Hate Bitter Foods? You Might Be a Supertaster (and Not a Picky Eater), According to a Nutritionist

Here's what it means to be a supertaster—and how to make the healthy foods you hate taste better.


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Having food preferences is perfectly natural. Some prefer mild flavors to spicy ones; some have a sweet tooth while others crave salty foods. When your food preferences prevent you from enjoying foods outside of your comfort zone, you might be quick to label yourself as a picky eater. Picky eaters get a bad rap for having an underdeveloped palate, but a selective palate is really what it is—and there may be an explanation for your very particular likes and dislikes that’s out of your control. You just might be a supertaster, someone with a bit of a superpower when it comes to tasting flavors and ingredients. 

Having a heightened sense of taste isn’t always a joyride for your taste buds, though. Supertasters—it’s a real thing!—may inadvertently limit their diets to avoid things they’re averse to, and many find it difficult to include a wide variety of foods in their overall diet—something that’s essential for getting a spectrum of nutrients and supporting a diverse gut microbiome. 

What exactly is a supertaster, and how common is it?

“A supertaster is going to experience the flavors and aromas of any given food or meal more intensely,” explains Jenna Volpe, RDN, L.D., an Austin, Texas–based registered dietitian trained in supertasting—who happens to be a supertaster herself.

This super sense of taste is due, in part, to the sheer number of taste buds they have. Supertasters have significantly more taste buds than non-supertasters, usually referred to as non-tasters, though there isn’t an exact number. Having more taste buds makes flavors more intense, so supertasters are more likely to be sensitive to certain foods. Of the five tastes—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—supertasters can be sensitive to all of them to some extent, but they’re especially receptive to bitter tastes.

What’s more, a supertaster isn’t defined solely by their number of taste buds, but also by their genetics. Supertasters have a taste receptor gene called TAS2R38 that allows them to taste the bitterness of a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) or a related substance called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Technically, everyone inherits two copies of this gene, but supertasters have the PAV variant. 

Supertasters are more common than you’d think. About a quarter of people in the U.S. have the gene that allows them to taste the extreme bitterness of PTC, making a solid chunk of the population bonafide supertasters. Roughly half of Americans are medium or average tasters of bitter PTC, and another quarter don’t taste it at all. This varies greatly among racial and ethnic groups as well as between the sexes. Men and Caucasians are least likely to be supertasters, while women and racial minorities are more likely to have the gene, Linda M. Bartoshuk, Ph.D., a researcher on the genetic variations in taste perception, told the Duke Sanford World Food Policy Center. Now a professor at the University of Florida, Bartoshuk initially penned the name “supertaster” and pioneered much of the research on this genetic type in the 1990s at the Yale School of Medicine.

Which foods are supertasters most sensitive to?

Being a supertaster isn’t always cake walk. The smallest taste of the chemical PTC is enough to make a supertaster cringe while the average taster may only experience a faint bitter taste, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Even worse, to a supertaster, this chemical is a “ruin-your-day'' level of bitter, according to an American Heart Association press release.

As a supertaster, you’re more likely to have aversions to certain foods, notably the following:

  • Bitter foods like black coffee and dark chocolate
  • Bittersweet foods like grapefruit and wine
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale
  • Spicy foods like hot peppers and salsa

They may also dislike fatty foods and artificial sweeteners like stevia, Volpe notes.

Some Health-Related Downsides to Being a Supertaster

Supertasters mainly struggle with bitter and spicy foods — bitter because of the receptiveness to PTC, and spiciness because their high number of taste buds means they have more pain receptors on their tongues. As a result, a supertaster is more likely to avoid certain foods or mask their intense tastes with an overload of salt (a seasoning habit that can become problematic, since high sodium intake can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

“A supertaster may be more likely to add milk and sugar to coffee, heavy dressings to salads, and cheese sauces to bitter veggies like broccoli,” Volpe says. “This could be a con for supertasters who are prone to familial high cholesterol or metabolic syndrome.”

Omitting certain foods, such as leafy green vegetables, could also make it easier for nutritional deficiencies to pop up and create missed opportunities for the health benefits they offer. Cruciferous veggies and dark greens are a rich source of dietary fiber, which can reduce the risk of diseases like heart disease and colon cancer by up to 30 percent, according to a February 2019 meta-analysis published in The Lancet. Since fiber is an essential nutrient, opting out of fiber-rich foods like veggies isn’t exactly an option. Vegetables are also good sources of much needed vitamins and minerals. Without them, an insufficiency of micronutrients could increase the risk of major illnesses like type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis, per Harvard Medical School. Spices also offer health benefits, and supertasters sensitive to them could miss out, adds Volpe.

The Pros of Being a Supertaster

Being a supertaster isn’t all bad. Experiencing the full potential of your taste buds definitely has its upsides.

“Supertasters are anecdotally more likely to eat portions of food in alignment with what their body needs, versus eating mindlessly,” Volpe says, adding that this may reduce the likelihood of overeating or developing metabolic syndrome, but more research is needed. Like bitter and spicy foods, overly sweet foods can be intense for supertasters as well. Some even consider “fat” a taste, and supertasters can certainly agree. While they may not be the biggest fans of Brussels sprouts and watercress, they likely aren’t surviving on deep-fried and high-sugar foods either, which contribute to certain disease risk factors like inflammation, weight fluctuation, and blood sugar spikes when eaten in excess.

As a supertaster, you’re also less likely to smoke or drink. Alcohol and cigarettes infamously have a distinct taste, and it’s one that supertasters are usually repelled by. “Supertasters are more sensitive to the taste of alcohol,” Volpe explains, pointing to an early 2006 study. “Studies have correlated the absence of the taste gene with an increased likelihood towards alcoholism, which means supertasters could be less likely to go down the path of alcohol abuse.” The same may be true of nicotine addiction, according to early research published in Addictive Behaviors on the link between supertasters and cigarette use.

A Supertaster RD's Tips for Getting the Right Nutrients (Without Cringing)

We’ve established that supertasters may be more prone to nutritional gaps due to food avoidance. Volpe has a few recommendations to making healthy foods more tolerable to sensitive taste buds:

  • Drizzle maple syrup on bittersweet fruits like grapefruit to balance the bitter notes, or choose sweet citrus alternatives like oranges, tangerines, and clementines for a rich dose of vitamin C.
  • Add a little bit of healthy fat, such as olive oil or grass-fed butter, to cruciferous veggies like broccoli to buffer the bitterness and enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K.
  • Swap bottled salad dressings, which are often sources of saturated fat, calories, sodium, and added sugar, for homemade ones made of olive oil, fresh citrus or balsamic, and a small amount of raw honey or maple syrup to cut through bitter but heart-healthy salads
  • Opt for mild salsa instead of spicy varieties to incorporate fruits and vegetables into meals like fajitas.
  • Try mild greens and vegetables like spinach and cauliflower in lieu of arugula and broccoli, respectively, to reap the benefits of leafy green vegetables.
  • If dark chocolate is too bitter, cacao nibs or cocoa powder deliver the chocolate taste with added antioxidants.

There are pros and cons to having the taste gene, but ultimately, being a supertaster isn’t a choice, and you have to make the best with what you’ve got. Take it from Volpe, a supertaster herself: “It’s a gift to be able to experience the flavors and aromas of food very intensely. While it can be an inconvenience at times, and while those who love things like spicy food and black coffee may not understand those of us who can't handle the heat and bitterness, I wouldn't have it any other way!”

To find out if you’re officially a supertaster, you can grab an at-home test kit with PTC strips online. And if you turn out to be an average taster, this is one category where landing in the middle isn’t so bad after all.

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