By By Leora Eisen, director of Food for Thought  

Up to one-quarter of the world’s population are supertasters. And if you’re one of them, life might seem bittersweet. “It just means you taste things as more intense than other people do,” explains researcher Linda Bartoshuk, who made headlines when she discovered this phenomenon. “So sweet is going to be more intense; bitter is going to be more intense. When it comes to finding pleasure in the food they eat, supertasters are different than the rest of us. They love what they love and they hate what they don’t like.” Or, to put it more colourfully, “the food world is neon to a supertaster. To somebody like me, it’s pastel.”

In the Center for Smell and Taste at the University of Florida, Bartoshuk examines a volunteer’s tongue. Using a special microscopic camera, she looks for the telltale signs of a supertaster:  little bumps that show up with the help of blue food colouring. “These are fungiform papillae, structures that hold taste buds. If you have a lot of them, you’re probably a supertaster,” she says.

The health consequences of being a supertaster

It might be a fun party trick to see whether you have a stronger response to broccoli than your neighbour, but does it really matter? “This is going to affect the foods you like to eat, and the foods you like to eat have a huge impact on your health,” Bartoshuk says.

“For example, we know that people who are very responsive to bitter have a slightly higher risk of colon cancer because they don’t tend to eat foods that have a lot of fibre.” On the other hand, being a supertaster can also be a bonus: chances are you don’t feel the need to add as many teaspoons of sugar to your cup of tea.

Women are more likely to be supertasters than men, and non-Caucasians more likely than Caucasians. There are more supertasters per capita in Asia and Africa than in the U.S. “One of my students, at one point, wanted to write a paper called ‘White Men Got No Taste,’” laughs Bartoshuk. “I told her it was politically incorrect.”

How to find out if you’re a supertaster

Swab blue food colouring on the front of your tongue. This allows you to see the fungiform papillae (they don’t stain as well as the rest of the tongue, so they look like lighter circles against a darker blue background). 

tongue CU

Fungiform papillae are structures on the anterior tongue that house taste buds and are shaped like tiny button mushrooms (taste buds themselves are not visible since they’re buried in the tissue of the papillae).

Supertasters have the most fungiform papillae.

The holes in notebook paper are about six millimetres in diameter. These make a good template to quantify the number of fungiform papillae on your tongue.

Place the hole on the front of your tongue so that one side of the hole touches the midline of your tongue and the other touches the edge of the tip.

In the photo above, the hole is the red circle. The top tongue in the picture on the left is a supertaster tongue, with 60 fungiform papillae. The tongue on the right is not a supertaster tongue and only has 16 fungiform papillae.

In Canada and the U.S., about 10 per cent of individuals have more than 35 fungiform papillae in the circle.

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