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Super-taster

04/23/07 12:00AM By Ruth Page
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(HOST) Commentator Ruth Page has just learned that what she's always thought of as a life-long limitation is really an exceptional ability - and she's not the only one who has it.

(PAGE) Hey, I've just discovered I'm SUPER at something. Mind you, it's genetic and there are plenty of others, but super just sounds good. Maybe now my family will stop looking at me pityingly when I can't eat really spicy-hot foods that many of them enjoy.

It seems I'm a "super taster." To discover super tasters, Beverly Tepper, a food science professor at Rutgers, tested subjects by offering them a piece of paper embedded with a bitter compound. Any who showed revulsion by making YUK faces were super tasters. Others tasted only plain paper and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Super tasters are inclined to find hot and spicy foods hard to endure. It isn't their fault - it's in the genes that control their tastebuds. What a relief! I no longer have to practice eating spicy foods, hoping to "get used to them."

Professor Tepper says the taste test for super-tasters tells much more about them. They're the people who find two percent milk "creamy," so they don't crave really high-fat foods. Tepper divided test volunteers into non-tasters (about twenty-five percent of Caucasians); medium-tasters (fifty percent); and super-tasters (twenty-five percent.) When she offered a mixed group a choice of salad dressings, the non-tasters all preferred the high-fat dressings.

Tepper and others found many other taste preferences. Folks with the bitterness gene called PROP (for a bitter compound named propylthiouracil) also perceive sweetness more, creaminess more and of course spiciness more. Yes! No wonder I often think desserts are unnecessarily sweet. When I make cookies I always reduce the amount of sugar a bit, though I'll admit I've never had anyone complain. I have long wondered why store-bought cookies are sweeter than necessary. (Mind you, I love chocolate and ice cream, those don't seem to bother my PROP gene one bit.)

The theory is that super-tasters have more tastebuds. In taste tests, they have a rich vocabulary to describe dairy products; non-tasters can come up with just an adjective or two.

Tepper is trying to find out how tastebuds affect people's weight. She discovered women in their forties who were super-tasters were twenty percent thinner than non-tasters. They liked all kinds of vegetables, which some non-tasters don't, and they appeared to eat less overall than others did. Apparently one in four Caucasians, being a super-taster, finds it easier to avoid temptation than others do. My family has always claimed this about me, but I find it annoying, because when I turn down a rich dessert it isn't because I'm not tempted, it's because I make a real effort to stay in control. Perhaps it IS easier for me?

Think back on your own food consumption. Where do you think you fall in the "PROP taster categories?"

Ruth Page has been following environmental issues for twenty years. She is a long time Vermont resident and currently lives in Shelburne.

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