Research Florida - Field Experts
Study of Taste - Linda Bartoshuk
Florida Trend: Why should we care that some people are super tasters and others aren’t?
Linda Bartoshuk: They have different disease risks. The way in which you taste the world has a lot to do with the foods you like. For example, bitter is hard-wired in the brain to hate. We are born hating it. And we are born loving sweet. Super tasters taste higher sweet and higher bitter. They will dislike more foods and have very strong responses to sugar. What you end up with are genuine dietary changes. I’ll give you an example: Colon cancer. What is one of the risk factors for colon cancer? (Lack of) Fiber. Well, fiber comes from vegetables. Vegetables, the leafy green ones, the really healthy ones, super tasters don’t like them. We actually went to a VA hospital in Connecticut where the men were given preventive colonoscopies. They were tested to see if they were at risk for colon cancer because polyps are a risk factor for colon cancer. And we gave them the PROP paper to test whether they were supertasters. The bitterness of the paper correlated with the number of polyps. It was that simple.
FT: Tell me how you got involved in working with Harry Klee on tomatoes.
LB: Harry Klee is the world’s expert on tomato volatiles. He wanted to make tomatoes taste better, and I was intrigued. They wanted good psychophysics. Well, I can give them the best. I was telling them how to measure how much people like it and how to measure the sweetness with these new measurement tools that let you compare across people accurately.
FT: What did you find out about what makes a good tomato?
LB: It turns out that flavor was horrendously significant. Flavor was making a huge contribution to sweet independent of the sugar. Well, I knew what that meant immediately. It hit me that one volatile (molecules that contribute to taste) at a time, when you look at that older literature, would produce a really little effect. But maybe lots of the volatiles in the tomato were doing it, and they added up and that is why flavor produced this tremendous contribution to sweet. We found seven volatiles that were all significant enhancers of sweet. And we found two suppressors of sweet. Nobody knew that.
FT: What did it mean? That volatiles could make a tomato taste sweeter?
LB: The significance was all of the sudden those volatiles that had been studied out in the world for 30 years, a whole bunch of them turned up at the same time in the tomato. People were studying them one at a time before. And it was very clear that that is not what was happening in the food world. A whole bunch of them were in each fruit. And so by adding that, that is what was producing the overall sweetness.
FT: You previously were talking about food companies adding sugar and sweeteners to enhance flavor. Knowing this about tomatoes, it seems adding sugar isn’t necessary.
LB: That’s right. Let’s say we want to get rid of some sugar. Let’s just put those volatiles in instead. Now you might worry, is it possible those volatiles will give it a different flavor we won’t want in there? There’s a wonderful phenomenon about adding up smells. They cancel each other. They are about equal intensity. We can add a whole bunch of volatiles together and they will basically cancel one another if about the same intensity. So we add more and more of these volatiles together and what theoretically will happen is the mixture will get sweeter and sweeter and the volatiles will not be a problem.
FT: Given that we have super tasters and people with different perceptions of what is sweet and too sweet, how do you arrive at that perfect tomato flavor?
LB: You don’t. There isn’t one for one person. You have to come up with different ones for different groups. And that is where my measurements come in. For instance, women like their tomatoes sweeter than men do. Women are more likely to be super tasters, and super tasters like their tomatoes to be sweeter. So we will be doing a lot more work with different groups because my contribution was by making them do good psychophysics. I gave them this wealth of data they will be able to use forever.