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Tasting panel

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Once upon a time, when we were all very young, we learned that the funny soft bumps on our tongues were called taste buds, and that without them, we wouldn't be able to distinguish between the four main tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Everything we put into our mouths would just be flavorless mush.

Except that maybe one day we caught cold, and kept our noses wrapped up in hankies, and took a sip of chicken soup and thought, Boy, this stuff doesn't taste like anything. And then we got better and our noses worked again and we tried the soup again and suddenly it tasted like broth and meat and salt and fat and carrots and parsley and we thought, Hey, what happened?

And then a few years ago, everybody, it seemed, was talking about umami, which sounds like a slur on your mother but turned out to be a fancy Japanese word that meant "The Fifth Sense," which was nothing at all like "The Sixth Sense" and instead was supposed to describe the heady, complex flavor of eating meat, or mushrooms, or ketchup. 

Actually, it turns out that there might really be a sixth sense, called "fatty acid taste." Which sounds even less appealing than umami, but really just means the ability to detect fat in your food. There are also other newly labeled senses, including a "water" sense, a "hot pepper" sense, and a "vanilloid" sense.

So we need our taste buds to taste, and our sense of smell to enjoy flavor. Really, what we need are our brains, which process taste and smell together into experience (this soup is bland, these cookies are delicious) and memory (I'll avoid that soup in the future, but I'll try to repeat those cookies if I can).

Some of us are better at tasting than others. The more taste buds we have crammed onto our tongues, the more we can taste; scientists call us "supertasters." (Half the population is just ordinary in the taste-buds department, while a quarter of humans are considered "nontasters" and the remaining quarter as "super.") But, as David Leite found out when he had his own buds checked, being a supertaster isn't always as cool as it sounds.

"The prefix 'super' was intended to signify an unusual sensitivity to tastes, especially bitter," Leite writes. "Not, as I imagined, a surfeit of gustatory discernment and supremacy." Supertasters can't stand bitter foods, and so they often don't eat enough vegetables. And some male supertasters, in addition to avoiding mustard greens, crave fatty foods. 

"So the list of health risks grows by the addition of an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, not to mention unbridled girth," sighs Leite. "Oh, and let's not forget diabetes."

However, as Cynthia Sass points out in a recent article in Eating Well magazine, even a person who has shunned healthy foods for decades — namely, her overweight husband — can retrain his taste buds to like and even crave good-for-you foodstuffs. 

What you like to eat, according to Sass, is a combination not just of genes (how many taste buds you're born with) but what you grew up eating. Mothers with varied diets give birth to babies who tolerate a wider range of foods from the get-go; parents who enjoy eating fruits and vegetables demonstrate to their kids that "healthy" food isn't punishment. 

The Sass secret? Try it – not just once but several times — and you might like it.