A Talent For Tasting

Supertasters' discriminating abilities are right on the tips of their tongues.

September 29, 2004|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,SUN FOOD EDITOR

Fifteen years ago, Lillian Wagner was working in the packaging plant of Vanns Spices filling bottles when the companyM-Fs owner, Ann Wilder, asked employees to try samples of a sandwich spread.

Wilder was trying to develop a nonfat recipe for Miracle Whip and had grown weary of tasting various versions herself. She gave the samples to the employees and right away Wagner noted differences in their flavor, picking out hints of nutmeg, for example.

M-tIt became immediately apparent she had a real talent,M-v Wilder says.

Wilder snatched Wagner off the production line and put her to work helping create spice blends. Today, Wagner, 73, is VannsM-F chief blender in charge of coming up with new seasonings for the companyM-Fs wholesale and retail markets.

Wagner says the promotion surprised her. M-tI had no education,M-v she says. M-tItM-Fs just that my taste buds work well.M-v

Although Wagner has never been tested, she apparently is among the 25 percent of the population scientists have dubbed M-tsupertasters.M-v

Supertasters are born with more taste buds M-y as many as 100 times more M-y than most of the population and taste flavors more acutely, says Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a researcher at Yale University School of Medicine who studies taste.

Scientists have known since the 1930s that peopleM-Fs abilities to taste vary. Today, researchers are exploring why some people taste more acutely than others and are uncovering intriguing links between the sense of taste and health.

Until Wilder made her the chief blender, Wagner never knew she could taste things others couldnM-Ft, even though she had worked around food most of her life, as a waitress, car-hop and cafeteria server, before going to work at Vanns.

Yet her sense is so accurate that she can take a blend of unknown spices and quickly duplicate it. Working in a small corner of the Vanns warehouse in West Baltimore, she scoops spices and seasonings from rubber tubs, weighs them on a scale and mixes them into blends that will be used in restaurants or sold on grocery shelves.

Some of these

blends can contain as many as 20 herbs and spices, says Dara Bunjon, the companyM-Fs public relations and marketing manager. M-tShe makes it seem simple, but it isnM-Ft.M-v

Bartoshuk and her team are studying why some people have such tasting abilities. She first came up with the supertaster label in 1990 after a study in which she gave subjects a bitter compound called 6-n-propylthiouracil.

About a quarter of the group could not taste the compound, about half could taste a slight bitterness and the rest tasted acute bitterness. These were the supertasters.

Bartoshuk says further research revealed that supertasters seem more sensitive to all kinds of tastes and mouth sensations, not just bitter. Sweets, particularly sugars, seem twice as sweet to supertasters. And supertasters also perceive more pain M-y from chile peppers, black pepper, ethyl alcohol, carbonation in carbonated water, she says.

Researchers recently have identified the gene that can make someone a supertaster or nontaster, she says, but that gene alone doesnM-Ft seem to account for the differences.

Women are more often supertasters than men. Asians tend to have a higher percentage of supertasters than other ethnic groups. And not surprisingly, chefs tend to be supertasters.

That is not to say that only supertasters can succeed in the food business. Wilder says she isnM-Ft a supertaster and she has run a successful spice business for decades.

And there is a difference between knowing about taste and knowing about flavor.

Taste buds on the tongue and lining of the mouth can detect sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and some say a fifth M-y umani M-y found in foods such as tomatoes and mushrooms.

But we need our sense of smell to detect flavors, such as chocolate or cherry.

To prove it, just try putting a jelly bean on your tongue and holding your nose. You can taste the sweet, but not until you release your nose can you detect the flavor.

And what might not come natural can be taught.

M-tYou can educate people to learn to detect certain f lavors,M-v says Silvia King, principal scientist in the Sensory Science laboratory at McCormick & Co.

McCormick uses employees, consumers and experts to develop and test products. While computers can analyze the components of food, people are needed to describe what those ingredients taste and smell like, King says. But they do not need to be supertasters to do it, she says.

McCormick scientists screen paid panelists not only for their ability to taste, but also for their sense of smell, and just as important, their ability to describe the foods they experience.

Once they are hired, they go through a six-month training period before they are placed on panels that meet three times a week, says Terry Work, director of the laboratory.

Recently, one 10-member group sat in a room tasting the saltiness of potato chips.

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