks of flavor. Yet this group of food marketers had never even heard the term. They knew more about the tastes and aromas in wine than they knew about the tastes and aromas in food. This makes sense, though, because wine-tasting courses are common and there are hundreds of books on the fundamentals of tasting wine. Yet I’d never heard of a food-tasting course and there seemed to be no books on the subject. Why would this be? While only 34 percent of Americans drink wine, a full 100 percent of the human population eats food.
After another decade in our food lab, my taste vision got sharper and sharper. I felt as if I could see flavors more clearly, hear food more crisply, and glean more detail from everything I put into my mouth. At that first tortilla chip tasting, I had not known that there could be so many facets to a mere snack chip, yet it turns out that every food has a level of fine detail that we normally take for granted: Chips. Bananas. Tomatoes. Everything.
I began to apply what I knew about professional tasting at work to my dining life outside work. Eating became an experience of infinite complexity. I felt that I could suck more juice out of food, wring more pleasure out of meals. I was woozy with newfound power. My food priorities changed. I began to spend much more of my income on dining out, honing my new skills.
From Just Eating to Tasting
I used to review restaurants, and though I no longer do, I still go out of my way to eat great food, because I enjoy it and because it gives me critical insight into restaurant trends for my job as a “creative” in the field of food development. I’ve eaten in dozens of venerable Michelin Restaurant Guide–starred restaurants around the world, and dined at some of America’s top-rated tables. Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California, is among the best.
Getting to Cyrus isn’t easy. From San Francisco International Airport, you follow Highway 101 north for two hours, over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the cow-pastured hills of Sonoma County. The drive requires commitment, especially on a Friday evening when commuters clog the long, narrow freeway on their way home to the idyllic serenity of California’s wine country, but a meal at Cyrus is unforgettable.
Executive chef Douglas Keane and maître d’ Nick Peyton give Cyrus its personal charm. Perhaps the best maître d’ I’ve ever met, Peyton used to work at Masa’s Restaurant in San Francisco, before cofounding Cyrus with Keane. One night, after I had taken exhilarated advantage of the bountiful wine list at Masa’s, Nick noticed my tipsiness and offered to drive me home in my own car. He parked it in the driveway, said good night to my companion and me, and jumped into a cab to return to Masa’s. Most restaurant operators would have simply stuffed us into a taxi. It was a gesture I’ll always remember. When I walked into Cyrus two years later, Nick asked if I was still driving that blue Volkswagen Beetle.
Nick makes you feel wanted and—most important—anticipated, and then Chef Keane takes over, immediately rewarding guests at their tables with a foot-high metal Five Tastes Tower, stacked with silver plates that hold pristine, bitesize canapés. “My goal is to greet somebody with a little gift when they walk in the door,” he explains. Keane’s objective is to prime the diner’s palate in a unique way. It’s a thank-you for the journey you’ve made and a welcome to the culinary one you’re about to begin.
“It’s five little bites. Each reflects one of the five tastes in the mouth, in a form that’s enjoyable,” he says. “These are the tastes you’re going to experience throughout the evening.”
The last time I dined at Cyrus, we started our Five Tastes Tower with savory: a warm demitasse of kombu dashi—a delicate broth made from seaweed—at once meaty, mushroom-y, and marine. From there, we moved on to sour: a Peony grape on the half shell with pickled napa cabbage. We followed it up with a sweet bite that combined candied kumquat and goji berry puree. The next taste was a bitter beer “bubble,” just solid enough to hold its gelatinous shape on the spoon, yet fragile enough that it burst into a shot of beer the moment it hit the warmth of your tongue. The final, salty taste was another playful twist on the familiar. What looked like a plain, salted pretzel exploded with truffled cheese upon the first bite.
Not including the Five Tastes Tower of canapés, petits fours, three types of bread, two different kinds of butter, and beverages, a fixed price meal at Cyrus consists of five to eight courses. It’s likely that you’ll experience hundreds of flavors in a single meal. So what does Keane mean when he references the “five tastes” you’ll experience in your meal?
The Physiology of Taste
Keane is referring to the only five tastes we Homo sapiens can detect using our tongue alone: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami, the savory taste of some proteins that gives broth, meat, and aged cheeses their distinctive fullness. These tongue sensations are known as the five Basic Tastes.1
If it’s not one of these five tastes, it’s technically not a taste at all. Anything other than sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami is experienced through another sense: smell, touch, sight, or sound.
After my tortilla chip moment, I wanted to know the science behind all the food aromas that tempt my appetite, the tastes that hit my tongue, and the texture combinations that please my mouth more than others. I turned to a famous resource: The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the classic tome written in 1826, often cited as the first attempt to demystify taste. I bought two different translations, but even the American English translation by M.F.K. Fisher couldn’t simplify the abstract concepts enough to make them sound contemporary and fresh.
To explain how taste and smell work physiologically, Brillat-Savarin did the best he could with the science of the time, but almost two centuries have passed since he gave the world his “gastronomic meditation.” The fact that he called it a meditation conveys pretty clearly that it’s heavy on conjecture and light on science. I don’t mean to blame Monsieur Brillat-Savarin—he simply had little science to reference and not much else to go on but his own experiences.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had no professional experience with food when he wrote The Physiology of Taste in 1825. He was an attorney. He proposed a sixth sense in addition to smell, taste, sight, hearing, and touch:
The last [sense] is physical love. It resides in an apparatus as complete as the mouth or the eyes . . . Although both sexes are fully equipped to feel sensation through it, they must be joined together for that purpose.
Fortunately, when I started digging into modern sensory science, I found a treasure trove of published research and institutions like the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research on taste and smell. Called the chemical senses, taste and smell work when a chemical—in other words, a food—activates them. All food is made up of chemicals. Everything, from a freshly foraged mushroom still smelling of the earth it came from to a neon-bright Cheeze Doodle that stains your fingers orange, can be broken down into its chemical constituents.
sensitive to chemical stimuli, as in the sensory nerve endings that mediate taste and smell.
Other brilliant people all over the world, from neuroscientists and molecular biologists to dentists and psychologists, are exploring these chemical senses. I signed up to receive their professional journals and downloaded scientific papers in order to ingest the few salient points that I could understand. But as someone who had avidly avoided science classes in school, I longed to read a straightforward book written for a layperson that could teach me how to taste food without first having to teach myself science. There wasn’t one, so I decided to write this book.
The Education of an Eater
Even before my tortilla chip epiphany, food had been the focus of my career, as well as an obsession that influenced where I vacationed, which books I read, whom I socialized with, and what I studied in school. Yet because I knew so little about taste, like most people, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
By the time I realized I wanted a career in the food business, I had been talked out of culinary school. In retrospect, that was for the best. I enjoy the eating of professional cooking much more than the routine of it. Then there’s the fact that, with my quick, ungraceful movements, I routinely cut off the very tips of my fingers. Though I lack knife skills, I still love to cook at home, which I do almost every night I’m in town (and not dining out). Sometimes I’m even successful. For me, cooking is about experimenting with food. For Roger, my fiancé, it’s an exercise in patience and holding his tongue.
At Cornell University’s Hotel School, I focused my graduate studies on food and beverage management and wine, and wrote restaurant menus for the hotels that hired us for consulting projects. Some of my culinary exposure had me cooking with Chef André Soltner, owner of the famous restaurant Lutèce in New York City. In the kind, grandfatherly Alsatian chef’s class, I learned classic French techniques. With his gentle manner, he taught us how to make perfect spaetzle, using a cutting board and knife to flick them into the boiling water, how to peel a calf’s brain (a skill I haven’t used since), and how to cut carrots into perfect eighth-inch brunoise cubes.
But in none of these classes was I ever taught how to taste a carrot.
For the four years prior to graduate school I worked for Kraft in the company’s food service division, which meant I was selling coffee, sauces, and other food to restaurants, and meeting chefs in their kitchens to have them taste my samples. Yet Kraft never taught me about the sensory aspects of the food I was representing. When I graduated from hotel school, I moved to San Francisco and began moonlighting as an official restaurant inspector for the Mobil Travel Guide in the Bay Area, eating in four-and five-star restaurants four or five nights a week. I was trained to conduct a thorough restaurant review: from judging the quality of the cocktail service at the bar to knowing whether the wineglasses were leaded crystal to checking whether the valet returned the car seat to the same spot in which the owner had left it.
Of course we were responsible for evaluating the food, but the reviewer program didn’t include training on how to discern tastes or aromas or testing of my senses of taste and smell. For all my editors knew, I could have been lacking one of my senses. I wrote my reports blind to many of the sensory details of a meal.
Your Own Sensory World
Just as eyesight varies from perfect vision to nearsighted, farsighted, and grades of blindness, taste perception varies almost as widely, but we don’t acknowledge the differences in the same way. There is no taste test given to children in elementary school, but all of the kids are expected to eat the same foods. Worse yet, kids are expected to eat (and enjoy) the same foods as adults. I’m not suggesting that we start to test kids’ taste perception or let them eat whatever they want, but I am suggesting that we start teaching adults about the spectrum of different taste worlds that we all live in.
At Cyrus, my meal included a truffled red wine risotto. It was distinct from other risottos, which can be heavy with butter or Parmesan. Cyrus’s risotto was alive, almost crisp, because Keane had added an assertive red-wine sourness, one of the five Basic Tastes that’s usually absent from risotto.
“Sometimes I get a complaint that it was too salty, and it’s not. It was the acid in the risotto. It happens more than you’d think,” he says, referring to diners’ perception of sourness as too much salt in a dish. While we all experience food differently, many people simply have fundamental misperceptions of the Basic Tastes. Keane has noticed this repeatedly over his eighteen years of professional cooking. There is an anatomical reason for this confusion between sourness and saltiness, which we’ll get to later in the book.
Chef Keane cranks out more than 600 meticulous courses of five-star food every week. He knows his guests don’t want a lecture on taste physiology while sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar and it’s not his role to teach diners the difference between sourness and saltiness. If someone sends a tart risotto back claiming it was too salty—even if he tastes it and finds that the salt is not out of whack—he will still show grace and humility (as chefs must) and replace the dish with something his diner likes better.
Taste What You’re Missing will help you better understand what you’re tasting by breaking food down to its component parts, such as the five Basic Tastes, and explaining how flavor differs from taste. Just as wine enthusiasts hone their palates with education, curious eaters—like you—can improve your tasting ability. When you understand what you taste, you will be able to better articulate not only what you like and don’t like, but why. You’ll learn how to make food taste better by understanding how flavors interact with one another and, as a result, which tastes and flavors are lacking or out of balance. This is an important skill to master if you enjoy playing restaurant critic when you eat out. And it’s even more helpful if you are doing the cooking.
Cooking with a recipe is fairly simple. Dice to this size, measure this much, do this action, cook for this amount of time. But cooking doesn’t necessarily teach the cook why the recipe calls for fermented fish sauce, or how you can fix the dish if it doesn’t taste right. Cooking from a recipe is really more about how to make that dish than it is about how to cook. Cooking without a recipe requires putting ingredients together using inspiration and technique, which is what they teach in culinary school. Yet it’s just as important to learn how to taste, a skill you can’t learn by following a formula.
In Taste What You’re Missing, you will also learn tasting techniques that will help you understand what makes food delicious. You will learn to season by taste, not by measuring. After you understand how flavors work together, you will learn to trust your palate, freeing yourself from the tyranny of recipes. You’ll understand how to season food without a guide. This can change how you feel about cooking: You could go from feeling like an overworked short-order cook for your family to feeling like an inspired artist who feeds your creations to the ones you love.
As a novice wine taster becomes more adept at identifying the flavors in wine, he tends to seek out more complex wines. The same holds true for food. I want you to seek out better food because eating better food means living a more satisfying—and arguably healthier—life. Later in the book I will explore how taste influences the food choices you make. Of course, you choose certain foods because you like them, but we’ll explore why you like them.
Our individual food preferences change continuously from the time we are born to the time we die. Understanding this will help you better understand the food choices of your kids, partner, friends, and aging parents. The reality is that some people are actually more sensitive tasters than others. But those who are more sensitive tasters are not necessarily better tasters, chefs, or home cooks. That would be akin to saying that people with perfect vision make the best art critics. I have perfect vision, but know nothing about art. I lack the training, practice, experience, and desire to critique art. If I wanted, I could get training, practice, build my experience, and eventually develop some skill at it. But even training and being born with perfect vision wouldn’t guarantee I’d be a better critic than someone with glasses or contact lenses who has a burning passion for art. Regardless of what your anatomy and genetics have endowed you with, you can be a better taster with training, practice, and a hunger to learn.
The more experience you have tasting a particular food, the better you will be able to recognize and analyze it. Your ability to identify both tastes and smells improves with repeated exposure. In other words, the more pinot noir wines you taste, the better you’ll be able to discriminate between them: good versus bad, sweet versus dry, soft versus tannic. The same holds true for types of cheese, chocolate, apples—anything. Practice makes perfect.
For example, I used to wonder what the flavor descriptor rancid meant. I knew that the word referred to fats that had gone bad, but I didn’t know what that smelled or tasted like. The key characteristic of rancidity is a subtle odor that is often missed. In rancid meats, it can be described as “warmed over.” Rancid nuts can taste fishy. Rancid oils can smell like waxy crayons. Over the course of my tasting career at Mattson, I have smelled and tasted many rancid foods (another unique job benefit), usually in the ongoing process of tasting foods as they age (yet another benefit). In the early years I asked my more experienced colleagues to point rancidity out to me while I tasted beside them, and I learned what it was. Now when I taste spoiled fats, nuts, or meats, I know immediately that they’re rancid because I’ve improved my ability to perceive this flavor with training and experience. Taste What You’re Missing will help you enhance your perception of flavors.
As you become a better taster, you will naturally begin to pay more attention to your food. This in turn can have many benefits beyond enhancing your enjoyment of food. Gerard J. Musante, PhD, founder and director of the weight-loss facility Structure House Center for Weight Control and Lifestyle Change, says, “If you take your time while eating; if your process of consuming your meal is something you experience moment by moment; if you’re truly aware of what you’re doing at the table—then I believe that mindfulness will leave you more satisfied and less likely to overeat.” Musante’s weight-loss program focuses on teaching people how to transform their relationship with food. Through eating more mindfully, Musante says, “You begin to recognize flavors. You begin to appreciate food for what it is.”
Research that links smell and taste with weight loss has already produced commercial products designed to help people lose weight. But whether you struggle with your weight or not, you can use Taste What You’re Missing as a calorie-free way to get more satisfaction from the food you eat. Today, food is everywhere, but if you can feel more confident that you will derive optimal satisfaction from every bite you eat, you’ll be less likely to take unmemorable bites. You won’t waste precious mouthfuls on food that doesn’t taste delicious to you.
Tasting is a complex process. Your preferences actually have a scientific basis and knowing this can help you understand why you eat what you eat. Or don’t. Not only do you live in your own sensory world, your personal life history also affects what you choose to eat. Your food likes and dislikes are not simply a matter of: I like Brussels sprouts but you don’t. You love eggs, but I can’t stand them. It’s possible that, if you dislike Brussels sprouts, you are more sensitive to bitter tastes than the average taster. Or it’s possible that you had a bad experience with Brussels sprouts that unconsciously (or consciously) led you to avoid them. I once met a man who couldn’t drink coffee. In his childhood he’d been playing with a coffee display in the grocery store when it fell on top of him, covering him with oily, aromatic roasted coffee beans. The fear and embarrassment of this event had forever influenced the emotions he associated with coffee, leading him to avoid it for the rest of his life in order to avoid experiencing those emotions.
You use all five senses when you’re exposed to food—at the grocery store, the restaurant, or the office, or when you’re inundated with ubiquitous food advertising and marketing. “The senses are so influential on each other that we often don’t know through which sense we’re perceiving the world,” says the University of California Riverside’s Lawrence Rosenblum, who studies how the senses combine and interact with one another. Once you learn what triggers each sense, you will be more aware of why you respond the way you do. Taste What You’re Missing will give you insider knowledge of how food marketers, restaurateurs—even farmers—leverage your instinctual reactions so you can make more informed food choices.
Mostly, I hope this book ignites a culture of taste appreciation. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost touch with the sensory majesty of the meal. I’m not referring to special occasions when you dine at fine restaurants, but to the other 99 percent of your meals: the run-of-the-mill three times a day we eat at home, at work, at school, in the car. We put food in front of children and expect them to eat it, without explaining it to them, without using it to teach them a form of culinary art appreciation, and without encouraging experimentation. The best way to learn about food is to play with it!
When I was in hotel school, my mentor Tom Kelly, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University, encouraged frequent dining out and drinking of wine to learn more about each. It worked for me, and I believe that you, too, need to experience firsthand the concepts I write about. To help with this, Taste What You’re Missing includes easy interactive exercises to illustrate the sensory concepts in the book. The exercises range from very simple (requiring only one or two ingredients) to more complex (requiring cooking). I hope you’ll take the time to do them with your friends, partners, and children.
My taste awakening started with a tortilla chip, gained momentum with meals at great restaurants, and continues to this day. But you don’t have to be a professional and you certainly don’t have to spend a lot of money these days to have your own glorious food moment. Even now, a decade and a half after becoming a professional food taster, I still find tastes, aromas, and textures in food that imbue me with a sense of wonder: from bites in the lab to mundane breakfasts at home, sandwiches at the airport, salads at my desk, and dinner that I cook for my family—and, hopefully, at the restaurant I’m going to dine in tonight. Every bite is an opportunity for a unique sensory experience.
Since the beginning of this century, a food revolution in the United States has been gaining momentum. We’ve become much more attuned to food, in almost every respect. We want to know where our food comes from. We want to know what variety of tomato or apple we’re eating. We want to know the name of the farmer who grew it, as well as his farming practices and ethics. When food arrives at the restaurants where we eat, we want to know how it’s handled, stored, and prepared. We want to know not only who cooked it for us, but where he went to culinary school, when he opened his first restaurant, and on what television show he first appeared.
But the revolution shouldn’t stop there.
It’s time that we start to understand what happens from the plate forward: as seen by our eyes, smelled by our noses, tasted and felt with our tongues, and heard with our ears. It’s time we acknowledge that merely liking or disliking a food is simple judgment. Food appreciation is something altogether different. If we want to fully experience our food from the path it takes from our plate to our fork to the rest of our body, we need to understand the physical and psychological mechanisms of what makes up taste.
Taste happens in your mouth, but that’s only about 20 percent of the story. Food that tastes good also looks good, smells good, feels good, and sounds good. That means a lot of what we think of as taste comes through the four nontaste senses. This book will explore just how intertwined all our senses are.
1. Of or relating to the senses
2. Transmitting impulses from sense organs to nerve centers
Fifteen years ago, when I was thrown into the world of food development, I wished I had a book that would teach me the most basic science behind what happens when we eat. I hope this one helps you become attuned to a world of tastes, aromas, textures, sights, and sounds—all there at every meal, free for the taking—that you didn’t even know you were missing. Tip of Your Tongue, Tip of the Iceberg
“You have bald spots on your tongue,” the staff told me at a testing laboratory at the University of Florida.
At the moment of this pronouncement, my tongue was stained a brilliant royal blue. I had it smashed up against a glass microscope slide, trying to stick it out as far as it would go because I was afraid that blue saliva would run down my chin or permanently discolor my teeth. The farther I stuck it out, the less I drooled on the paper bib around my neck. The main reason I was in that ridiculous predicament was to make sure the doctoral candidate who was testing me could get a good image of my taste buds with the digital camera. As I sat in the dentist chair, I tried to hold as still as I could be expected to—with my tongue forced out, stuck to a piece of glass. Click! The enormous camera took a magnified picture and minutes later I was given the most devastating diagnosis that a professional food taster could imagine: bald spots on my tongue.
I’m going to have to make a public confession and quit my job at America’s best food development firm, I thought to myself. I will no longer be allowed to taste food professionally, which is an important part of what I do for a living. How can this be happening?
My bald spots were clearly the result of damage, said Linda Bartoshuk, director of the Human Research Center for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida and one of the world’s foremost experts on the science of taste. My heart sank further. Then Bartoshuk—spurred on by the findings inside my mouth—began to explain a bizarre taste phenomenon called the release of inhibition.
“What makes this particularly complicated is that another area in your mouth that doesn’t have damage,” she said, “may be released from inhibition and the sensations may be more intense in that area. This overshadows your bald spots. You get the counterintuitive result of a small amount of damage actually intensifying the experience of tasting.”
Wait. Did I hear that correctly? The damage on my tongue might make me a more acute taster than someone without barren spots? Do damaged tongues work better than virgin ones? Should I go out and murder a few more taste buds? My mind was spinning with the conflicting input. I had no idea my tongue was going to be so interesting.
While you may be thinking that some sort of horrific accident compelled me to visit a doctor who examines tongues in the middle of a steamy, sweltering summer in Gainesville, Florida, the truth is, it’s actually a love story.
It begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California where one of my girlfriends and I had been skiing on the slopes of Northstar-at-Tahoe. A storm moved in and snow starting falling. Eventually a cheek-whipping wind and blinding snow sent us down the mountain to Timbercreek Inn for a fortifying glass of wine and a bite to eat. Little did we know that the storm would soon be classified as a blizzard and the roads leaving the ski resort would be shut down by the highway patrol. We were just happy that we had a coveted seat in the bar area, a glass of wine in our hands, and lunch on the way. As the storm worsened, more and more skiers accumulated in the restaurant, seeking the same refuge and sustenance. After an hour or so, we struck up a conversation with a couple of guys from San Francisco, one of them named Roger. He and I first connected over the wine I was drinking. He, too, was a fermented grape juice aficionado. We talked about our favorite grape varietals, our favorite winemakers, and our common love of the California wine country, especially Healdsburg in Sonoma County. The conversation about wine led to a discussion of our favorite restaurants in the city of San Francisco, where we both lived: Range, Ton Kiang, Myth, Delfina, Okoze, Andale, Yank Sing, and others. Six hours later we were still talking. It was time for another meal. The four of us sat down at a table in the dining room in front of a roaring fireplace. I ordered the salmon; Roger had the steak. We drank a bottle of soft, cherry-chocolate red zinfandel. We stayed at the restaurant until the highway reopened, sometime after 11:00 p.m., talking food, wine, life, and love. Our casual first date had lasted almost ten hours. We were off to a wonderful start, but I would soon learn that Roger has, ahem, issues with food.
An important fact about me: my education and career have been focused entirely on food. I absolutely love my job inventing new foods and making them come to life for my clients. And even though I work in the food industry, I still love to read about food and wine when I’m off the clock. I choose vacation places specifically for the food. My favorite sport is dining out. I approach cooking with enthusiasm, curiosity, and reckless abandon. When I was searching for a mate, it was important that I find a man who shared these passions. Roger seemed to fit the bill and was adorable, smart, and chivalrous. Buttercream icing on the cake.
When Roger and I went on our first official date, we ate at Café Kati, the San Francisco restaurant that in the mid-1990s made vertical food—fancy eye-popping, precariously tall plate presentations—popular. I had the roast chicken and Roger had the fillet of beef. A few days later at Tres Agaves, I ordered the pollo con mole, Roger the carne asada. Cortez: I had the lamb; Roger had the rib eye. Bistro Aix: I ordered duck confit; Roger had steak frites. Town Hall: me, sturgeon; Roger, beef cheeks. Myth: me, sea bass; Roger, beef short ribs. At some point in our courtship, I realized that this man with whom I was falling in love ate from a very limited part of the menu. To describe his menu choices, I could use the last two words that would describe my own: meat and potatoes.
When most fledgling couples have “the talk” about their future, they usually discuss their desires around starting a family, their religious beliefs, or their hopes and dreams. I had to talk to Roger about his food choices.
“How can you call yourself a foodie when all you eat is meat and potatoes?” I asked him one evening after he ordered another meat-and-potatoes entree. The other choices on the menu were so intriguing I could barely limit myself to one. People choose to live in the San Francisco Bay Area for the diversity of food choices, among other things (which are all secondary, in my food-centric opinion). Yet Roger kept choosing such bland, boring entrees that he might as well live somewhere else where the summers were sunnier, the housing prices were more affordable, and the threat of earthquakes nonexistent.
“I’m a very sensitive eater,” Roger explained. “I can’t handle strong tastes.” Once I considered this, I realized I had seen him push aside green vegetables, flinch at having to eat salmon at a dinner party, and request that truffles—truffles!—be removed entirely from his plate, so that they would not contaminate his meat and potatoes. At first I attributed this to his being picky and refusing to expand his culinary repertoire. But the more I asked him to please try whatever I was eating, the more I questioned my preconceived notions about him. When he had been open to tasting things in the courtship phase, his reaction to them had often been violent. He squirmed at bitter, spicy, and sour foods. Displeasure surfaced on his face when I made him taste my vegetables. The same face emerged when he tasted a big, bold, bitter red wine. Then came my revelation one night when we were eating at Quince. I’d ordered a creative pasta dish that came with a complex sauce that I simply couldn’t reverse-engineer in my head, one of my favorite things to do while I’m dining. Roger tasted it (pasta is in his limited repertoire) and proclaimed that it contained lemon zest.
“No lemon zest. Vinegar. Wine, maybe. But no lemon zest,” I said.
“Let’s ask the server,” Roger replied. So we did. There was lemon zest in it. And from that point forward, Roger was smug in his ability to detect subtle nuances of tastes that I, the food professional, sometimes missed. As our relationship progressed, this morphed into a bit of a taste bud rivalry. Roger was good at detecting things he didn’t like but he was terrible at articulating why he disliked them. He lacked the vocabulary, the terminology, to explain what he was experiencing in his mouth. I decided I would teach him, and that was another step down the path toward writing this book.
Fast-forward to the laboratory at the University of Florida, a steamy, sweltering summer some five years later. Roger and I, then living together, were visiting the Center for Smell and Taste because I was doing research for this book. But we also wanted to know who was the better taster. The stakes were high: bragging rights.
We entered the Smell and Taste lab by way of a waiting room, no different from the one at your dentist. After navigating a series of halls, we found Linda Bartoshuk’s small group. Bartoshuk is a robust presence. Her hearty belly laugh is infectious and frequent. She’s a seventy-two-year-old grandmother of five, who frequently gets so excited about her work that she has to stop to catch her breath. When I offered to treat her to dinner at any restaurant in Gainesville, she chose a mom-and-pop Asian restaurant and showed up in sensible shoes. The first time I met her at the annual Association of Chemosensory Scientists meeting, she welcomed me to the table like an old friend, even though we’d only exchanged a few e-mails. Her plate was piled high with roast beef and potatoes that she ate with gusto, talking the entire time about whom I should meet and what talks I should attend, meanwhile introducing me to her tablemates. She didn’t pay much attention to what was on the plate, because Bartoshuk is less interested in what’s on the plate than what’s on your tongue.
Bartoshuk’s interest in taste was sparked by the death of her father, which happened when she was in college. He had lung cancer, and as he got sicker, one of his favorite foods began to taste metallic to him. Bartoshuk’s older brother died of colon cancer years later. He, too, experienced—and complained about—changes to his sense of taste. This propelled Bartoshuk into science to figure out what had happened.
By simply examining your tongue, Bartoshuk can determine your taster type. With a glance, she’ll know whether you’re likely to be a Supertaster, a term she has coined to describe people like Roger. She dyes the surface of your tongue with blue food coloring, then looks for the taste buds, which don’t absorb the blue dye as much, and as a result show up as turquoise bubbles against a vivid royal blue background. Bartoshuk and her colleague Jennifer Stamps examine your tongue for the density of those turquoise taste bud bubbles distributed across its surface.
This is the surface of University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Rozin’s tongue. He is anatomically a Supertaster due to the density of taste buds, which show up as bubbles against the dark blue-stained background. Jennifer Stamps calls his “a beautiful tongue.”
The poster child of tongues belongs to Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Almost the entire surface of his tongue (shown here) is covered with turquoise taste buds. Anatomically, he is a superlative Supertaster. If you’re curious about your own tongue and don’t have access to a smell and taste center (some are listed at the back of the book), you can count the number of taste buds in a certain area of your tongue, specifically an area the size of a notebook paper reinforcement label.2
These doughnut-shaped stickers are used to repair tears in the antiquated form of media known as paper. This taste bud exercise is easy to do at home with blue food coloring and a reinforcement, detailed for you in at the end of the chapter. Stand in front of a mirror over a sink. This is important, lest you spot-stain your rug with blue food coloring as Roger and I did in our home. Using a cotton swab, dab the blue dye onto your tongue until it’s good and blue. Try to keep it sticking out or your lips, too, will be dyed. Place the reinforcement on your tongue and count the number of round bumps that show up inside the little hole.
If you have up to fifteen taste buds inside the inner circle of the reinforcement, you are probably one of Bartoshuk’s Tasters or even a Nontaster. According to Bartoshuk, if you have forty buds or more, you are likely to be a Supertaster. The quantity of taste buds on your tongue has been correlated with the intensity at which you taste most things. In other words, the more buds, the more you taste. Other research has shown that Supertasters also experience other things as more intense. Salt is saltier, sweet is sweeter. Bitter for you is bitterer.
“Supertasters are one end of a distribution,” says Bartoshuk, meaning that there’s a typical bell curve distribution of tasters in the population. People at the left end of the range have limitations to their ability to taste certain things. Bartoshuk called these people Nontasters: 25 to 30 percent of the population falls there. Supertasters reside at the right end of the distribution, comprising another 25 to 30 percent of the population. Supertasters may taste the same food three times more strongly than a Nontaster would. There’s a huge range of abilities that fall in the middle and these people—about half of the population—Bartoshuk called Tasters.
I like Bartoshuk immensely, but I dislike the term Supertaster as strongly. It conjures up the image of a superior breed of being, dressed in blue tights with a cape, leaping over tall buildings. It promises super powers and super insight. It also assigns judgment: something that’s super must be better than something that’s not. As for the term Nontasters, it is not only insulting, it is misleading. The people Bartoshuk classifies as Nontasters can taste most things; it is mainly bitter things that they cannot taste. I prefer to use different terminology to describe the difference in human taste perception.
The Distribution of Taster Types
The area under the curve contains the entire human population. Tolerant Tasters make up about 25 percent of the population. Tasters make up the majority, and HyperTasters make up about 25 percent.
I call the groupings of tasters HyperTasters (in lieu of Supertasters), Tasters, and Tolerant Tasters (in lieu of Nontasters). HyperTasters are on the far right end of Bartoshuk’s bell curve because they have the highest number of taste buds. They are like really ticklish kids. You can excite their buds without much stimulation, the same way you can make a supersensitive kid start giggling hysterically before you even touch her, much less tickle her. These people are very sensitive to the tastes on their tongue. A small amount of something will tickle their taste buds powerfully. They usually have very strong likes and dislikes because they taste so much intensity, things can often be overwhelming, in both good and bad ways. They are often focused, maniacally, on food. Others, ostensibly those at the sensitive end of the Hyper-Taster grouping, may eat a bland diet, having been burned too many times by the strong bitter or sour tastes they’ve experienced. Roger says this is why he eats mostly “safe” foods.
The opposite of HyperTasters are Tolerant Tasters, who are at the other end of the spectrum. These Tolerant Tasters may barely notice the taste of a food at all. They’re usually tolerant of a broad range of flavors and foods. Tolerant Tasters are at the far left end of the distribution curve with the smallest number of taste buds. They don’t sense a lot of strong tastes, so they don’t usually have a lot of strong dislikes. They may drink their coffee black because they don’t taste black coffee as bitter. They may choose intense, bitter red wines because to them, these wines don’t taste so intensely bitter. They’re much less likely to be obsessed with food than people like me. Tolerant Tasters are the most fun to cook for—they complain the least.
Linda Bartoshuk herself falls into my Tolerant Taster grouping. She describes herself as “an extremely insensitive nontaster,” as I probably would have guessed after eating two meals with her, had she not told me. She’s picky, but this is driven almost entirely by her food allergies. She needs to avoid all dairy products, eggs, and gluten, which, she says, “Really kills breakfast.” Then she reminds herself, thankfully, “I can eat hash browns and bacon!”
If anyone ever tries to tell you that you don’t have a palate that’s discriminating enough to know much about taste, you can always tell them that one of the (if not the) world’s leading taste experts is a Tolerant Taster. You don’t have to be a HyperTaster to be an expert on taste.
Tasters make up the largest percentage of all tasters. They fall in the center of Bartoshuk’s distribution. Keep in mind that, although the majority of the population (40 to 50 percent) falls into this category, Tasters can run the gamut. People who are Tasters can have almost no taste buds on their tongue, meaning that they don’t experience much intensity (these Tasters border on being Tolerant Tasters). But other Tasters can have almost as many taste buds as Hyper-Tasters, so they, too, can be excessively sensitive. It just depends where Tasters fall within their grouping: in other words, where they fall within the largest, middle group of tasters.
I have often met a married couple or a pair of siblings, one of whom would eat just about anything while the other one had a laundry list of things he or she wouldn’t eat. We might assume that the ones with the limited diets are not very “good” at tasting or that they are less open-minded than people with a larger repertoire of food. Both of these assumptions are far from universally true and may in some cases be false. Often, people who have very limited diets are HyperTasters. While this may seen counterintuitive, it makes perfect sense. To illustrate, let me use a different sensory discrepancy between Roger and me.
My hearing is much better than Roger’s. While he attributes this to having attended too many Dire Straits and Tom Petty concerts in his youth, I know that his father suffers from the same subtle loss, so it’s most likely genetic. Sometimes I’ll walk in on Roger watching television and the sound is turned up so loud that I worry the neighbors are going to complain. He and I (and many men and women) experience the same level of decibels differently. I have to remind myself of this when I’m cooking for Roger. To him, the bitter vegetal notes of butternut squash are excruciatingly loud. To me, they give this sweet, starchy vegetable a pleasant complexity. We’ve learned to compromise. He turns the sound down while watching the tube and I no longer make him eat green vegetables that aren’t drowned in hollandaise to temper the bitterness he experiences from them.
The taste buds on the front of the tongue are adult-size by age ten, but the ones on the back don’t stop growing until about age sixteen. Regardless, adult-size taste buds don’t translate to adult tasting behavior. Similar to other body parts.
Props to PROP
When the idea of segmenting people into groups based on their taster type was still new, Bartoshuk discovered that she could distinguish between the HyperTaster type and others by measuring people’s ability to taste a single bitter chemical called PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil), pronounced “prope.” To Hyper-Tasters, this chemical tastes horribly bitter. To Tolerants, it has no flavor at all. What a fantastic discovery this was at the time! This meant it was possible to simply ask people to taste a glass of water with a few drops of PROP in it and, if they reacted violently, you could anoint them HyperTasters. If they had a moderate reaction to it, you would call them Tasters, and if they tasted nothing, you’d call them Tolerant Tasters. This was a relief because it was so much easier than asking people to taste samples of hundreds of different foods and standardizing their responses, as researchers had to do to determine taster types in the past.
As is often the case in science, later work demonstrated that it wasn’t quite so simple: There are HyperTasters who cannot taste PROP, and some Tasters who can. Sometimes the single-chemical PROP test gave an inaccurate result. It turns out that individual differences in taste sensation are much more complicated than initially thought. There are three main factors that account for individual differences in ability to taste. The first factor is the anatomy of your tongue, which is measured by counting your taste buds. The second factor is your medical history, and the third factor is your genes.
Extractions, Infections, and Accidents, Oh My!
In addition to the density of taste buds on your tongue, the second indicator of taster type is your medical history. There are many things that can happen to you that can affect your ability to taste.
For example, an ear infection can damage the chorda tympani taste nerve, which runs from the tongue up through the middle ear to the brain. Viruses, including flus and herpes, can also damage this nerve, resulting in the death of innocent taste buds and taste bud bald spots. This is a great reason to get a flu shot every year and to treat earaches immediately (not to mention that treatment relieves the often-excruciating pain). If you had serious ear infections as a child, it’s likely that creamy, fatty, and fried foods send you over the moon because, if your chorda tympani taste nerve was damaged, your trigeminal nerve (the one that carries texture information) may be now be singing loudly without inhibition. I am somewhat certain that Roger’s childhood ear problems gifted him with a love of foie gras, burgers, cheese, and ice cream.
Accidents, especially head injuries, can also result in loss of some taste (and smell) function. For this reason, if you value your sense of taste, always buckle your seat belt; wear a helmet when you bike, ski, or skate; and forgo head-banging sports like American football and boxing.
Wisdom tooth extraction, a common surgery, occurs precariously close to the chorda tympani taste nerve. If wisdom tooth extraction surgery goes wrong, it can damage taste irreparably, even though that may not be the dentist’s fault.
Another perpetrator of crime against taste buds is disease. Parkinson’s disease, for example, may result in the loss of the sense of smell. And decreased ability to smell is one of the harbingers of Alzheimer’s disease. If you have any of these conditions, you may not be able to taste certain things even if you have a heavy concentration of taste buds on your tongue. In other words, being an anatomical HyperTaster doesn’t mean you can taste more than Tasters or Tolerant Tasters. It’s not so black and white.
Surgery and dental work might explain the bald spots on my tongue. When I was a child, I had a benign cyst on the underside of my tongue. It was removed during outpatient surgery and I rarely think much about it, except when it’s about to rain. One of the strange results of this surgery is that I can detect changes in barometric pressure with my tongue. When the clouds are about to burst, my tongue starts to throb—my own, internal barometric pressure gauge.
One of the other results of my surgery, Bartoshuk and her colleagues think, was damage to the taste buds on my tongue. The location and existence of my bald spots seem to indicate damage to my trigeminal nerve, the nerve that carries pain information from my mouth to my brain. The phenomenon I mentioned earlier, the release of inhibition, means that when this nerve was injured, its ties to the taste buds in a certain area of my tongue were clipped. These abandoned buds eventually withered and faded away, leaving behind bald spots. This allowed other areas on my tongue the freedom to scream a little bit louder, without inhibition.
Roger’s tongue showed some damage too, probably due to oral surgery he had to remove his uvula to widen his airway. His uvula surgery did two things that directly benefit me. First, it relieved his most bed-shaking snoring. Second, it resulted in the loss of some of his taste buds, thereby giving him a bit of humility when it comes to our taste rivalry.
It turns out that Roger and I are both HyperTasters, as proclaimed by Bartoshuk’s graduate student Jennifer Stamps after eight hours of thorough evaluation of our tongues. Was she sure about me, I asked, given my bald spots?
She responded, “Your intensity rating to the PROP test paper was definitely a HyperTaster rating: a 90. I know you have trigeminal damage because when the nerve endings degenerate, they take out the taste buds they once surrounded and leave behind holes and bare spots. Your ratings for taste on the tip of your tongue may be lower than before your loss of taste buds but they were decent for the ones you have left, which indicates your chorda tympani taste nerve is working fine.”
Whew. This was a great, huge, relief. Thankfully, I thought to myself, I have absolutely nothing to hide with regard to my professional fitness. Roger and I flew back to California together, radiating relief from having been anointed HyperTasters.
It wasn’t until about a week later, after a glass of wine or four, that Roger again brought up the trip to Florida. Perhaps I deserved it, having doubted his tasting ability in some capacity. Or perhaps it was just his competitive side flaring up again. Regardless, he mischievously hinted at a truth he was concealing for my own benefit.
“Are you sure you want to know?” he asked me of this mysterious fact he possessed.
“Of course I do,” I said, not at all sure at this point if I did.
“You must know that I’m only going to tell you this for your own good. I mean, since you’re writing this book about taste and all.”
Then he said, “When you went to the bathroom while I was in the taste tasting lab with Jennifer, she told me something about you.”
My heart stopped beating. I held my breath.
“She told me I have more taste buds than you,” he said, looking somewhat sheepish, somewhat swaggering. The worst part about it was I knew he was right. Household taste bragging rights belong to Mr. Meat and Potatoes.
Blame Your Parents
The third factor for taster type is genetics, which is also responsible for the traits you get from Mom and Dad. You may have the genes that allow you to taste something such as the bitter chemical PROP. Or you may not. It’s simple genetics at work. For each trait, such as blue eyes or the ability to taste PROP, you get one gene from your mother and one from your father. If PROP tastes extremely bitter to you, it’s likely that both your PROP-tasting genes (one from Mom and one from Dad) are turned on. If you can’t taste it at all, it’s likely that both your PROP-tasting genes are turned off. And if you have a mild reaction to PROP, you may have one gene that’s on (the one from Mom or Dad) and one that’s off (the other one, from the other parent). In other words, you need at least one “PROP on” gene to react to the compound at all, but two copies of the gene in order to have a HyperTaster reaction to PROP. Keep in mind, however, that your reaction to PROP is not a universal indication of your reaction to other compounds. Just because you can’t taste PROP doesn’t mean you can’t taste PTC (phenylthiocarbamide, another bitter chemical), the bitterness in Brussels sprouts, or the bitterness in beer. In fact, “There are PROP nontasters who are Supertasters [HyperTasters],” says Bartoshuk, just to confound the matter.
Your unique tongue anatomy and genetics combine in an interesting way that results in your own unique experience of food. If you have the genetic ability to taste PROP but a low density of taste buds, you may taste food very differently from someone with a high density of taste buds who cannot taste PROP. And how these traits affect your food choices is even more complicated when you layer on life experiences.
Because of all this complexity, Bartoshuk defaults to a more straightforward test for identifying a HyperTaster: she simply asks how intense some things taste. When we were in Florida, we sampled popcorn, lasagna, peanut butter, and grape jelly. But herein lies the rub. How in the world do you measure this? What would happen if you gave both Roger and me a plate of roasted butternut squash (with sage and brown butter, please) and asked us to rate it? How would you know that his perception of bitterness is the same as my perception of bitterness? Or sweetness? Or saltiness?
The fact is that perception occurs in the mind. As a result, it is virtually impossible to measure accurately. Take the perception of beauty. How pretty is Angelina Jolie? How beautiful is the city of Paris? There is no definitive answer to either of these questions. The answer varies with the individual. Asking about someone’s perception of food is similarly complicated. Each person is biased (and informed) by his own anatomy, genetics, and life experience. Taste perception is in the mouth and brain of the beholder.
The solution, says Bartoshuk, is to peg taste intensity to something that we can measure, such as sound. She conducted an experiment that started with a can of Coca-Cola, a product with a standardized recipe (or formula, as we say in the food development business) for the United States market. Because of this, a Coke in your neighborhood, city, or state will taste exactly the same as a Coke in mine (though it is different in Mexico, where Coke is sweetened with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup). This wouldn’t be the case if she had used tomatoes or berries or beef, which vary by location, variety, season, and how they’ve been stored. Bartoshuk asked consumers to rate the sweetness of Coke on a scale in which the bottom of the scale is “no sweetness at all” and the top of the scale is “the sweetest you’ve ever tasted.” In this first test, almost everyone put the sweetness at the same place: about two-thirds of the way up.
“You look at that and you think, Wow! People’s senses of taste are really very similar,” says Bartoshuk. But this is where things get interesting. In a second phase of the test, she outfitted the testees with earphones and a sound dial. In this round of testing, Bartoshuk used a technique called crossmodality matching. Here, a modality is a sense. Crossing modalities means using one sense (hearing) to gauge another (taste). She asked the tasters to adjust the volume of the sound they heard through their earphones to match the sweetness of the Coke. The results showed that the group of HyperTasters adjusted the sound up to the level of a train whistle, or about 90 decibels. Conversely, the group of Tolerant Tasters adjusted the sound level down to that of a telephone dial tone, about 80 decibels. A difference of 10 decibels equates to a factor of two. In other words, “That tells us through this matching technique that people with the most taste buds experience twice the sweetness,” says Bartoshuk. Maximum sweet for a HyperTaster is twice as intense as maximum sweet for a Tolerant Taster.
“PROP remains a very good way to identify taster types; if you taste PROP and you are one of the individuals who get a very strong bitter taste, you know that you are an anatomical Supertaster. However, some of those who cannot taste PROP can also have the anatomy of Supertasters; they just don’t taste PROP.” This is all to say that there’s no litmus test for determining your taster type. It’s confusing, to say the least.
What’s also confusing is that the food choices of HyperTasters and Tolerant Tasters are highly unpredictable. If at this point you’re starting to wonder if you are doomed to a life of blandness because you may or may not be a HyperTaster, fear not. Being a HyperTaster is as much a curse as it is a blessing. Think of all the amazing bitter foods Roger and others like him simply can’t eat. In times of famine or shortage, Tolerant Tasters would be able to sustain themselves on bitter roots and plants while Roger would wither away and die without his meat and potatoes, unable to tolerate the bitter greens he’d be forced to subsist on.
You can’t change the anatomy of your tongue, just as you can’t change your genetic makeup or height. But a height limitation doesn’t mean that you can’t teach yourself to be an excellent basketball player. And everyone—including you—can teach himself to be an excellent taster.
The Trouble with Statistics
HyperTasters are characterized by an excess of taste buds on the tongue that results in excessive sensitivity. A logical question is whether this might correlate with an excess of any other sensitivity. It makes some sense to me that this might be true. If taste buds hold nerve endings that poke out on the tongue to receive input, it would stand to reason that some other nerve endings might be poking out somewhere else to receive different inputs at excessive levels of sensitivity. Some scientists noticed an interesting correlation in animals, so they set out to test it in humans. Their hypothesis was that an increased sensitivity to bitter tastes (like PROP and Brussels sprouts) might be indicative of more emotional behavior.
The researchers recruited more than a hundred people and split them into three groups based on their sensitivity to PROP: HyperTasters, Tasters, and Tolerant Tasters. To eliminate the influence of personality traits, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire assessing their characteristics, which were then normalized. The experiment entailed watching movie clips chosen to elicit emotions.
One clip was a three-minute scene from The Champ, a 1979 movie about a championship boxer. The scene shows a young Ricky Schroder distraught over the death of his father, trying in vain to wake him up. I’ve seen The Champ a handful of times and each time I’m reduced to sobbing out loud. To call this scene heart-wrenching is to understate how hard it is for me to watch. (This will be important!) After being exposed to the movie clip, the participants then rated their emotional state for comparison. At a later date they did the same thing for a clip from Pretty Woman, one that’s difficult to watch, in which a man tries to rape a woman, chosen to elicit anger. A third clip, from a documentary on the processing and usage of copper, which contained no human interaction, was thrown in as a control. It was pretty emotionless and didn’t incite any feelings.
The scientists found significant differences among the HyperTasters’ response to the content that induced anger. Other studies have shown a link between PTC-tasters and depression. The conclusion drawn by the scientists is that HyperTasters may be more prone to emotions such as anger and tension because these emotions provoke reactions at the basic survival level. A sensitivity to bitter tastes also requires action for survival, namely rejecting bitter, possibly toxic food.
As a HyperTaster I totally embraced these findings, since I am highly emotional in both positive and negative ways. But Roger is not. In fact, the reason we work as a couple is that his rock-solid stability anchors my roller-coaster psyche. So these results confused me once again.
Ultimately, this type of conflicting data—two of the same taster types with totally different behavior—is the trouble with statistics. You may be a Hyper-Taster and not recognize Roger’s behavior as your own. In fact, Paul Rozin, owner of the “beautiful tongue” depicted earlier, makes food choices very different from Roger’s. He, too, finds many bitter foods almost unbearable, but he has come to like many of them, mostly through repeated exposure and coming to appreciate the strong sensation they give him. He considers himself an omnivore, and has traveled the world seeking out unique food experiences. I, too, am a HyperTaster and almost an omnivore. I seek out bitter foods like the aforementioned Brussels sprouts. Bitter foods taste bitter to me, but I love the sensation. Roger avoids it. I have to be superattuned to flavor nuances for my job and I’m pretty good at detecting these subtle flavors, lemon zest possibly excepted.
I asked Bartoshuk how scientists are able to make correlations between types of tasters and the food choices we make. Trying to answer this question, Bartoshuk seemed to share my exasperation as she gave reasons why two people of the same taster type might choose very different diets. For example, I may have put a lot more time and thought than Roger into the concept of Brussels sprouts, eventually developing an appreciation of them. People who are brought up in cultures that believe bitter foods are good for them generally end up liking bitter foods. Conversely, if someone has a terrible experience with Brussels sprouts, such as vomiting right after eating them, that person may tend to avoid them because that experience conditioned him to do so, consciously or unconsciously.
“The truth is, you just can’t make predictions for one person,” said Bartoshuk, “It’s just too complicated. We can statistically do a very good job. You give me a hundred subjects in one group and a hundred in another and I will be able to tell you some things about their average behavior that will be right on. But I will miss by a mile with individuals.”
This is the ultimate problem with these groupings of taster type. After people learn about taster types, they seem to want their type to explain why they eat what they eat. But we are complex creatures, each of us living in our own individual sensory world, each of which is colored by a combination of anatomy, medical history, genetics, culture, and life experience. The best way to describe the type of taster I am is that I am a Barb Taster. And Roger is a Roger Taster. That makes you a [insert your name here] Taster.
The bottom line is that your taster type is just one factor among many in why you make the food choices you do.
Smell, See, Hear, Touch
Everything you’ve just read is barely the tip of the iceberg of what we casually refer to as taste.
Taste, taste buds, and the tongue represent a tiny amount of what you experience when you eat food. A smidgeon. An itsy bit. Not a whole heck of a lot.
This is because of the fact that your tongue can taste only a few things, namely sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and savory. There’s absolutely no way to prove how much information the tongue contributes. Many professionals I talked to gave me their own estimates for how much input our sense of taste provides. Some say that only about 5 percent of what we experience when eating is input from our sense of taste. They think that the remaining sensory input—the vast majority—is aroma, which we detect with our nose. Yes, most of what you think you taste is actually smell.
I think 10 percent for taste and 90 percent for smell is a better estimate, but only if you’re dividing the entire experience of eating between just the two senses of taste and smell. What about the other three? When you add the influence of touch, hearing, and sight, things get really interesting. Our experience with food—which we simply call taste—is actually a multisensory adventure.
First, I’m going to teach you how the senses work. From there we’ll explore each of the Basic Tastes, the nuances of flavor, and finally, how everything comes together. Deliciously.
Taste What You’re Missing: Your Taster Type
YOU WILL NEED
Blue food coloring (Caution: The blue dye stains fabrics, including carpets and towels!)
Small nonporous cup
1 paper or plastic reinforcement ring for each person
1. Pour a bit of blue food coloring into a nonporous cup.
2. Using a paper towel, blot your tongue to remove as much saliva as possible.
3. Dip the swab into the food coloring and apply the dye to your tongue. Let it saturate your tongue and dry out before you apply the reinforcement ring. Try to keep your tongue out while you’re doing this, or the ring will get wet and messy!
4. Apply a reinforcement ring to your blue tongue.
5. Using the magnifying glass and mirror, count the number of round taste buds inside the inner circle.
0–15 = Tolerant Taster
16–39 = Taster
40 or more = HyperTaster