Do you know any picky eaters who can’t stand certain foods? Genetics help shape our sense of taste and explain why we prefer bitter or sweet, like why we like coffee black or with sugar. We look at the range of individual tastes and how chefs and sommeliers account for them in perfecting a meal.


  • Steven Munger Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine
  • Patrice Olivon Program Director of Culinary Arts at L'Academie de Cuisine
  • Jay Youmans Master of Wine, Educational Director and owner of the Capital Wine School, and owner of Rock Creek Wine Merchants.

WAMU 88.5 Staff Take The Supertaster Test

Kojo Nnamdi Show listeners and WAMU 88.5 staff put their taste buds to the test to find out who’s a supertaster and who’s an average taster. Scroll down for a special video revealing whether Kojo is a supertaster.

One in four people is a supertaster, someone who’s genetically predisposed to experience salty, sweet, bitter and sour flavors more intensely than the average person.

The test works by placing a strip of P.T.C. paper on your tongue. The ingredient in the paper, Phenylthiourea-Phenylthiocarbamide, is extremely bitter to a supertaster, who senses the bitterness within a micro-second, whereas an average or non-taster detects little to no bitterness.

Kojo Nnamdi Takes The Supertaster Test

Host Kojo Nnamdi discovers whether or not he has extra sensitive taste receptors.


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday. Do you think you can taste things that others can't? When you bite into an olive, does it taste pleasantly salty or does it taste so bitter you want to spit it out?

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINot everyone experiences taste the same way. One in four people have extra sensitive taste buds that allow them to taste a greater spectrum of flavors than the rest of us. but being a super taster isn't always a positive experience. sweet foods can be too sweet, salty foods too salty and bitter foods can be positively repulsive.

  • 13:07:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur genes determine our taste, whether we like our coffee black or with cream, whether we prefer red wines or white. Culture is another factor, our taste buds reflect the foods our ancestors ate.

  • 13:07:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday we explore the science and art of taste with Steve Munger. He is a professor of anatomy and neuro-biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He does research on chemo sensation. Steve Munger, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:02

    MR. STEVEN MUNGERThanks for having me.

  • 13:08:04

    NNAMDIAnd Patrice Olivon is a chef at L'Academie de Cuisine. Patrice, good to see you again.

  • 13:08:09

    MR. PATRICE OLIVONNice to see you again Kojo.

  • 13:08:11

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Jay Youmans. He is the only Master of Wine Sommelier in D.C., educational director and owner of the Capital Wine School and owner of Rock Creek Wine Merchants. Jay, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:27

    MR. JAY YOUMANSThank you.

  • 13:08:28

    NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850, you can send email to Do you think you or someone you know is a super taster? What foods do you find unbearable to eat? 800-433-8850, you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:08:48

    NNAMDISteve, I'll start with you. Some of us prefer salty foods, others prefer sweet, the reason is genetic. You conduct research on taste and smell, how do our genes shape our sense of taste?

  • 13:09:01

    MUNGERWell, there are a couple of different ways. certainly there's a lot of variety just in our ability to recognize taste. We have dedicated genes that are involved in recognizing sweet things, in recognizing bitter things, salty, sour, umami, the savory taste of glutamate.

  • 13:09:19

    MUNGERAll of those have variance in the human population that can basically create how sensitive we are to those compounds. But there are also genetic differences in how many sensors we have in our tongue, which is something usually affiliated with the super tasting name.

  • 13:09:37

    MUNGERAnd we also have differences that are probably genetic that, how adventurous we are, how motivated we are to eat things. And all of those feed back onto our specific taste. And then finally we also have a lot of variation in our sense of smell which contributes greatly to the perceived flavors of any foods we eat.

  • 13:10:00

    NNAMDISome people love olives while others can't stand them and some people actually experience discomfort while eating them. Can you explain the heightened sensitivity in this last group called super tasters?

  • 13:10:13

    MUNGERSo super tasters were first defined by the oversensitivity to a particular, bitter tasting compound called phenylthiocarbamide and this is still the way a lot of people are tested for super tasting. But that's just one particular bitter compound.

  • 13:10:33

    MUNGERSuper tasters really appear to be greatly sensitive to bitter and sweet and salty, sour and umami tastes and this is probably because they just have more taste buds on their tongue and it's a developmental difference in people where you have, if you look at the number of bumps on your tongue, these papilla that hold the taste buds, that they are just greater in number.

  • 13:10:56

    NNAMDISo how do I know if I'm a super taster?

  • 13:10:59

    MUNGERUsually the way people will test it is to take a little piece of paper that's embedded with one of these particular bitter compounds called PTC or PROP and you put it on your tongue and then you rate it on a particular scale.

  • 13:11:13

    MUNGERIf you can't taste it all, you're a non-taster for those. If you taste it and it's very bitter, then you'd be considered a normal taster. If you taste it and it is so intensely bitter you just find it up there with the most disgusting and horrible things you've ever tasted, then you're likely to be a super taster.

  • 13:11:31

    NNAMDIWhat happens if there's a slight delay in when you notice the bitterness? Because when I took the test today there was such a slight delay and I'm wondering if A, I was influenced by the fact that I went to our website,, and saw how others responded to the test and the super tasters always immediately tasted bitter and so I think that suggestion may have been in my mind because I don't consider myself a super taster.

  • 13:11:56

    NNAMDISo anyway, Brendan Sweeny said I'm a moderate super taster, whatever that means at this point. But how instantly do you taste it if you're a super taster?

  • 13:12:04

    MUNGERUsually with bitter it's, and this is true with any bitter compounds, is very instantaneous because we evolved to taste bitter compounds because they're usually associated with toxicity. A lot of plants make compounds that are bitter to warn us away from them.

  • 13:12:18

    MUNGERThings like cyanide and strychnine are bitter tasting although you shouldn't test those out.

  • 13:12:22

    NNAMDII will try not to.

  • 13:12:24

    MUNGERSo being very quick about it is the norm. If you had a bit of a delay it may have just been to let the chemical get out of the paper onto your tongue.

  • 13:12:35

    NNAMDIWe were curious, as we said, to see how many of us here at WAMU 88.5 are super tasters so we conducted our own test. You can go online to see a video of the results that is at our website, If you'd like to join the conversation you can give us a call, 800-433-8850.

  • 13:12:52

    NNAMDII so wanted to be a super taster but I don't think I am. Jay, how does sensitivity to taste affect the way people experience wine?

  • 13:13:01

    YOUMANSWell, certainly with red wines sensitivity to bitterness determines whether or not they're going to like the wine. Certain grape varieties and styles of wine are more tannic. Tannin is something that comes out of the skin and the seed of the grape and that's where the bitterness in wine can come from.

  • 13:13:19

    YOUMANSAlso oak barrels where wine's stored can be the source of bitterness so one of the things I look for in trying to find out what somebody's preference is, you know, how they drink their coffee. Do they drink it black, do they drink it with cream, do they drink it with cream and sugar?

  • 13:13:36

    YOUMANSAnd for me that's often a good determinate of how they're going to like what style of, particularly red wine they like.

  • 13:13:44

    NNAMDIWhat's the difference in tastes between $10.00 bottle of wine and $50.00 of wine? Can everybody tell the difference or does it take a trained palette?

  • 13:13:54

    YOUMANSThat's a great question. I think there, it doesn't take a trained palette. I think a lot of times blind tastings establish just that, that $10 bottle of wine can often be as good as $50 bottle of wine. I think wine experts get used to certain styles of wine and they think they can recognize that but that's the beauty of a blind tasting. You take the price tag and the label off and sometimes you're surprised by the results.

  • 13:14:21

    NNAMDITell us what you do? 800-433-8850, can you taste the difference between an inexpensive bottle of wine and an expensive one? 800-433-8850. Patrice, taste is generally separated into four categories, salty, sweet, sour and bitter. When you're preparing a dish, how do you find the right balance among these tastes?

  • 13:14:44

    OLIVONYes. It's always a big challenge and for a professional chef more challenge because we try to please the client, the people who come to the restaurant. And so we don't know that they're, how they respond to those so we have to have the right balance.

  • 13:14:59

    OLIVONAnd so we train, we do train our student academy very hard on this because, and I always tell them, you're not cooking yourself, you're cooking for the public. So we have to be sort of in the middle and I did actually today brought some sample in here for, we're going to train you today, Kojo.

  • 13:15:17

    NNAMDII noticed.

  • 13:15:19

    OLIVONYes. And so what we do we break it down to those four different categories and we start first, we start with the salt. So whatever you prepare you've got to try to put the right amount of salt first. Now, you never know what is the right amount so you want to stay a little bit behind.

  • 13:15:31

    OLIVONAnd so immediately when you taste the food you're not looking for the salt. You're looking for the taste of that food because what the salt does is kind of wake up everything and brights it up and this way you can feel the different layers.

  • 13:15:43

    OLIVONAnd then after that, the next step would be to add a little bit of sweetness to whatever you do. so this way you counter balance the salt a little bit and then when you add the sweetness, again, some people are more receptive to the sweet or not. I personally have a sweet tooth.

  • 13:15:57

    OLIVONBut as a professional I have to take that in consideration and so I know I like a lot of sugar so I'm going to stay, you know, a little bit moderate on the sugar. And so we start bittering it up with also with the bitterness also. And today what I did is I took some tuna, I hope you like tuna salad.

  • 13:16:14


  • 13:16:14

    OLIVONYou can do the same thing with chicken and I kind of add the first one, some salt and then the second little canapé that you have in there it's with the sugar. So I try to balance the sugar. For the bitterness I use bitter, you know, the one, the bitter you use for drinks.

  • 13:16:31

    OLIVONBut bitterness can be introduced to the food by ingredients like black olives or maybe celery which is good in tuna salad by the way. And then after that the final, what I did is finish it up with the sour so I put lemon juice on it.

  • 13:16:46

    OLIVONSo I as you taste those different stages you should really make the difference between, you know, all this and at the end it should pop out all in one and you say, this is what a good tuna salad should taste like.

  • 13:16:58

    NNAMDIWell, I'll be conducting my taste test even as we speak. First with Michael in Eastern Shore, Md. So Michael, if you don't hear me speaking while you're talking, I'll be tasting. But go ahead please Michael.

  • 13:17:12

    MICHAELThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. I have a question about how the brain handles taste, here's why. About 12 years ago I had surgery to one of the cranial nerves and it was completely successful, but the doc said that things will not -- they'll never taste the same to you again.

  • 13:17:35

    MICHAELAnd that turned out to be true. The one thing I can remember is the Coca-Cola tasted like wet cardboard and a lot of other things, you know. It was unpleasant, but after a couple of weeks that went away and Coke started tasting like Coke again.

  • 13:17:57

    MICHAELSo on a follow up visit with the doc, I said, Great news, it looks like my nerve healed. And he said, Not likely. He said what's happening is your brain remembers what Coke should taste like and it's telling you that it's Coke and that's why it tastes like Coke to you. What do you guys think about that?

  • 13:18:20

    NNAMDISteve Munger.

  • 13:18:21

    MUNGERWell, I think your physician's idea is largely correct. I mean, it depends on which cranial nerve was...

  • 13:18:31

    MICHAELIt was Glossopharyngeal, which is that like the fifth cranial nerve or…

  • 13:18:35

    MUNGERIt's the ninth and it serves the back of the tongue. So it is very important for taste but you also have another nerve that goes to the front of the tongue and they have, and also goes to the roof of your mouth an area called the gasmakstrifen (sp?) my favorite German word, the taste strip.

  • 13:18:54

    MUNGERIt's on your soft palette and so you have that facial nerve, the two branches that go to the front of your tongue and to your palette where you're still getting taste information but you've lost it in the back of your tongue because of the surgery to that nerve.

  • 13:19:07

    MUNGERSo it takes a little while for your brain to sort of reorient itself to little less input. You're still getting some, it's not exactly the same but it's coming close and you're able to compensate for that.

  • 13:19:20

    NNAMDIMichael, thank you very much for your call. Patrice, how do you account, and I've so far gone through half. I've done the salt and then I did the sugar and I could tell that I have something of a sweet tooth because as soon as I tasted the sugar, I haven't gotten to the bitter and the sour yet, but how do you account for varying preferences while you're complying a menu? Do you try to have mild and bold dishes or do you think about it in a completely different way?

  • 13:19:45

    OLIVONYes, again, a very good question. It depends also where the chef comes from. I personally I come from the south of France where we like strong, bold flavor, you know, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and so forth. So I have tendency to cook, my style, and that's why there is different restaurants in town, that's the beauty of this actually is because you don't go to a restaurant and have the chef cooking the same way at each of those restaurants.

  • 13:20:09

    OLIVONSo when I compose a menu, of course I try to do my favorite stuff. I try to please the customer, but I do respect the fact that I'm not cooking for myself. I cook with garlic all day, but I don't see anybody else who could do that. So you try to think about this and cut down a little bit and make an attractive menu. But you've got to put your input, your own style, where you're coming from. It's going to be in your dish. No matter what you do, it's going to be there. And really much emphasize on where I come from when I cook.

  • 13:20:39

    NNAMDIWell, I've not completed my taste test. And I'm thinking of the difference between one where I just had salt and two where you add sugar, three where you add bitter and four where you add sour. And the difference between one and four is noticeable.

  • 13:20:55

    OLIVONOh, completely. Now go back to number one and you're going to say, oh I thought that was good.

  • 13:20:59

    NNAMDIYeah, I thought it was good, but number four...

  • 13:21:01

    OLIVONNow you can go back to number four...

  • 13:21:04

    NNAMDI...and number four -- the reason why you won't hear me talking for a while is because number four is so good that I'll be eating. So we'll take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue this conversation on your taste buds. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:10

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation about understanding your taste buds. We're talking with Jay Youmans. He is the only master of wine sommelier in D.C., educational director and owner of the Capital Wine School and owner of Rock Creek Wine Merchants. He joins us in studio along with Steve Munger. He's a profession of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He does research on chemo sensation. And Patrice Olivon is a chef at L'Academie de Cuisine.

  • 13:23:41

    NNAMDIYou can join us at 800-433-8850. Steve, what kind of influence does our sense of smell have on our taste? Are super tasters also super smellers?

  • 13:23:52

    MUNGERNot necessarily. And -- but smell is absolutely critical for the way we perceive flavor. And most people when they talk about tasting something, they're really talking about the flavor of food. And flavor is a combination of its taste, what's happening on the tongue, the smell and is usually major component is the smell. And also things like heat and spice. Hot chili peppers contributes to flavor, temperature. And even things like your visual cues can influence how you think something is tasting.

  • 13:24:24

    MUNGERBut odors are absolutely critical. If you've ever had a head cold and tried to eat something and it doesn't taste right -- well, actually if you put the salt or sugar on your tongue those would still work. You're just losing your ability to perceive this complex odor molecules that are coming off the food and contributing to your brain's overall perception of the food.

  • 13:24:46

    NNAMDIJay Youmans, tell us about the importance of smell in wine tasting.

  • 13:24:51

    YOUMANSIt's everything. It's 65 percent of assessing a wine and -- especially in blind tastings, professional do a lot of blind tastings to train their pallets and their ability to pick up faults in wine and characteristics in wine. And smell is -- it's everything. I also want to mention, I'm a master of wine but Kathy Morgan, a good friend of mine, is the only master sommelier in town and she would give me a hard time if I didn't mention that.

  • 13:25:17

    NNAMDIYes. Patrice, all of us enjoy eating, but not everybody can articulate why they like a particular dish or a particular drink. Do you think you were born with a more sophisticated pallet or is it something you developed? And the same question for Jay, but first you, Patrice.

  • 13:25:34

    OLIVONYes. Definitely you develop it. And, you know, that's why you go to school, that's why you learn this craft. You know, you don't instantly decide that you will become a chef and everything tastes good. There's a lot of steps, a lot of hard work obviously. But I think also it comes in a very early age. I have a young daughter and I always try to give her the food that I was eating at the table, and not just macaroni and cheese. I try to get different variety. And I'd probably tone down the taste a little bit when it comes to salt and bitterness and all that for those kids because they have a tendency to react faster, to a bitterness especially. So they don't want to eat the green vegetable which is good for them.

  • 13:26:12

    OLIVONSo a little bit at a time. And then I've noticed as you get older, for myself, I have a tendency to make food a little more spicier, a little more -- and when I say spice I don't mean hot spice. I could mean like lots of cumin and other things. So either I'm losing taste buds or I want to make the food even more interesting and powerful and that. So it is a little bit of (unintelligible) at the time. It's a learning process. It's also, I think personally, have an open mind on food, be about to accept any type of food and taste it. And then, you know, make an assumption. Say, okay I like it or I don't like it. But I think you start at an early age and throughout your entire life.

  • 13:26:53

    NNAMDIJay, is there something you can develop or were you born with the wine pallet that you now have?

  • 13:26:57

    YOUMANSI think it's skill you develop. I think -- in my case I believe -- I don't think I'm a super taster necessarily, but I've practiced at it, worked at it. And it's a skill that you develop. I don't think anybody becomes a super taster in wine just by opening a bottle and saying this is what this is. But, you know, when I taste wines and when I smell wines, it's almost like you're in a car and you're listening to a radio and a song comes on and, you know, right away the music. You know who's playing. And for me, that's the way I -- when I smell and taste wine, how I recognize wines for me. But it's all practice. It's experience.

  • 13:27:37

    NNAMDIIt's learn to taste. On to the telephones where a multitude awaits us. So Alan, we'll start with you in Washington, D.C. Alan, go ahead, please.

  • 13:27:47

    ALANHi. I had a question. Earlier there was a statement made that a person can tell what kind of wine they may like by the comparison to coffee. And I'm curious to know a little more about that. And I kind of see it in my own preferences, like -- and I was curious what you would recommend to somebody like me, I like basically black coffee and strong coffee, what you would say -- what you would guess what kind of wines I would like.

  • 13:28:19


  • 13:28:19

    YOUMANSWell, three's other questions that I ask, but what I would say to you is the style of wine that -- when I hear you say that I would suggest to you big tannic wines with a lot of -- when we say tannin we're talking specifically red wines that have seen, you know, exposure to the grapes and it's extracted what we call bitterness in tannins stringency of the wine. And my experience is that people that like black coffee are more likely to like that style of wine.

  • 13:28:55

    YOUMANSYou know, you're probably somebody that -- I'm just guessing -- maybe somebody that might like scotch and cognac as well. On the other hand I might ask you, do you like artificial softeners, you know, flavoring in thinks like Coke and Pepsi? When you taste something like that, what does it do? Do you have a reaction to it?

  • 13:29:15

    ALANNot really. I mean, I drink Coke but I don't really either, you know, love it or hate it. It just -- it's fine. I like Coke but it's not something I think about I really like, like I really enjoy a cup of coffee. But I think you're right. I mean, I tend to go for Zinfandels and, you know, bigger red wines like that. And it's just that's an interesting comparison. It's interesting.

  • 13:29:36

    YOUMANSWhat it tells me is you're more tolerant of alcohol and oak and tannin. And so...

  • 13:29:44

    NNAMDISo he would be a red wine kind of guy?

  • 13:29:47

    YOUMANSThat would be my bet, yeah.

  • 13:29:49

    NNAMDIAre you, Alan?

  • 13:29:51


  • 13:29:51

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. Not only did both you, Jay and you, Patrice perfect the art of taste yourself, but you're also both teachers, instructors. How do you teach students to look for the subtleties in fine cuisine when we all perceive tastes differently?

  • 13:30:09

    OLIVONIt is very difficult. Not everyone -- I would say not everyone's going to get to that perfection. I mean, there is no perfection. But even as you're still learning I notice it in some students, which I can't say it, and to me they're never going to get what I want them to be. Is it because they're not as young as I wish they would be and then I can train them better? Or it is something totally like this is it. This is as much as there's going to be -- to test and that's it.

  • 13:30:41

    OLIVONAnd I noticed that some other students who progress very fast and really get to where I want them to be when it comes to balancing all those flavors. So it varies person to person.

  • 13:30:52

    NNAMDIJay Youmans.

  • 13:30:53

    YOUMANSWell, I think what we try to -- what I try to teach people is to recognize -- to learn how to articulate what they're tasting in wine. And not so they can learn to appreciate particular styles but so they can recognize and identify what they like in wine. And I think it's -- not everybody's going to like every style of wine. And one of the challenges is to try to find out what preferences somebody has and steer them into the direction that'll, you know, please them.

  • 13:31:26

    NNAMDIHere is Josh in Washington, D.C. Josh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:31

    JOSHHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm calling because I sort of seem to have an ability that I'm not supposed to have. I'm a total anosmic. I have no sense of smell at all. I mean, you could literally store skunks under my bed. And for a question for Dr. Munger, flavors seem complex to me. And, you know, undoubtedly my sense is degraded in some way. But when I go to a restaurant I agree with people who can smell, whether the food is good or bad or bland or flavorful.

  • 13:32:01

    JOSHAnd every article I've read about anosmia says, for instance, that I'm not supposed to be able to tell identical hard candies apart by flavor. But I've literally blindfolded myself with identical hard candies. And the difference between, like, a butterscotch and a cinnamon hard candy is very blatant to me. So I just kind of wonder what could be going on and, you know, could I come to your lab?

  • 13:32:28

    NNAMDISteve Munger.

  • 13:32:30

    MUNGERWell, you'd certainly be welcomed to visit though I wouldn't be able to actually test you with anything. Can I ask you? Have you been anosmic for your entire life or...

  • 13:32:40

    JOSHAs far as I know.

  • 13:32:41


  • 13:32:41

    JOSHFor my entire memory.

  • 13:32:42

    MUNGEROkay. So people who are born anosmic often have a lot better success in being able to appreciate foods and interact with foods in that way because you've never known anything different. So your entire concept of food is basically the key sensory palette that you were dealt. Just like someone who's red green color blind doesn't see red and green but they still see and the world is the arrangement that it is.

  • 13:33:15

    MUNGERYou probably -- so for people who lose their sense of smell later in life oftentimes find that to be much more debilitating because they remember what food used to taste like. And that can be anything...

  • 13:33:26

    NNAMDIIndeed, Josh, hold on for a second and listen to Eileen in Washington, D.C. who might fit the bill of what Steve was just describing. Eileen, your turn.

  • 13:33:36

    EILEENThank you very much, Kojo. Can you hear me?

  • 13:33:38

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 13:33:39

    EILEENI had radiation therapy for soft palette cancer in 1999. And I lost my sense of taste and smell for about a year. Then it came back with a vengeance. I would've called myself a super smeller, super taster. And then ten years later in the year 2009 I lost both my sense of taste and smell completely. Does the doctor have any recommendations for me because it's kind of driving me crazy?

  • 13:34:09

    NNAMDIEileen seems to be the kind of person you were describing to Josh, someone who did have the sense of smell and taste in association and then lost them.

  • 13:34:17

    MUNGERYeah, I think that -- and that's often times when it can happen is with various treatments like radiation or chemotherapy. It can lead to that. The best I can recommend -- and I should say, I'm not a physician. I'm a scientist, so I can't actually recommend a treatment to you. But a ear, nose and throat doctor, otolaryngologist, might be able to better assess what sensory abilities you do have left. It may be that you have not completely lost but you have some small amount of sensitivity perhaps to salt or to certain types of odors, that you could then adjust your foods to include those flavor components that would make it more palatable to you.

  • 13:35:03

    MUNGERFor example, the previous caller mentioned being able to taste things like cinnamon candy quite well. The cinnamon is not actually a taste. It's an irritant and it also has an odor to it. But adding things like spices, hot peppers and stuff to your foods can give you those other sensory experiences that can make things a little bit more palatable.

  • 13:35:27

    NNAMDIEileen, thank you very much for your call. And, Josh, you too, thank you very much for your call. You wanted to say, Patrice.

  • 13:35:33

    OLIVONYou know also for people who cannot smell and taste the food, I mean, it must be terrible. I would be out of work if that happened to me. But I think also and (unintelligible) we react to the different tastes like that but we also react to different texture. So to make the food -- for those people, to make the food a little more interesting since they cannot taste the taste of the food, I would think that we'd make contrast between soft and crunchy, maybe between hot and cold.

  • 13:36:00

    OLIVONLet's say you have a salad and then you put some sautéed shrimp on top of a cold salad, the contrast between those two things will affect you and actually make the food more attractive. And also if you have contrast in foods without smelling and tasting it I think it's also what chefs are working on to make the food more attractive. So maybe somebody like that could try to get contrasts in the texture of the food and the temperature.

  • 13:36:26

    NNAMDIOn now to Joanne in Oak Hill, Va. Joanne, your turn.

  • 13:36:31

    JOANNEThis is great. I'm really enjoying the conversation about taste. I particularly am super sensitive to spices. I can't have anything even remotely spicy. My eyes tear, I go nuts. But yet my children really enjoy it, the hotter the better. And I'm wondering why I'm so different than the rest of my family.

  • 13:36:50

    NNAMDIAre you sure those are your children? No. Let me ask Steven to respond to that.

  • 13:36:55

    MUNGERWell, I may be a little out of my element here, but -- so spices like that actually activate a different sense than do smell and taste. And it's something we call chemesthesis. And basically what they do is they trick hot and cold sensors in your mouth or in your nose or in your eyelids, for example, where they are basically acting as irritants. So hot chili peppers, capsaicin is the main chemical there, or the spices in garlic or oregano are activating some of these pain and temperature sensors. Menthol is a cooling agent. It activates cold sensors.

  • 13:37:31

    MUNGERAnd some of that could definitely be genetic. Some of it may also be cultural. People who grow up in hotter climates that regularly use spicy additives to their foods probably, because they are antibacterial and act as preservatives, just grow up with them and become much more attuned to them and much more comfortable with them. So your children may also have a greater tolerance just because they experienced them earlier in their life.

  • 13:38:01

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Joanne. We got this email from Josh in Adams Morgan, Jay. "My in-laws in Indiana seem to enjoy only things that are immediately and entirely pleasurable, sweet Moscato wines, ice cold light beers, non-spicy foods, etcetera. My wife and I living in D.C. tend to prefer foods that mix pure pleasure with some complexity or even mild displeasures, strongly flavorful beer and spicy foods for instance. My wife moved from one world to another and her tastes changed entirely. Have my wife and I been peer pressured into preferring snobby tastes?"

  • 13:38:40

    YOUMANSI think possibly. There's definitely something to be said for -- I know a lot of wine professional feel like they have to like big full-bodied reds and certain styles of wine because that's what's supposedly sophisticated and makes them more -- you know, appear more knowledgeable. You know, first I would say for your in-laws, don't try to change them, you know. I think it's great they recognize they like sweet wines and they're happy with that. You're not going to change them.

  • 13:39:11

    YOUMANSI think if you get right down to it, a lot of people think they like certain styles of wine but, you know, I think often they're kidding themselves. They're trying to drink something that they think is what they should be drinking. You know, I know people -- you know, getting back to this situation with coffee, I know people will say, well I drink coffee. Yeah, you drink it with, you know, Irish cream in it which sweetens it.

  • 13:39:34

    YOUMANSSo -- and we do this with a lot of other foods, oysters. You know, you may say, oh I love oysters but you're also putting lots of lemon juice and maybe cocktail sauce and you're really masking -- you're balancing the flavor. So, you know, what I would say is yes, you probably have been kidding yourselves.

  • 13:39:52

    NNAMDIA part of this is cultural also, isn't it Steve Munger, depending on where you live, how you grew up, what your parents ate, that kind of thing?

  • 13:40:00

    MUNGERThat's going to be -- you know, what your grandmother cooked for you is going to have a huge influence on things you prefer when you get older.

  • 13:40:00

    MUNGERBut there's also, I think, other personality aspects about how comfortable you are with having your expectations defied. There's a whole -- over the last 15, 20 years, a whole movement in cooking, this modernist movement, sometimes called molecular gastronomy.

  • 13:40:22


  • 13:40:22

    MUNGEROne of the things that happens with that, is there's a lot of play with textures and expectations. Things look different than they actually taste, and it's the entertainment aspect of being fooled is part of the pleasure of that. Some people would be -- would really love that experience, and other people find that to be a complete waste of time. Why would you ruin good food by trying to make it all fancied up.

  • 13:40:50

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. What tricks do you use to get your children to eat the foods they don't like? Do you prefer sweet or salty foods? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Here is David in Shirlington, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:07

    DAVIDHi. This question is for Steve, I believe. You're the wine guy, yeah?

  • 13:41:11

    NNAMDINo. That would be Jay.

  • 13:41:13

    DAVIDOh, I'm sorry. There was a experiment done first in 2001 with 54 students from the Analogy School I believe in London that repeated in 2003 by the Journal of Wine Studies, where they had the students, and then other people including eventually a very well-known but they didn't give his name, a very well-known wine taster in Spain, where they had them taste white wine to describe it with white wine characteristics. It was a Sauvignon Blanc, so, you know, the grassy, the fruits, and so on.

  • 13:41:45

    DAVIDThen they dyed the same wine red to make it look like a red, and they started describing it as a cabernet or merlot with chicory and berry and so on. Have you heard of the study, and if so or if not, what are your thoughts?

  • 13:41:57

    NNAMDIWhat was going on there in your view, Jay?

  • 13:41:59

    YOUMANSI have heard of the study, and I think it was largely -- this is where your perception of a wine, you know, the way it looks, starts to affect your way of taste. That study went on to take about how white wines were being described with white fruits, citrus, melon, apple, and even though it was the same wine with color in it, red color, a dye, the red wine, the descriptors they were getting were cherries and raspberries, and it -- they were being prejudiced by their perception based on the color.

  • 13:42:34

    NNAMDIAnd you, Steve?

  • 13:42:36

    MUNGERWell, I was just going to say there is a related phenomenon that happened with a series of products a number of years ago. Perhaps people remember when there was a movement to make everything clear, including some clear colas.

  • 13:42:48


  • 13:42:49

    MUNGERAnd so everything -- the flavor of the cola was identical, except that it didn't have the caramel coloring in it, and while why it wasn't successful it probably multifaceted, clearly one of the things was there's this disconnect. You pick up this thing and it looks like a Perrier or lemon-lime soda, and that's what you're expecting it to taste like. And then you drink it and it's a cola, and that disconnect can be very disconcerting. I think the same phenomena is happening there with the wine.

  • 13:43:15

    NNAMDIYes, Jay?

  • 13:43:15

    YOUMANSI was just going to add, some other studies have been done with pinot noir out in California where pinot noir can be and usually is a fairly light red wine. And wine makers have done studies where the same exact wine, same exact pinot, but one is adjusted for color, invariably blind tasters will find the darker wine to be higher quality. And what is happened in wine making is that they adjust the color routinely, you know, using completely natural additives, but grape juice concentrate to make the wines darker.

  • 13:43:54

    OLIVONThis is important because on the food presentation, it is the first waiter brings the plate to you is the presentation, and that alone will set you up. You know, your mouth is going to be watering, I mean, you can't wait to touch that plate. So the visual, I think, for our mind is very important set us up if we're going to like it already or if we have an open mind into what we see in front of us, of it we're like, oh, I don't know if I'm going to like that. It doesn't look as good.

  • 13:44:18

    OLIVONIt might taste really good, but your mind is the first thing we say, okay, you're going to like it or you're not, and then of course...

  • 13:44:24

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you have not yet, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you add salt to everything you eat? 800-433-8850. Or do you know someone who is a super taster? You can also send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:24

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about understanding your taste buds with Patrice Olivon. He is a chef at L'Academie de Cuisine. Jay Youmans is the master of wine sommelier here in D.C. He's educational director and owner of the Capital Wine School and owner of Rock Creek Wine Merchants. Steve Munger is professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He does research on chemosensation.

  • 13:46:48

    NNAMDIWe mentioned earlier that we tested WAMU staff to see who the super tasters are. You can watch the video on our website. I wanted so badly to be a super taster because Diane Rehm turns out to be a super taster. I blew it. 800-433-8850, but you can see at all at our website Steve, in the early 20th century, Japanese researchers introduced the concept of an umami flavor. What is umami and how does it defy the basic tongue map that most of us learned about in elementary school?

  • 13:47:22

    MUNGERWell, to start with your last question first, the basic tongue map that you learned about in elementary school is completely wrong. It is actually something that was a mistranslation from a German study in about 1902 or so, and it has been perpetuated for well over a hundred years. It's completely incorrect. So it doesn't defy it in that respect. There certainly are regions in the front, in the back, in the sides of your tongue and on your palate and in your oropharynx, back in your throat, that all respond to taste.

  • 13:47:55

    MUNGERSo umami taste, and umami is roughly translated as deliciousness or savoriness. It is the -- it's sort of a hard taste to conceptualize, but it is basically the taste of glutamate and some related compounds, and it's -- if you could think of ramen noodle broth without the saltiness, that's -- that meaty taste. So these -- it was -- the main umami compound, glutamate, was originally isolated from kelp by Professor Ikeda all these years ago in Japan.

  • 13:48:30

    MUNGERAnd -- but it is really a major part of a variety of foods. Meats, cheeses like parmesan actually has the crystals you see in nice parmesan cheese, those are glutamate crystals. Tomatoes have a lot of umami flavor to them, mushrooms, things like that. So it is really the fifth taste, and taste researchers for the most part consider it just as real as sweet, salty, sour, or bitter.

  • 13:48:57

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Michael asking about "What about the fifth taste, umami." Patrice, do you consider umami this, well, meaty flavor, a category of its own, when you're tasting food?

  • 13:49:07

    OLIVONIt's difficult to differentiate between those very simple tastes, bitter, sweet, sour, and sweet -- and salt. So this is the fifth dimension, which is, to me, hard to explain to a student. To me, umami is when you taste something and everything comes together in your mouth and that's what I think the fifth taste is, when you can no more say it's too salty, too sweet, it's just there, and your mouth is exploding. And that's the way I feel it myself.

  • 13:49:34

    NNAMDIJay, what kinds of wines would best compliment meaty flavors/

  • 13:49:41

    YOUMANSWell, meaty flavors -- well, wines that best match meat, traditionally, we talk about red wines. And historically people have thought that fatty protein in meat helps soften the tannins in red wines. What we're finding is it's actually the salt or the glutamate umami tastes in meat that actually kind of soften the tannins in wine. That's what I'm reading now, and what I'm hearing from some of my friends in the industry.

  • 13:50:12

    YOUMANSUmami is actually pretty rare in wine. I think there's a couple of wines which I think I get it in. Examples are like really old aged Rioja and older Bordeaux that have a lot of complex savory flavors. It's a little bit what Patrice was talking about. It's where you're starting to get a -- it's more of complex flavor, but it has a slightly meaty taste for me.

  • 13:50:40

    NNAMDIRecent studies suggest fat may be a sixth taste category. Do you think about fat as a flavor component when you're cooking in your case, Patrice, or...

  • 13:50:50

    OLIVONOf course. Unfortunately the fat is really good for foods, but that's not what a doctor suggested. Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, fat has tremendous flavor. If you pan sear a piece of steak, if it has no fat it will have no flavor. And so regardless how much flavor you could add outside of the regular stuff, but, yeah, fat is an important factor in cooling. I do cook a lot with duck fat which I think brings a good flavor to the food. Apparently it's good for you, it's Omega 3, so we should -- the French people in the southwest are very healthy in France, eating a lot of duck fat.

  • 13:51:27

    OLIVONBut to moderation, of course, I would suggest, you know, I'm not a big fat eater because I not raised to eat fat. I was -- my mom always told me to move it on the side. As I become a professional, I realize it was an important ingredient, so I start to incorporate it into the food. But again, with moderation, definitely.

  • 13:51:46

    NNAMDIWhen choosing wines, fat is a flavor, Jay?

  • 13:51:49

    YOUMANSWell, you don't see fat necessarily in wine, but when you're matching wines with fatty foods, you know, one of the -- you know, Patrice will tell you in France one of the classic combinations is foie gras with something like a sweet white wine called Sauterne, or other sweet wines, and it's that tension between the fatty texture and the sweet and sour of the wine that makes it an interesting match.

  • 13:52:15

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Ricky who says, "I love creamy and buttery wines. What should I be looking for to find my new favorite?"

  • 13:52:23

    YOUMANSWell, when I hear words like creamy and buttery, I'm thinking wines that have been put through malolactic fermentation, chardonnays particularly. Wines that have been aged on the dead yeast. They develop these -- a bacteria attacks the malic acid in the wine and converts it to lactic acid, and the result is something called diacetyl, which is -- has this buttery, creamy texture, smell, and with certain wines you can get more and more of that. But that, you know, a lightly oaked chardonnay, but that has been put through a lot of (word?) contact and malolactic would be my suggestion.

  • 13:53:05

    NNAMDISteven, children tend to dislike the bitterness of green vegetables, but often learn to love them as they grow up. How do our taste receptors change over time?

  • 13:53:14

    MUNGERWell, the short answer is we don't know. But it is clear that these taste abilities or taste preferences do change over time. For the most part, kids find bitter much more aversive than adults do, and much more prefer sweet. And this may reflect their need to -- as infants to concentrate on ingesting milk. But this varies a lot between individuals. If I look at my own two kids, my son has always been a much more adventurous eater, was much more willing to try bitter things.

  • 13:53:49

    MUNGERMy daughter never has been quite to that extent. And then, of course, we all -- I think probably all of us in this room have experienced the change in our preferences for things as we grow up based on our experience or desire to do something. The, you know, coffee may be because you like the positive feedback or the caffeine, or maybe you like the social aspect of going out with the rest of your office to the coffee shop at ten o'clock in the morning, and you get that positive feedback even though that cup of coffee is basically -- by the bitterness, is basically saying, here I'm a cup of poison.

  • 13:54:26

    MUNGERAnd I'm not saying that coffee is poison, I'm just saying that's -- that's what the bitter taste is supposed to evolutionarily connote to you.

  • 13:54:35

    NNAMDIHere's Elaine in Rockville, Md. Elaine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:39

    ELAINEYes, hi. I'm calling with a question or observation about my husband and one of my adult sons that they may be super tasters, or they just taste things much more intensely and different than other -- than myself and other family members. For example, they do not eat any fruits, almost no fruits or vegetables, onions. There's just a whole group, you know, many, many foods that they won't eat. And, um, it's -- it's not a learned behavior necessarily.

  • 13:55:16

    ELAINEOne of my sons eats what I could call normal. The other one eats just like his father. And if it's a genetic type of component where they taste things so differently, is -- one of my questions is, is there anything that can be done to...

  • 13:55:33

    NNAMDIOkay. Here is Steve Munger.

  • 13:55:35

    MUNGERI guess I would say that there's -- while they're different, there's nothing wrong with your son and your husband. They're just -- they just perceive that aspect of the sensory world differently, and they've adjusted their diets and their food choices to match what they like or what they're comfortable with. So while -- what you might want to do if you're trying to work in certain types of foods that might be particularly healthy for them, and because you want to look out for their health, is try a variety of different things.

  • 13:56:08

    MUNGERAnd what you'll probably find is that some types of foods that will not trigger that -- sort of that overactive taste response, and will be pleasurable to them, but will still have the benefits of some of the other things they're skipping.

  • 13:56:22

    NNAMDIAnd here's Patrice.

  • 13:56:23

    OLIVONYeah. This is a problem actually, because, you know, green vegetables are good for you. I think maybe you should approach to prepare them a different way. For example, and I see that every day when I do Brussels sprouts, and Brussels sprouts are not in this country very accepted by people, and I think the only reason is because they did not experience a good Brussel sprout. I'm not saying that your cooking level is not at the level it should be, but, you know, I've experiment that every time when I do Brussel sprouts, I do cook them in the water with a lot of salt.

  • 13:56:53

    OLIVONThis way they have some good flavor, but then I sauté them in the pan, I caramelize them. I put a little onions a little bacon, and for someone who doesn't like Brussel sprouts, when I -- they just want to eat them as I cook them because the smell is just so good. So maybe a different way to approach those recipes by going through the back door a little bit and find out what they like and incorporate it to the dish.

  • 13:57:13

    NNAMDIAnd Steve, finally, because we're running out of time, for some people, being a super taster limits what they can eat as in the case of Elaine's husband and some, but it's my understanding that researchers are working on ways to curb their extreme sensitivity to taste.

  • 13:57:29

    MUNGERTo some extent. I think there's probably, at this point there's not a lot one can do. It's more you adjust your diet to how you perceive the world. There's a lot of work on trying to adjust sensitivity to particular tastes, such as bitter blockers that might make healthy foods that taste bitter more palatable to people.

  • 13:57:51

    NNAMDIYeah. It was seen at the University of Florida food scientists have genetically engineered the miraculin gene into tomatoes and strawberries to design low-sugar fruits and vegetables.

  • 13:58:01

    MUNGERYeah. Yeah. Miracle fruit and miraculin is a whole other show. That's a fun thing for people to try.

  • 13:58:06

    NNAMDIWe're out of time on this show. Steve Munger is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He does research on chemosensation. Patrice Olivon is a chef at L'Academie de Cuisine, and Jay Youmans is the master of wine sommelier in Washington D.C., educational director and owner of the Capital Wine School and owner of Rock Creek Wine Merchants. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows