Tasting and Genetics

Reader Lee brings up a fascinating topic:

There is one question I’ve been curious about: How much variability is there between humans in the capacity to taste? I always say I have a “weak palate,” certainly compared to my sister, who can pick out, and then name, subtle flavors and spices in a dish, tastes that I am only dimly aware of. It shouldn’t surprise us that people might have stronger or weaker taste buds; vision skills, after all, vary from person to person. But what do scientists have to say on this topic?

Nice to hear from you again, Reader Lee! The influence of genetics on the taste sensation is well documented. Since the 1930’s it’s been known that genetics largely determines an individual’s ability to taste a chemical compound called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). For those with the right configuration on proteins in their taste buds, PTC tastes extremely bitter. For those without it, it can taste like nothing at all. The discovery was made when a researcher by the name of Arthur Fox accidentally kicked up a cloud of the stuff in a lab. Some people present tasted it, others didn’t.

Further experimentation revealed a clear genetic link: different populations of humans were senstive to PTC to varying degrees. On the high end of the spectrum were Native Americans, 98% of whom can detect PTC. At the low end were aboriginal Australians and New Zealanders, a mere 58% percent of whom can taste it.

As to why there’s so much variability between those groups no one can say definitively. However it’s been theorized that the ability to detect bitterness has an evolutionary advantage. Many plant poisons are toxic alkaloids, and alkalines generally taste quite bitter. So, maybe there are more potential opportunities to die from random plant poisoning in North America. Someone might want to do a study on that.

But to return to your actual question, Reader Lee, there can be quite a bit of variability in ability to taste things, even between siblings. That variability can range up to about 20%, not including the extra advantage so-called “super tasters” have. I’ll talk more about them later. However it’s thought that women are more sensitive to taste than men in general, so the disparity you’re experiencing may have less to do with subtle genetic variations than the plain fact that you’re a man.

9 thoughts on “Tasting and Genetics”

  1. I’ve read that people develop taste preferences in the womb, as much of the flavor of the mother’s meals is passed to the amniotic fluid. I know that my three boys prefer food that I ate when I was pregnant (different for each kid), and my oldest has the most varied tastes (we lived in the city when I was pregnant with him and I ate takeout of all sorts).

    1. Hey Kim! These sorts of studies produce some very interesting results….one that caught my eye recently was a study that found a correlation between a child’s preference for salt and the degree of morning sickness the mother had! Of course correlation is not causation…so a lot of these sorts of studies need to be taken with a grain of, er…well you know…

      1. Ooh, interesting. What was the correlation? When I’ve had the worst morning sickness, I’ve eaten the saltiest foods (with lots of lemon!). I’m pregnant now and haven’t had as much sickness, and don’t have the same need for salt that I had before (sweets on the other hand — can’t get enough). I am tempted to think this child will have quite the sweet tooth.

        Salt was and is used for preserving food — I wonder if the craving for salt has evolved as protection from food poisoning.

  2. In my family, I cannot taste the ‘delicious’ apple, to me it tastes like cardboard, but blander. My sibs both like them. I do enjoy Granny Smith, Winesap, Macintosh, Rome and others. Golden Delicious taste good to me, but not the Red Delicious. I figured it was genetics. Now I know.

  3. Thanks for the great answers.
    Might it follow, then, that we are making a mistake when we assume that someone who has a strong palate is sophisticated and cultivated, along with the inverse? Could it be that people have no more ability to change their sensitivity to taste than they can their height? (Not that I am defensive about this or anything.)

    1. I think it is a mistake to necessarily associate a “strong palate” (a very sensitive set of buds) with sophistication since anyone can be born with those. However appreciating foods might be another matter, as the evidence shows that palates can be “educated” by repeated exposure to certain tastes. That is, to some extent you can train your taste buds to appreciate foods that you might have considered challenging at first. So there may be something to the idea that “sophisticated” people (defined as those who have steady access to lots of different and/or exoctic foods) might appreciate a wider range of things.

  4. So this is really interesting to me. My husband and I argue over the “spiciness” of food. For instance, even a whiff of jalepeno is spicy to me. I’m so sensitive he once kissed the back of my neck after eating a jalepeno and I could have believed my neck was on fire. Even the most mild of peppers are “hot” to me. Is this genetics too? or am I just being a “wimp”? (Not that I want to drag you into a spousal argument or anything…)

    1. Spousal argument? What’s that? Must be something that happens on other planets, far away from where I live in total, perfect harmony with Mrs. Pastry every single day of my life.

      But in a hypothetical universe I can image such a scenario. My (mostly uneducated) guess it that you probably are genetically sensitive, possibly a “super taster”, people who are extra-sensitive, especially to sensations in the bitter family. As to the skin irritation, capsaicin, at least as I understand it, mostly affects mucous membranes. I wonder if you might have some sort of allergy. Very interesting, that.

      – Joe

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