My Friend the Supertaster

“Try a bite,” I urged.

She did, and winced. Then she explained.

Sus is a supertaster—and she would prefer to leave this particular superpower behind. Again and again she has to explain that she is not just “a picky eater,” as she has been branded her entire life. This is genetic: She was born with more taste buds than most of us, therefore registers the slightest bitterness as exponentially more bitter than what I am tasting. Sweets taste sweeter to her, too—but that is just fine. She sighs and shakes her head over the “new and improved” Butterfinger, for example, because it lost some of that sweetness.

I had not even noticed a difference. But sure enough, the company says it switched to more peanutty peanuts, added cocoa, and took away the hydrogenated oils. The new version is officially touted as less sweet.

“You should do a blindfolded Pepsi and Coca-Cola test on me,” Sus suggests. (She opts for Pepsi every time.) “I can even tell when Pepsi gets within six weeks of its expiration date,” she adds. “The flavor gets skunky.”

I swallow hard. I have drunk Coke that was a year past its expiration date. She sees my expression and retorts, “No one would dare laugh if I said beer was skunky, or wine was off. Alcohol is sacred. Real people drink alcohol. And if you don’t….”

She is perfectly happy with her Pepsi, sweet tea, or tapwater over ice—but the rest of us keep pressing her to “try a sip.” “Bet you’ll like this one.” “You’re kidding! You don’t like this? It’s the reserve vintage….” When she asked for icewater, her hostess suggested a sparkling water with slices of lemon. Sus geared up for another polite refusal.

I have often been the one urging the bubbly water, unable to fathom how a guest could prefer lukewarm tap water to my frosted wine glass, the sparkling water infused with fruit, the ice cubes tiny and tinkling like bells…. But they do. Often. And why on earth does that annoy me? Because I am trying to please them and they will not let me? Yet they prefer their tapwater, a fact my brain is too sure of itself to even acknowledge as valid.

“Since all my friends know I’m ‘picky,’” Sus continues, “I don’t get evening invites. I get lunch invites, to boring places.” When you think of all that can happen at dinner—the candle glow of friendship and shared experience, that fizz of indulgence and exploration, the freedom of being off, free from prep and cleanup, and out in the world on a grown-up field trip, seeing someone interesting across the room, laughing through three courses, tumbling out into the dark sated and content and a wee bit tipsy…. Lunch does not come close.

Slowly, the ramifications of being a supertaster are beginning to dawn on me. So is my own blind idiocy. How many times have I pressured somebody to try something they were quite serene about never experiencing? Why do I do this?

Partly because I have loved being on the other side. I can still remember the night the owner of Bar Italia pulled up a chair after the place closed, taught me to blow smoke rings, and introduced me to grappa. The charity ball when my date taught me how to slurp an oyster. The blues music playing when I braved a Cajun quiche with alligator meat in it. The dinner in Newfoundland when I first tasted moose.

I have never eaten alligator or moose again, and oyster slime did not appeal. Grappa, yes. But the point is that it is such fun to try something new, and even more fun to be the sherpa introducing someone else to a new experience. There is power in that role, and delight if someone’s eyes go wide and they exclaim, “This is fantastic!” So we nudge, thinking we are melting some harmless resistance—a knee-jerk caution left over from childhood—when in fact we may be dealing with a physiological difference.

Urging a sip or a taste seems harmless, but it can easily tip into bullying. Not everybody likes fancy. Not everybody seeks novelty. Evangelism is rude. Besides, there is so much we still do not understand about each other’s taste buds. There is a satisfying triumph in acquiring a new taste, realizing you now genuinely love coffee, or beer, or artichokes—so we press others forward. Taste comes from the Middle English tasten, to examine by touch, test, or sample. A test is a trial, of sorts. But Sus is heartily sick of other people setting tests for her, then second-guessing her reaction: “Really? But this isn’t hot at all!” or “Have you ever even tried it?” “People think that if they put enough different types of beer, wine, or mixed drinks in front of me, surely there will be something I will like,” she sighs. “Why do people feel so compelled to find me something to drink? I’m not a two-year-old. I know what I can and cannot stomach. I will happily try things—I just get tired of the overreaction when I shake my head no. And I hate disappointing friends who I know only want me to enjoy something.

“I’ll tell you what else I hate,” she continues, on a roll now. “I hate all these restaurants that pile a bunch of ingredients on top of each other so it looks pretty. Train wreck in my mouth.”

I can imagine—now that I understand. And now I regret all the forkfuls I waved at friends; all the times I tried to find a wine that would seduce my husband, who once, God help me, tried to order a frozen banana daiquiri in a pub because it’s the only booze he really likes.

Sus’s observations are beginning to fascinate me. Mint, she says, burns her lips. She offers me some of her homemade chicken and dumplings, then apologizes, “The flavor still isn’t what it used to be before chickens were kept in sterile high-rises and fed bland, generic pellets. In the old days, when they were free-range and ate anything they could catch, stewing a few pieces of chicken produced a rich broth for dumplings. I’ve tried all the commercial stock, broth, and bouillon out there, but it’s not the same.”

Every time a company changes its product, she can tell the difference. “Reformulated? Read that as cheapened and ruined,” she says. “M&Ms have an awful aftertaste now, as do Hershey bars and Charleston Chews.”

She is sensitive to texture, too: Those new Butterfingers? Mushy. “Cake-mix cakes have gotten less dense, spongier,” she says, “probably because they use less cake mix to save money, and you have to add another egg.” Manwich is runny and red now, not thick and orange, she says. “In the past few years, Lays Ruffle potato chips have sometimes been overcooked, and that changes the flavor. Once in a while, I get a good bag, but most of the time, instead of pale chips, they are darker. Yuck in terms of taste.” Supertasters often use lots of salt to offset bitterness; Sus doesn’t even try, but she does like her pretzels salted, and she has noticed companies cutting back on the amount or the way it sticks, so more salt winds up in the bottom of the bag.

Supertasters also tend to rate sweets as sweeter, salt as saltier, and chili peppers as hotter. But it is not as though there is a norm and then an exception; taste is far more variable and complicated than that. We think cotton candy tastes the same to everybody, and a seared and crusted filet mignon offers the same hit of umami. But we humans have about 10,000 taste buds. (Rabbits have 17,000, parrots only 400.) As the author of FLAVOR: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense notes, there could be hundreds of genes that affect how those taste buds function—how acutely we taste something and what we perceive when we do. Bitterness, for example, connects to a receptor called T2R38, which picks up on something called propylthiouracil, or PROP. But how we experience a grapefruit’s tartness or an edgy little Brussels sprout depends on everything else that is happening in our brain and on our tongue at that moment, not to mention how we experience the salty or sweet flavors that might be commingling.

Food brings us together—it is the strongest glue we have, binding romantic dates, parties, family occasions, festivals, even religious rituals. Yet none of us are tasting the same thing.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.