Sweet tooth? Are you a super taster ?
It’s fashionable to blame sugar for the growth in obesity and for many of the other health problems we encounter as we age. Many of the people who give nutrition advice are now concentrating on sugar, recommending we should radically reduce the amount in our diets.
For me this advice should include being cautious of all refined sweet foods, as I don’t feel the research done to date really shows significant health differences between the different sweeteners, synthetic or natural. Although there is clear evidence that natural sweetness, as part of a whole food, does not have the same health impact and it’s known that different ‘sugars’ are processed in different ways, I’m convinced that for many health factors, it’s the sweetness itself that is important. I don’t see why we would have evolved any other way.
So we need to avoid processed sweetness. Is this equally easy for everyone?
When I talk to any group, there are always people who tell me they have a sweet tooth. Although many people think having a sweet tooth is a myth, in fact there is such a thing. In 1931 a chemist, Arthur Fox discovered that how we taste depends on the number of fungiform papillae (raised mushroom like structures under our taste buds) we have. People with very few are classed as non-tasters, having a low perception of bitter tastes. Super-tasters with lots fungiform papillae can find many tastes unbearably bitter. They consequently prefer sweet things, love puddings, prefer milk to dark chocolate and often dislike bitter vegetables like sprouts, cabbage or spinach.
So what are you?
It’s possible to test to see if you are a non or super-taster. Applying blue food colouring to the tip of your tongue highlights the fungiform papillae as they are not coloured and appear lighter. Using a doughnut shaped, ring-file hole-reinforcing-sticker as a guide, you can count the number of fungiform papillae in a given area. In this case <15 in the area inside the circle means you are a non-taster, >16<39 makes you a regular taster and >39 is classed a super-taster. Around 20% of the population are non-tasters and 30% super tasters.
How does this help us?
Knowing that individuals may perceive sweet and bitter tastes differently is interesting, as it explains why some people find it harder to shift their diets away from highly palatable junk foods to eat potentially bitter tasting vegetables. However, population research has shown that consciously lowering the sweetness of our food, will make less sweet foods more palatable over time even in super tasters and it is possible for anyone to change their habits.
Research looking at taste in children, has found that the sweetness of the drink had with food, has a big impact on the attractiveness of vegetables. A sweet soda or fruit drink making vegetables taste relatively more bitter than drinking water. This maybe even more important for people with a sweet tooth.