The senses of taste and smell are partly a function of genetics and the genes that one inherited at birth. These genes determine things like the density of taste buds on the tongue and the ability to detect flavors such as bitter, sweet, sour and umami. Everyone has different thresholds for detecting flavor. What all of this means is that flavor is truly relative. What tastes great to one person may not taste so great to another. This also implies that a recipe that works great for me may not work so well for you. And things get even more complicated when cultural sensibilities are added to the mix. What one culture perceives as savory may taste offensive to another.
My parents are bitter tasters in terms of both phenotype — the actual observed trait — and genotype — the trait predicted by one’s genes. My siblings and I are also bitter tasters in terms of phenotype although my genotype is mixed. One way to test your phenotype is to purchase paper test strips that have been coated with a bitter substance, like PROP. In fact, this type of experiment is a great deal of fun to do during a family dinner and will be the subject of another blog post.
A personal genome service (PGS) such as 23andMe or Family Tree DNA can test your predicted ability to taste bitter and other flavors. It can also compare you to other people (like relatives) and ethnic groups, which is pretty interesting. In my case for bitter tasting genes (over 43 SNPs), the PGS states that I am 82% similar to my parents; 72% similar to a Chinese person and 66% similar to a Japanese person or a Nigerian person. This means that I am probably going to perceive bitter flavors differently than the average Nigerian or someone from Japan. How this would translate into food preferences isn’t clear at this point but maybe someday it will explain cultural or ethnic differences.
In terms non-bitter tasting genes (over 69 SNPs), the PGS states that I am 90% similar to my mother; 88% similar to my father; 75% similar to a Nigerian and 72% similar to a Chinese or Japanese person.
Foods and flavors that I like:
- Dark chocolate
- Parmiggiano reggiano, gouda
- Brisket slow-cooked at low temperature
Stuff that tastes too sweet:
- Milk chocolate and white chocolate
- Cheap margarita mix that comes in a bucket
Stuff that tastes too salty:
- Olives, especially those served on pizza
Flavors and foods of which I’m not very fond:
- Mustard (the condiment)
- Bitter greens
Foods and flavors that are too strong:
- Bleu cheese (incredibly bitter)
- Cantaloupe (harsh chemical flavor)
- Grapefruit (too bitter)
- PROP — the chemical used for bitter taste test strips
- Overripe fruit
- Horseradish (it’s okay in cocktail sauce but too strong in wasabi!)
- Pickles and relish