Jamie Drummond, one of the co-founders and editors of Good Food Revolution has posted a fascinating video this week. It is a collection of short clips showing what happened when he got hundreds of people to take a field test that purports to tell whether they are supertasters are not.
Over the five years that I’ve been writing about food and drink in Toronto, Jamie has been one of my most well-known colleagues. Undoubtedly, that’s partly because he’s a friendly, gregarious person, but it didn’t hurt that starting in early 2011 he became known for being the guy with the video camera asking you to put a piece of treated paper in your mouth while he recorded your reaction.
These strips of paper are impregnated with Phenylthiocarbamide (or PTC), a chemical compound that so-called supertasters are likely to immediately perceive as very bitter and unpleasant. Non-tasters won’t taste anything at all and the majority in between will get a moderate sense of bitterness after a few seconds.
Jamie does a very good job of explaining the test in the intro to the video and its accompanying blog post. If you’re interested in learning more, it might also be worth taking a look at the Wikipedia page for PTC. It includes information about the tests, including the fact that a sensitivity to PTC is only a correlated indicator of who is and is not a super taster. Further digging also brought me to this page from the BBC with another test that you can give yourself if you want to find out what your supertaster status is.
In Jamie’s video, you can find a description of supertasters by John Placko at the 27:50 mark and around 6:40, Jamie discusses the flaws of the test and the term supertaster with well-known wine critic and author, Jancis Robinson MW.
I haven’t had the chance to take the test myself (but was nearby when Jamie got Susur Lee to do it) so my reaction to the video is only as a very curious observer.
In selecting his subjects Jamie clearly had a preference for those who work in restaurants, are chefs or sommeliers, or write about food and drink. That totally makes sense: all of these people have a vested interest in their own taste buds. Sure, their jobs are a complex combination of a number of skills, but part of their sales pitch, so to speak, is that customers can trust them to know what tastes good.
It’s worth highlighting again that a supertaster is not necessarily sensitive to PTC – as evidenced by an immediate and strong reaction to the strip – or vice versa. For me, that in no way diminishes how fascinating this video is. (And to his credit, Jamie has included a note scrolling across the bottom of the video that makes this clear.) I don’t really care who is a supertaster and who’s not, but I am transfixed by watching how people react to the test itself.
Understandably, a large number of subjects show a certain skepticism about putting a tiny piece of paper in their mouth while being recorded on video. You can tell by watching carefully that some know what’s coming and you have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they’re offering an honest reporting of their reaction. But what if they’re not? The skeptical devil on my shoulder wonders: what are the chances that at least a couple of the experts felt they needed to goose themselves from medium taster into super taster status?
And what if Jamie had let it be known that he was throwing a few plain paper strips in as a control? Would a few more of the reactions (from the non-control group) have been “just paper”?
Or, is it even a good thing to be a supertaster if you have a professional dependence on your sense of taste? There are a number of foods, like bitter greens, grapefruit juice, and even coffee that super tasters are likely to shy away from. Wouldn’t it be easier to create food that appeals to the widest audience if you have an everyman’s perception of flavour? The results in the video (noting one more time that PTC is only one of the compounds that supertasters can be sensitive to) seem to be scattered enough to show that there are many of Toronto’s best chefs in all three categories.
That’s nearly 700 words without mentioning beer (a small miracle for me), but I think it’s an angle worth considering. Compared to wine, beer intentionally includes bitterness on a much more regular basis. The flavor is in the brewer’s “paint box” both as bittering hops (e.g. in American pale ales and pilsners) and also as deeply roasted malts (stouts and some porters). I have casually noted that wine-writing friends tend to shy away from the highly bitter beers at a greater rate than average. Is that a matter of acclimatization or perception?
What about the beginner’s perspective? Bitterness is a characteristic that is used to define beer styles that move in and out of fashion on a slow but constant turnstile. I imagine there must be some people who, in times like these when hoppy IPAs are everywhere, find it more difficult to “get into beer” because of their strong negative reaction to some of the most ubiquitous types.
Even if you don’t have any skin in the game it’s worth taking a look at Jamie’s video just to see everyone’s faces. If, like me you have a fairly intense fascination with this idea of a genetic predisposition to a different-than-average sense of taste, maybe we can organize a second round of testing. Have those in the video stick their tongue out for a high-res photo so that we can count the number of fungiform papillae. Or would that be a bit much?