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
We have almost identical likes and dislikes for flavors and foods, but since I am your sister I guess that makes sense! I love dark chocolate but milk chocolate is way too sweet! I’m eating a hamburger w/ mustard today for lunch and wish it had no (or very little) mustard b/c it’s masking the rest of the flavors on this wonderful Beck’s Prime Burger. I’ve just started to learn to like a little mustard in the last few years, but only a hint of it, otherwise it’s all I can taste. I can also eat small amounts of blue cheese, but, like mustard, it overpowers everything else. Otherwise, our list of likes and dislikes is exactly the same! I like your blog and hope to get to take a cooking class w/ you sometime!
Yeah, mustard the condiment is a bit too strong. I will eat it to be polite if there isn’t a choice. I just try to focus on something else while I’m eating it. The flavor can be so distracting. 🙂
This brings up another interesting point and that is the concept of rating a dish or a recipe. If our senses of taste and smell are largely hardwired and not all that changeable, and if everyone has different combinations of genes that affect these senses as well as the intensities of the flavors, the concept of rating food and recipes seems kind of comical. For instance, when I go to a major food website and look for recipes, I always look at the ratings and read the comments. I often see comments like “it was too sweet so I only gave it four stars” or “it was too bitter so I gave it three stars.” This is of course the proper thing to do when rating something, but the problem is this: nobody who is reading these ratings has any clue what kind of palates the raters have. Clearly, the raters don’t have the same palate as the person who created the recipe. Without a way to calibrate a recipe for a specific palate, this kind of thing will continue. Everyone has a different baseline so what we get in the comments are lots and lots of noise and little useful info. Everyone is talking past one another.
I think that people would get more out of recipes if they would think harder about the ingredients and freely adapt and modify them if something doesn’t add up.
Note that this discussion has nothing to do with proper cooking technique, which also affects flavor. Let’s suppose that I overcook chicken and make it dry and tough. How many people are going to raise their hands when asked if they thought it was great? Probably none.
Preference for cilantro is a case in point. Cilantro has a lot of different flavor compounds in it. Not everyone can taste them all. If you can’t taste some of those compounds and I can, we are going to have very different reactions when eating cilantro. You might say it’s just soapy and I might say it does have some soapiness but I will also say that I am tasting other flavors in it that are nice. Or maybe you are just ultra-sensitive to one particular group of unappetizing flavor compounds in cilantro. In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much because flavor is relative. Who cares if I like it and you don’t? If I put it in a dish and you don’t like it, I’ve done you a disservice. 🙂