Love Salt? You Might Be a “Supertaster”

June 16, 2010

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By Amanda Gardner

TUESDAY, JUNE 15 (Health.com) — If you love salty snacks and reach for the saltshaker like clockwork at every meal, you might think you have dull or underpowered taste buds that need a boost to get excited.

In fact, just the opposite may be true: A new study suggests that you may love salt because you’re a “supertaster”—a person who experiences tastes such as saltiness and bitterness more intensely than other people do.

“We’ve known for a long time that people don’t all live in the same taste world,” says the study’s lead author, John Hayes, PhD, an assistant professor of food science at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, in University Park.

“There are supertasters and non-tasters,” Hayes adds. “Supertasters live in a neon taste world—everything is bright and vibrant. For non-tasters, everything is pastel. Nothing is ever really intense.”

Previous research has suggested that supertasters need less fat and sugar to satisfy their taste buds (and food cravings), and Hayes and his colleagues suspected that the same would hold true for salt as well.

To confirm their suspicion, they taste-tested various off-the-shelf foods on 87 people, roughly a third of whom were supertasters. The others were a mix of non-tasters and “medium” tasters.

The participants tried samples of Campbell’s chicken broth with varying amounts of salt added, pretzel sticks, and shots of soy sauce. They were also asked to compare Lay’s potato chips and Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese with equivalent low-sodium store brands.

Hayes and his colleagues were surprised to discover that the supertasters liked more salt rather than less, even though they were more sensitive to it. But after the researchers analyzed the data in more detail, they realized that salt plays a role in tastes besides saltiness.

For instance, salt helps cancel out bitterness, one of the sensations that supertasters experience in Technicolor. This may explain why the supertasters in the study perceived the low-sodium cheddar cheese to be twice as bitter as the Cracker Barrel, and liked it far less than the other study participants did.

“They needed the salt to block the bitterness of the cheese,” Hayes explains.

Next page: What makes a supertaster?


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