What’s your super power? It’s a matter of taste

In comic books, movies, on television, and even some Broadway musicals we see various powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. What if I told you that 25% of humans carry a gene TAS2R28 that gives them the super power of taste!

Usually it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing, but the super-taster may find common foods too bitter, sweet or spicy. In 1991, Linda Bartoshuk, then of Yale Medical School, coined the terms super-taster (25% of population), average-taster (50% of population), and non-tasters (25% of population) by using a well-known bitter tasting chemical named 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP for short). The non-taster could not perceive any taste from Prop, the average-taster felt it was unpleasant but tolerable, and the super-tasters tongue was slapped with an intense bitter flavor. It was found that the 25% who were extremely sensitive to PROP had a denser covering of fungiform papillae on their tongues, consequently, this group had more cell receptors for taste. You can see if you are a super-taster by using a PROP test strip or by using a hole punch ring, blue dye, a magnifying glass and a friend to count the number of papillae within the ring. Those with 30 or more papillae are considered super-tasters, those with less than 15 are non-tasters, and in between are everyone else.

Taste, however, is more complicated than the number of cell receptors on our tongues. Taste is inextricably entangled with our other senses: sound, sight, touch and smell. A food is often perceived as blander if we can’t see it, sound impacts taste when it comes to crispness and crunch, and the texture of a food is often a reason for a person to claim they do not like the taste. But smell is by far the biggest player in taste perception. While we have a limited number of taste receptors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour), we have over 400 different types of smell receptors. We sense the smell of foods through two routes – orthonasal (sniffing through our nose) and retronasal (the aroma of the food is released through the back of the mouth into our nose). The latter is what accounts for sensing the majority of the flavor of food and therefore when our sinuses are blocked from cold, for example, we can’t detect the flavor in food as well.

The cells that contain the receptors for taste and smell are replaced every 10 to 30 days, but as we age the total number of receptor cells decline, especially after age seventy. As you get older, you may find that a favorite recipe may not taste as good as you remember or you can’t smell things you used to enjoy, like your morning coffee. With these changes in taste and smell, life may seem dull and you may even lose interest in eating. While loss of taste and smell with age may be common, it may be a sign of something more serious or even be life-threatening. If the foods you enjoy do not smell or taste the way you feel they should, be sure to talk to your doctor. Smells can keep you safe from fire, gas, and food spoilage. Be sure you have working smoke and gas detectors in your home, and throw out foods that may have been in the fridge too long to avoid food-borne illness. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a decline in your sense of smell as research has found this may be a sign of the onset of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. People who have lost their sense of taste may not eat the foods they need to stay healthy and can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, social isolation, and depression. Try to enhance the flavor of your food by adding lemon or lime juice, mustard, hot pepper, onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, curry, dill, sage, thyme, rosemary, and other herbs and spices without adding sodium.

Please remember to contribute toward your OFA nutrition services if you can. These programs are not sustainable at current levels without the support of participant contributions. Be aware that Food Stamps can be used toward your contribution. Thank you for your support.

Chautauqua County Office for the Aging Senior Nutrition Program provides nutritious noon meals at several Congregate Dining Sites throughout the county along with a Restaurant Dining Out Program. Our Dietitians, Cheryl Wahlstrom RD and Carey Skelton RD are available for nutrition counseling in your home or by phone. We also sponsor several exercise programs. Call the office for more details and information. Call NY CONNECTS at 753-4582.

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