What is a supertaster? Learn about your child’s taste buds, how he experiences taste, and whether you’ve got a supertaster in the house.
What’s that at the table? Is it a bird?
Is it a plane?
No, it’s a supertaster!
In this article, I’ll explore what having a heightened sense of taste may mean for your child and how you can help the picky eater.
Facts about Kids’ Taste Buds
You’ve probably already read here about how babies are exposed to flavors very early in their development.
While in utero, they taste the amniotic fluid, which tends to be sweet. Amniotic fluid also contains other flavors from the mother’s diet.
So, at birth, babies already have some semblance of flavor preferences.
Especially a preference for sweet.
At birth, they are predisposed for many taste preferences, some genetic and others inherited over time from mechanisms related to basic survival.
Historically, our taste preferences and cravings helped us in the days of hunting and gathering. In our modern world of convenience (and abundance), they’ve gotten out of hand.
After birth, if the baby is breastfed, he’ll continue to get exposed to varied flavors from mom’s diet.
Fungiform Papillae: The Differentiating Factor
Children have more taste buds on the tongue than adults. This fact directly relates to their taste sensitivity, especially to sweet, salty and bitter flavors.
Some individuals have more fungiform papillae, the taste buds located in the front and middle of the tongue, than others.
Essentially, this greater density means more taste sensors. These taste buds can be sensitized to different flavors, depending on what kind of taster you are.
Typically, the flavors involved are bitter, salt and sugar.
Bitter Flavor and PROP
PROP stands for 6-n-propylthiouracil.
PROP is a bitter compound found in food. Some people are able to taste this compound very intensively. They have a genetically inherited trait that allows them to taste PROP.
This sets them up for experiencing flavor, especially bitter, intensely.
What is a Supertaster, Exactly?
It’s estimated that 70% of the US population are PROP tasters and 30% are non-tasters, according to the Society of Sensory Professionals.
Of the PROP tasters, 50% are medium tasters and 25% are supertasters. Girls are more likely to be supertasters than boys.
This probably means that all the taste receptors including sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory), will be experienced with much more intensity.
What About the Non Taster?
You may not know if you have a non-taster of PROP or not, but if you have a child who happily eats everything – even veggies – you probably have a non-taster.
That is, your child doesn’t experience bitter flavor intensively. Even if you have a medium taster, that’s easier to work with, using repeated exposure to bitter foods and other positive interventions.
Salt Preferences in Supertasters
The upside for many supertasters is that they crave less fatty and sugary foods. A little taste goes a long way, and less consumption may reduce the risk of heart disease for many.
Salt, on the other hand, is another story. It is known to mask bitterness, which is probably why supertasters have recently been shown to crave more than usual amounts.
Given the current recommendations for lowering sodium intake, this may be another pitfall.
The Tasting Definition & Why It’s Important
Many of the beneficial compounds in fruits and vegetables are bitter. These are the foods that are the most frustrating for both parties.
From the child’s perspective, dinner can be a minefield of potentially unpleasant flavors.
For parents, they may not recognize a super sensitive palate and think they have an extremely picky eater.
The goal here is to encourage children to taste food. Without pressure, demands or punishment.
This is hard!
One thing that can help is to remember the difference between tasting and eating.
Tasting is getting the flavor on the tongue. This can include touching the lips, licking the lips, touching the tongue with the food, licking the food, putting the food in the mouth and taking it out, or chewing the food and spitting it out (politely).
I hope you get the idea here.
Eating is chewing and swallowing the food. Consuming it.
Our goal is to expose children to lots of different flavors. We can do this with tasting. This relieves the pressure and anxiety a child who has a sensitive palate feels at the table.
Tips for Feeding the Supertaster
The goal here is to feed your child a healthful diet, even in the presence of super-sensitive taste buds.
Remember, it may take as many as 10-20 exposures (or more!) for your child to find a food acceptable.
You can always kick up the flavor or mask bitterness with salt, sweet, and even some healthy fats. Be creative, opportunistic, and persistent with food preparation.
Here are some simple ways to tempt your child’s taste buds when serving vegetables and fruit:
- Roast veggies to bring out their natural sweetness
- Add light cheese sauce, salted almonds, soy sauce, lemon, honey, or spices
- Serve veggies and/or fruit with low-fat ranch dressing or peanut butter
- Monopolize on “fun foods,” like ice cream, by adding not-so-sweet fruits
- One-dish meals, like casseroles, are a great way to introduce more veggies
- Add fruit and veggies to family favorites, like oatmeal and lasagna
- Pick naturally sweet varieties, like sweet potatoes and pineapple
Do you have a supertaster in the house?
Need More Help with Your Picky Eater?
Check out my resources, workshops and classes over at The Nourished Child.
My book, Try New Food, may also be useful to you!
This article was originally published in September 2010.| Updated in December 2020.