Some of us are born with blue eyes and some with brown, some have more freckles, some have curly hair and some of us, lucky or unlucky depending on your outlook, are born with more taste buds than the rest. Supertasters, as they are known have tongues that are jam packed with taste buds, as many as 1,100 per square centimeter. On the other end of the spectrum lie non-tasters with as little as 11 buds per square centimeter.
These taste buds send signals through the chorda tympani and the trigeminal nerve which are involved in sensing not just taste, but pain, temperature and touch. What this means is not only that supertasters are more sensitive to the bitterness of coffee or the sting of alcohol, but that they are “super-feelers and super-pain perceivers, at least with their tongues.”
Fat for instance doesn’t trigger a taste the way one might taste the sweetness of frosting or the bitterness of a lemon, but taste buds do react to the touch of fat. In a study by Dr. Valerie Duffy of the University of Connecticut, subjects were asked to taste milk with different fat content from skim all the way to heavy cream and cream with oil added. While the difference between skim and heavy cream was lost on the non-tasting subjects, super-tasters could sense the increasing levels of fat, presumably due to their heavy concentrations of taste buds.
Taste is not, however a static thing and may be subject to age and hormones. Says, Dr. Laurie Lucchina, a postdoctoral student at Yale University, “Sensitivity to PROP,” the chemical now used to test for taste acuity, “tends to decline with age. ” After menopause, women who are super-tasters are no longer as sensitive to bitter foods. Additionally pregnant non-tasters who had always enjoyed a morning cup of coffee, may find the taste unbearably bitter during their first trimester.