Donders Wonders Blog

Are picky eaters really just highly sensitive tasters?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Pickiness in eating is often associated with a lack of sophistication or just plain fussiness but taste research suggests that picky eaters may actually be highly sensitive tasters.

We all know people who are picky eaters. Perhaps you are one yourself. Picky eaters and people who are reticent to try new foods are often thought of as unsophisticated or fussy, people who are unable to appreciate more refined tastes. However, research into taste perception suggests the opposite: people who are picky eaters may actually be highly sensitive tasters.

Picky eating in childhood is thought to have an evolutionary basis, but not everyone grows out of it.

Image by LiveLaughLove via pixabay (CC0).

The daughter of a wine connoisseur, Anne Fadiman struggled most of her life with her dislike of wine, thinking she had an inferior palate. That was until, as she describes in her article, “How science saved me from pretending to love wine,” she discovered, through a series of taste tests, that she belonged to an elite group of highly sensitive tasters.

Taste sensitivity and fungiform papillae

Taste sensitivity is in part determine by the number of fungiform papillae on your tongue and their nerve connections. Fungiform papillae are the mushroom-shaped protrusions (as the name suggests) on the front and sides of our tongues that contain taste buds. In general, the more fungiform papillae, and the more sensitive the nerve connections, the more sensitive the taster.

Taste sensitivity is in part determined by the number of fungiform papillae (the larger mushroom-like bumps on our tongues) and their nerve connections.

Image via Pixabay (CC0).

Highly sensitive tasters are often confused with “supertasters,” a term meant to refer to people who are highly sensitive to the bitter taste of the chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Not everyone can taste PROP. In fact, estimates suggest that 25% of people (called “non-tasters”) cannot taste PROP at all, while 25% (called “supertasters”) are highly sensitive to it, being able to detect it at extremely low concentrations. Studies have found that the presence of some variants of genes coding for taste receptors is related to how people perceive PROP. In Fadiman’s case, her heightened sensitivity to bitterness was to blame for her aversion to most wine (a trait that is more common than one would expect).

The appropriateness of PROP

Because of its features, PROP has often been used to measure taste sensitivity, but many researchers argue that it is not a representative measure for taste sensitivity in general. First of all, bitterness is very complex so people who are not sensitive to PROP may still be sensitive to other bitter compounds. Moreover, as you may remember from this blog, there are at least four other basic tastes besides bitterness: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and umami (the savory taste of meat). People can be differentially sensitive to the different tastes. As with the sensitivity to the bitterness of PROP, our sensitivity to other tastes may also have a genetic basis. So far researchers have found evidence for genetic variations that are associated with differences in sensitivity to sweet and umami tastes.

Taken together, genetics and the subsequent physiology of our tongue may explain a large part of our taste preferences. That’s why something you think is delicious may disgust someone else. So people who are picky aren’t just trying to be difficult. However, as always, “biology is not destiny,” and our taste sensitivity can change over time with exposure to certain tastes. So by retrying you may find that some food, which you initially did not like, is not so bad after all.

Written by Monica Wagner, edited by Eva Klimars, and translated by Rowena Emaus.

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