For those of you who don’t know much about me, it’s probably easiest if I start this blog by explaining that I am a geek, especially when it comes to food. I love learning everything about food, and anything that remotely relates to it. Throughout the years I have managed to tie in food topics into almost every aspect of my life. History project due in high school? Well, naturally I’ll report on the history of bubble gum or PEZ. Then there was the time I was an After School Program Assistant at a library; you may think surely there’s no way she could tie in food to a job where she shelved books and helped kids with their homework, right? Wrong. I would host readings paired with fitting “build your own snack activities” to go along with the book’s general theme! And of course, now as a chef, nothing has changed! But it’s more than just the food I am interested in, it’s the reasons behind why people eat what they eat that fascinate me. My favorite classes in culinary school weren’t the labs where we actually cooked, but were those that explored the why; Food Science, Food and Culture, Biology, and Psychology.
When you spend your life cooking for others you encounter the whole gamut of taste preferences. There are people who will literally eat anything and others whose pickiness will astound you. I know people who would not eat a slice of pizza if you offered them a million dollars, and others who will avoid any food if it so much as has a speck of green in it. So, what is it that makes the taste preferences of people differ so much? Well, I have learned that there are many factors that contribute to the creation of an individual’s sense of taste; including cultural influence, region, upbringing, food aversions, allergies, etc. The list is long, however, it all begins with the taste buds.
Taste buds are what enable us to receive and detect various flavors in our mouths; taste buds actually form while in the womb, so your taste preferences are influenced by what your mother ate throughout the pregnancy! It’s so cool! (Now pardon me while I get geeky for a moment.) The big bumps on your tongue are not your taste buds. The bumps are called fungiform papillae, and they are actually the structures that house the taste buds/taste receptors. While it’s hard to say exactly how many taste buds there are per papillae, it is estimated that there may be anywhere between five to fifteen. So naturally, those who have more taste buds have the ability to taste more. The amount of taste buds you have determines whether you are a supertaster, an average taster or a non-taster. It has been discovered that 25% of people are supertasters, another 25% make up the group of non-tasters and the remaining 50% fall somewhere in the middle. Supertasters will often find things that are bitter too much to handle; they may avoid soy products, spicy foods, black coffee, and dark green vegetables, among other things. Non-tasters may feel like all food is bland and only be happy when their mouths are burning from copious amounts of hot sauce covering everything. They often seek out bold intense flavors like strong, black coffee, and spicy foods. So, next time your kid spits out broccoli and slips it under the table to the dog, don’t get too upset; there may actually be a good reason for it.
For the record, I am a supertaster, so when you see me avoiding certain foods like the plague you’ll know why. There are definitely good and bad aspects to this trait. I typically can taste when food is starting to spoil long before anyone else can and as a chef I am faced with repeatedly having to taste food I despise (cucumbers and all things cucumber related, for example) because I’m serving it (never serve food unless you’ve tasted it). On the other hand, I can detect subtle differences in taste and texture and figure out the ingredients to most dishes fairly easily; this probably had significant influence on what led me to working in the foodservice industry! It’s good to know where you stand, especially when you are preparing food for so many, but, it’s also great to know where people you cook for stand as well. So where do you and your family members fall on this spectrum? Let’s find out. This is an experiment we did when I was in culinary school to determine whether or not we were supertasters! It’s interesting to see why people make certain food choices, and as you’ll see from this experiment, it can be fun too. I even had David Furman and some of the kitchen staff help out with this one!
Piece of thick paper (note card or construction paper)
Blue Food Coloring
Step 1: Punch a hole in the piece of paper (should be about 7mm or .27 inches in diameter).
Step 2: Using the cotton swab rub some blue food coloring onto your tongue. You will notice your tongue will be blue with pink bumps (these are the fungiform papillae aka “taste bud houses”).
Step 3: Place the hole in the piece of paper over the part of your tongue with food coloring on it (the tip of the tongue is generally easiest place to count) and press gently, so the hole does not move while you are counting.
Step 4: Using the magnifying glass and mirror count how many papillae (pink bumps) you see on your tongue through the hole in the paper.
It’s that easy! You are done. If you counted close to 35 or more, you are a supertaster. If you counted between 15 and 35, you are an average taster. If you counted less than 15, you are a non-taster. The more papillae you counted, the stronger you taste things. The subjects of taste and food preference are fascinating and I could go on and on and on. However, I shall refrain, but I thoroughly encourage spending some time to reflect on your own eating habits and why they have developed that way!