Monday, February 9, 2015
Not all taste buds are created equal
I think one thing my well-meaning commenters are forgetting is that not all taste buds are created equal. A long time ago in a galaxy far away -- graduate school -- one of my colleagues gave a talk as part of the brown bag lunch seminars our department sponsored. I can no longer recall the point of the talk, although if I was feeling sufficiently compulsive about it I could probably find my notes from that day (I still have a bunch of notebooks from back then). All I can remember is that Mary Ellen passed around strips of paper that were about the same size and shape as the ones used to do pH tests. I did some quick Googling and learned that these strips are usually impregnated with sodium benzoate. Mary Ellen told us to taste the strips. There were about 2 dozen people present. Most people said it tasted sweet. Three of us, however, spit them out in record time because they were unbelievably, grossly bitter. Or maybe sour. According to the information I found, the division is usually a little more even in a group: about a third will think the strip tastes sweet, another third will describe it as sour, and the final third think it's bitter. And there are a few people who will say it has no flavor at all.
I'm not sure what the point of the strips is, other than maybe to remind people in food sciences that not everyone tastes food in the same way. Or, alternate scenario, to use in high school general science classes as an illustration that genetics deals each of us a slightly different hand. In any case, in addition to the genetic flukes that make some people think something is sweet while other people think it's bitter, there are folks who have more taste buds on their tongues. This supposedly makes them better at distinguishing minute differences in flavors.
When I was Googling, I found a number of references to "Super tasters," people with a gazillion taste buds crammed into the space where most of us humans have only a few. Would that ability be a blessing or a curse? Yes, you can take a sip of a wine and immediately detect all its subtle flavors. On the other hand, you're also going to notice the swill that's one step away from vinegar much quicker than someone with a less discriminating palate. And odds are there's a lot more swill out there than there is really good wine. So you super tasters are cursed having to buy the really good (aka probably expensive) vintages they keep behind the counter at the wine store while we peasants are happy with Gallo in paper boxes.
Nonsuper tasters are also cursed, but in the opposite way. Instead of their food choices becoming limited because of their insensitive palates, they're likely to end up as Fat, Fat, Fat because they'll gorge themselves because they need more sugar, salt, grease, or Tabasco slathered on like ketchup before something tastes good. This has to be one of the dumbest theories I've ever read, to be honest. Although it is true that one way to make mediocre food taste better is to up the sugar and/or salt content -- which is one reason so many commercially prepared food products are so loaded with both.
In addition to the sodium benzoate test, there's another one that checks for the PTC gene -- if you have the PTC gene you'll be more aware of bitter tastes and repelled by them, or so the theory goes. This is a trait that supposedly helped our primitive ancestors avoid eating toxic plants. But, as one blogger noted after having done a taste test experiment himself, there's more to enjoying food and beverages than just genetics. There's social conditioning. If you associate certain foods or beverages with having a good time your mind is going to decide that food or beverage is probably pretty good, too. I know more than a few people whose initial reaction to something was less than enthusiastic but who discovered that in the presence of friends or family spinach eventually became edible.
So what's the bottom line? I'm not sure. Does my personal inability to taste subtle differences in honey mean I'm doomed to never be able to pick up differences in tastes in other substances? No clue. Does it matter? Not really, because you can't miss what you've never had.
A side note: Mary Ellen Jones was one of the smartest and also one of the most under-appreciated students in the Science and Technology Studies graduate program at VaTech. Thanks to the combination of sexism and intellectual elitism, she didn't get taken nearly as seriously as she should have. She was a woman interested in issues in agriculture, a subject area that almost no one in science studies thinks is worth thinking about (so what if we all depend on it to keep eating?). There's a definite snob hierarchy. The people doing history of theoretical physics are at the top of the heap; the lesser mortals who are actually looking at things affecting people's day to day lives get sneered at on a regular basis. She wrote a really nice dissertation on negotiating biotech policy. I don't know where she is now, but I hope she's achieved the success she deserved.