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Taste, Super-tasters, Flavour, Texture, and More

At Cocoa Runners, we’re obsessed with exploring taste and flavour, and sharing our thoughts an findings. We’ve written elsewhere about the relationship between taste and flavour, and how texture and astringency also play a role. But the flavour potential of craft chocolate is so vast, that there are always new things to explore.

Do you have strong feelings about chocolate’s flavour? Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘super-taster’? Maybe you think you are one? There’s something here we need to explore!

So what is a ‘super-taster’ (and why does it involve painting your tongue blue)?

If you paint your tongue blue you will be able to see how many fungiform papillae (a.k.a. taste receptors) you have; see the picture above. And this, in turn, may explain how sensitive you are to bitterness (and other tastes).

Way back in the 1930s, chemists and geneticists discovered a simpler way than painting peoples tongues and counting taste receptors to determine taste receptiveness. As with so many taste discoveries, it was the product of an accident. In 1931, a Dupont chemist called Arthur Fox accidentally spilled a chemical powder called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and was puzzled when some laboratory technicians violently reacted to the “bitter dust” they could taste whereas others had no reaction. He then worked with Albert Blakesley, a geneticist, to figure out the cause of this peculiarity; and they determined it was at least partially genetic. In the 1960s, another compound, prop (short for propylthiouracil), was discovered by Roland Fischer with similar attributes (this is the one you’ll get to try at our taste and flavour tastings). And then in the 1980s Linda Bartoshuk popularised the term “super-tasters” to describe the approximately 25% of the population who are very sensitive to these chemicals (women are a higher proportion) and differentiated them from the 50-60% of people who are able to detect some bitterness and the 15-25% of the population don’t detect anything from PTC or prop.

Scientists are still debating exactly what gives rise to these differences. They’ve confirmed that this ‘super tasting’ is at least partially related to the presence of a specific bitter-taste-receptor gene (TAS2R38). Indeed, before the likes of 23andMe and other genetic testing services, sensitivity to bitterness was one tool often use to detect family genetics. But there also appear to be some environmental factors too.

…and what does being a super-taster mean?

Scientists also debate the evolutionary advantages of being a super-taster and being more sensitive to bitterness. One possible advantage from a historical and evolutionary perspective is that many poisons and toxins are very alkaloid and therefore very bitter. But that’s hard to prove.

In the modern world there a range of pros and cons which are associated with being a supertaster: If you are a supertaster, you may struggle with some bitter green vegetables that are actually very good for you. You may also not enjoy some alcohols. And (good news), you may be less likely to enjoy smoking. You may also enjoy sweetness in various foods, although this is NOT about having a sweet tooth or being addicted to sugar.

It’s also important to note that we all have a lot of different taste receptors. The super-taster tests using prop and PTC test one specific bitter taste receptor. And for bitterness alone we have over 35 receptor types, and they aren’t just on our tongues (they are in our guts, reproductive organs, thyroid glands, etc.). So you may also be highly sensitive to other bitter, and indeed other tastes, too, but we don’t yet have many simple tests for this.

In the world of wine, much work has been done on how being a super-taster impacts your ability to taste wine and your wine preferences. To date the results have been unclear or not that illuminating. For example; there are various reports that suggest supertasters avoid tannic red wines because they may be too bitter, but this seems a bit simplistic and may confuse astringency and bitterness.

Super-tasting and Chocolate

As far as we know, no-one has ever carried out research on how super-tasters react to different chocolates. So we’re exploring whether our virtual tastings can (anonymously) detect any preferences or trends relating to different roasts, conches, milks and percentages in craft chocolates.

We use (our interactive tool, so you can share your feedback with one another in real time on the screen even if you aren’t presenting) and some surveys.

Spoiler alert: We don’t think that appreciation of craft chocolate is really about how sweet or bitter a chocolate is. We suspect it’s more about the way that the farmer and maker have coaxed out different flavours from their beans. But perhaps you’ll help us with a new scientific discovery and breakthrough. So we’d LOVE your help to do some live research on this. And we can promise the opportunity to try some really great craft chocolates. And no blue tongues!

You can find our special taste and flavour ‘deep-dive’ chocolate kits below:

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