Are you a super-taster or a non-taster? How we experience food and drink
Why do old people love salt? How does a plate’s colour make food taste different? And which is more sensitive, your tongue or your nose? Let’s ask an expert in taste
‘We make ourselves like alcohol even though it is a toxin.’ A wine-tasting in Tuscany. Photograph: Getty Images
Barry Smith is a man of impeccable taste. He is, in fact, a professor of taste and knows more about how and why we experience flavours than almost anyone else on the planet. It is hard, then, not to be crushed when he tells us we have failed his “super-taster test”.
And our failure takes seconds. Smith hands us a piece of paper – like blotting paper, if you are old enough to remember that – to chew on. This tasting strip is coated in PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and if we are super-tasters it will be unbearably bitter.
It tastes of nothing, so we’re not of the super-taster or even just the taster family. It is a non-taster world for us.
Sensing our obvious disappointment, Smith, from the British Institute of Philosophy and Centre for the Study of the Senses, says this is a good thing. Super-tasters tend to be incredibly picky with what they eat and rarely experiment with new things. Non-tasters have reduced sensitivity, but it means they are more adventurous when it comes to food, and willing to experiment.
“Super-taster is a misnomer, really,” he says. “It is more like a hypersensitivity; being a non-taster means you are very adventurous.” That is the first piece of news Smith has, but it is bland by comparison with all his other tasting revelations.
For a start, people give tongues too much credit. When it comes to taste it’s important but not the be-all and end-all, because we taste as much with our noses, our brains and even our ears as our tongues.
Smith has a very simple way to prove how unimportant the tongue can be – and you can try this at home. Hold your nose tightly closed and pop a few mint leaves into your mouth. As you chew you’ll most likely get no flavour. But let go of your nose and breathe in, and suddenly you will experience a wave of minty freshness.
This is because the only taste receptors on our tongues are salt, sweet, bitter, sour, savoury (umami) and metallic. We don’t have a mint receptor and can only recognise its flavour because of its smell. It’s the same with melons, pineapples and thousands of other commonly consumed foods.
“Older people quite frequently lose their sense of smell, and this is why they say food doesn’t taste they way it used to. So they put more salt in their food to capture lost flavours and that is obviously not to be recommended,” he says.
Too much mustard
As well as our tongues and noses, spice can affect our food experience, but it activates a different system, involving the trigeminal nerve in the face – the one that makes our noses sting when we eat too much mustard. The trigeminal nerve is the reason anyone who says you can’t drink wine with spicy food is talking nonsense. “Spicy food is only affecting the trigeminal nerve. It does not affect in any way your taste receptors,” says Smith.
He gives us Szechuan peppercorns to eat. At first there is a floral hit, after which there is a tingle on the tongue and the taste turns sour. It feels like electricity on the lips. It is. “The pepper is making the tissue on the tongue vibrate at 50 hertz and it is the microvibration that is creating the sense of flavour.”
Pricewatch eats too many crisps but did not know that there is virtually no difference between fresh and stale crisps.
“When you eat crisps fresh out of the bag you think they taste one way, but if the bag has been left open for some time you will say they are stale,” says Smith. “All that means is the crisps are crumbling differently. Tasting stale crisps is a feeling rather than a taste. They are actually fine to eat. If you crumble up stale and fresh crisps and you will not be able to taste the difference.”
Learning to love a toxin
That is not the only element of taste that is in the mind. “We make ourselves like alcohol even though it is a toxin,” the professor says. And like most toxins, it is bitter. Our ancestors learned to avoid bitter things because they were toxic but we have learned to overcome bitterness, and alcohol, dark chocolate, coffee and Guinness have become symbols of a sophisticated taste.
“I always laugh when I hear a chef saying that they’ve seasoned a dish perfectly. How do they know? We all taste things differently. Something which might be too salty for you might be perfect for me. I would like to see chefs starting with a tasting strip and working out how individual diners respond to certain flavours.
“I think the three-star Michelin restaurants are having to think of new things. Maybe they should find out what individuals like and cook dishes that are exactly right for them. The future is going to be tailored dining.”
It sounds complicated. But not as complex as Smith’s world of wine, however. He reveals that when it comes to wine the temperature controls everything. “If you serve it at five different temperatures, you can have the same champagne with five different courses in a menu,” says Smith. “I dream of restaurants that give those ordering wine a test tube containing the wine at three different temperatures. You could try all three. Then choose a temperature and have a device at your table that keeps it at exactly the same temperature for the whole meal.”
And then there is sound.
If you drink wine listening to music with predominantly high notes played on a piano, the acidity and sweetness is accentuated. If it’s all about the bass, the bitterness shines through.Smith tells a story of how Heston Blumenthal proved the point. “He served a bitter-sweet toffee to diners and changed the music throughout the course. ‘He made the toffee change flavour in time with the music,’ they said. He is clever but he is not that clever. All he was doing with the music was drawing their attention to certain flavours.”
Coffee in a blue glass
There is more. Smith says that strawberry mousse tastes 10 per cent sweeter on a white plate while coffees will taste less bitter if served in a transparent blue glass. If a soft drink is red you expect it to be sweet and if it is yellow you expect it to be sour. Serve a sweet soft drink in a yellow bottle and people will hate it, like they hated “colourless Coke”. It was sold under the name Tab Clear and it bombed. When people were blindfolded it tasted the same as Coke, but when they saw that it was clear they were unconvinced.
Smith has been working with Knorr on its high-end stock and flavour. “I like working with companies that are making things which are complex and interesting, and I like their history. Knorr was a Swiss automotive engineering firm. During the war, when food was scarce, the owner decided to make a bouillon for his workers to drink, and they loved it so much that they wanted more and eventually he became a food manufacturer by accident. He stumbled on to something that worked. That really appeals to me.”