Everyone eats. And yet we all have different likes and dislikes. While we adapted as a species to seek certain foods out of biological necessity, our tastes are hardly uniform. Why do some people like brussel sprouts and broccoli? Certainly, genes, experience, and cultural norms play a role. So do our tongues, which are not created equal.
Taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk found that about 25 percent of us have an unusually high number of taste buds. The tiny bumps responsible for taste—fungiform papillae—appeared smaller, more uniform, and more densely packed on the tongues of "supertasters" compared to "nontasters." This, she says, means supertasters experience the world of taste in neon.
Supertasters may have had an evolutionary advantage in detecting bitter plants that could potentially harm them, but now, some of those same bitter-tasting foods protect against cancer. And because supertasters eat fewer bitter foods, supertasting has been linked to an increase of colon polyps, a risk sign for cancer. Since supertasters also perceive salt, acid, sweeteners, and fats more intensely, they may also eat less salty and fatty foods and they don't tend to drink or smoke, so the relationship between taste and health remains incredibly complex.
Last week, Bartoshuk explained to ABC's "All in the Mind":
Here's the problem: once you have your children, evolution doesn't care what happens to you so you go on eating those wonderful foods and you develop chronic disease. We have no tools to fight them except our brains and education.
Well, does telling you not to eat high-fat foods work? It doesn't work on me. So I'm thinking what if we can pay attention to things we know are healthy and at least increase their palatability by a little bit and make it easier for people to eat healthy by making them want those things.
So she's starting with the tomato. Bartoshuk hopes to reengineer the fruit using some of the 80 known volatile aromas to revitalize supermarket tomatoes, which have been bred for their ability to be transported and shipped. Breeding for taste isn't novel, and there's hope that this understanding about how we taste could really translate into fruits and vegetables that more of us want to eat.
Photo by Linda Bartoshuk, via Science 2010: 328 ©AAAS.