I met with Dr. Amber Griffiths to discuss genetics and taste. Amber is a director of FoAM Kernow and an associate at the ESI, Penryn Campus, and very kindly agreed to chat about the genetics of taste perception with me.
A basic understanding of taste is essential. We spoke about super tasters, a small percentage of the population who are particularly sensitive to taste. These people are more likely to avoid coffee, cigarettes and mushrooms as their perception of bitter taste is extra high to the point of repulsion, but on the positive side, they will enjoy a more enhanced version of taste sensation and have an extraordinary palate.
If one wishes to test if they are a ‘super taster’, get a hold of some PTU paper and place it on your tongue. Either you will taste nothing, something slightly bitter, or a whole load of bitter – bitter tasters are more likely to be a super taster. The measure of which being just how bitter the strip tastes, my thinking is that within a group environment you could judge your reaction amongst the others, there is no physical indicator on the strip to determine your vulnerability to strong tastes. 70% of the population will taste something, the other 30% tasting nothing are ‘non tasters’. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The taste receptor gene is called ‘TAS2R38’, containing 3 polymorphic nucleotides. Everyone has this. Nucleotides are basically the constituents making up DNA, their sequence of course completely affecting the resulting proteins and result on ourselves (I’m so bad at talking about science). Being a super taster comprises of single nucleotide polymorphism, or the lack of it. Polymorphism means two alleles that are different (say, blue eyes allele and green eyes allele) – in basic terms, polymorphism is what adds variety to our offspring, thanks to an allele each from our mother and father, the dominant gene will win, we will be different to our parents. With super tasting, both alleles must be the same (no polymorphism), otherwise you are a non taster or average taster.
Our super taster status, of course, completely dominates our food choices.
There is a test you can do at home to see if you are a super taster – rub some blue food colouring onto your tongue, and count the amount of taste buds visible within a ring-binder hole. If you have between 15-30 taste buds there, you are an average taster. Anything more, you’re a super taster. This is not an exact science, but a good indicator. I’m an average taster, but wanted to spare a picture of my tongue.
I now feel enriched with genetic knowledge, however i’m not going to approach this project from a scientific angle. Within science, this is still a developing area, I am not a scientist. I feel it’s important to approach this as an artist, and understanding just how varied we can be in our food preferences really solidifies the idea that flavour perception is completely subjective and therefore just one system would not work – we’re not gonna compartmentalise this one. I’d like to celebrate this.