Is Your Child a Supertaster?
“Something must be wrong with this child of mine!” bemoan the parents of many toddlers. “He is too picky an eater!” “She won’t eat ANY vegetables!” “Why can’t he be like his cousin who loves to eat pepperoni, candied figs, and Brussels sprouts?” “My other kids loved amoxicillin, but this one acts like it’s poison—is he from another planet?” Researchers are uncovering the answers to these vexing questions, and the answers don’t lie in the stars, but in ourselves — or more exactly, in our genes.
Science has appreciated for years now that individuals have contrasting degrees of pleasure or displeasure when their taste buds are confronted by the same chemicals in various foods, especially the bitter variety. Fifty percent of us experience certain foods as bitter but tolerable — these are labeled heterozygotes and carry only one gene for taste differentiation. Those who don’t carry any copies of the gene are labeled non-tasters and will eat almost anything (25% of the population.) However, those who carry two copies of the bitter taste gene have a far more dramatic, noxious taste response to the bitter chemicals in foods. This 25% of the population are labeled “supertasters”, a term coined by Linda Bartoshuk, the Yale University researcher who got the ball rolling on this research 15-plus years ago.
Some high school biology that many of us have long forgotten: The taste receptor gene follows a simple Mendelian inheritance — an autosomal recessive pattern — where the mating of two heterozygotes has a one-in-four probability of producing a supertaster, for better or for worse.
Let’s focus on these supertasters. As Dr Bartoshuk puts it, “these supertasters live in a neon food world compared to the pastel food world everybody else lives in.” Supertasters usually exhibit classic food preferences, including a dislike of dark-green vegetables such as kale and Brussels sprouts, hard liquor, ales, and black coffee. They are more likely to be gourmet chefs and sommeliers (that’s wine tasters, for the less fancy). So what makes supertasters so lucky? Back in the stone age, this gustatory “skill” may have been useful in avoiding toxic plants as food, but let’s be honest: how many present day hunter-gatherers do you know? And “super taste” didn’t help Superman defeat any villains, did it? (Hint: The answers to those 2 questions are NONE and NO.)
Supertasters have an aversion for fatty foods, which tends to make them leaner than the non-tasters and moderate tasters. Supertasters also avoid salty foods and concentrated sugars, which ultimately helps to control blood pressure and prevent diabetes. Unfortunately, the avoidance of green vegetables may have a deleterious effect on the health of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to an increased risk of colon cancer. It is tempting to extrapolate these preferences to the selective diet of many toddlers, who tend to eat a handful of the same carbohydrates day after day; hence, the frustration.
Most excitingly for pediatricians, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that supertasters have a natural protective mechanism against sinus infections. Bitter taste receptors are not only found on the tongue but also in the nose, sinuses, and ears! These receptors have the unique ability to recognize certain bacteria trying to invade the sinuses and activate the cilia to drive bacteria away. Heading this effort is Dr. Noam Cohen, who describes the immune response: “It’s like modern warfare — intercept the enemies’ early communications to thwart their plans and win the battle.” The implications of this research for the infant and child prone to ear and sinus infections can be far-reaching. We will keep you abreast of any new discoveries.
For more information, check out this Wall Street Journal article on Supertasters here.
About the authors:
Doug and Kevin are classmates and future colleagues who have a special interest in the effect of the bitter taste receptor on nasal disease. The disease they study — chronic rhinosinusitis — affects the quality of life of millions of Americans and costs billions in U.S. health care dollars each year. They are both completing medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and will continue to residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Kevin’s dad is Dr. Tony Kovatch of the Arcadia Division of Pediatric Alliance.