There are so many myths surrounding taste buds. Some people think you can kill them with spicy foods (nope). Others believe that they get weaker over time (also not true). Stories say they work the same no matter where you are (flying dulls them) and many people believe that babies and kids only like bland food (not so much — babies nurse longer when breast milk is garlic-flavored!)
And if you have assumed that all humans have similar capacities to taste, well, that's not true either. Part of how our taste buds understand flavors is genetically based. According to research, about 25 percent of us are supertasters, 25 percent are nontasters, and the rest fall somewhere in between. Supertasters, not surprisingly, have a much higher number of papillae, which are the tiny bumps on your tongue where taste buds live. Nontasters don't fail to taste, but everything seems milder to them — most even find greens sweet, which regular people and supertasters find bitter.
Because what you taste absolutely impacts how much you eat (and what types of foods you choose, based on past enjoyment), your taste buds can influence your weight. So nontasters might really dig into salads. Though because they also don't taste creamy foods as strongly, they may eat more cheese, for example, that someone whose tongue is more sensitive to fats. In fact, research and testing have shown that nontasters are at higher risk for cardiovascular issues possibly due to higher consumption of fats.
But once you're overweight, your capacity to taste is reduced. That's a vicious cycle for those who are already trying to lose weight but aren't satisfied with their meals.
“Taste is like any other system and may become dulled with overuse,” Dr. John Morton told Time.com about a study he did for Stanford University that found obese patients had a lower taste sensitivity than similar normal weight patients. “What we really need is to appreciate our food more.”
While that last line sounds like a feel-better throwaway, Morton is onto something. No matter what our taste bud configuration, being present with our food — that is, limiting distractions while eating, focusing on the flavors of what we have in front of us, and eating slowly — has been found to slow down consumption and lead to more satisfying meals that are also smaller and have fewer calories.
Ideally, we want to be able to eat a healthy, appropriately sized meal and reach satiety, that sometimes elusive feeling that you are satisfied with what you just ate, and which naturally keeps you from wanting to eat more. But why is it so difficult to find that way? Part of the problem has to do with the variety of foods that are available to us. (Processed foods offer a panoply of flavors, which can cause us to eat more.) Part of the success of the all-banana diet — or any mono-food diet — is that you get full faster eating one type of food. The more types of food in front of you, the more likely you are to eat more. Just remember that feeling post-dinner when you are stuffed — and then start thinking about dessert.
This idea was backed up with research from a 2009 study in the aptly named journal Appetite. They found: "Sensory-specific satiety refers to a temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming a certain food in comparison to other unconsumed foods. It has been argued that such a reduction may not be limited to food liking but extends to food wanting as well." Basically, not only do you find chocolate milk less and less tasty the more you drink it, but that you will find potato chips even more appealing after the flavored milk than before because it has a very different taste.
Of course, our subjective experience of food impacts how much we enjoy it too. As Laura Moss wrote here at MNN: "High levels of white noise can also affect both the intensity of flavor and the perceived crunchiness of food. Researchers at the University of Manchester gave study participants salty and sweet foods to eat while in a quiet room and then while wearing headphones that produced noise equivalent to an airplane. They found that food consumed while hearing the background noise was rated as less sweet, less salty and crunchier."
So if you notice that food tastes different, or you disagree with your friend who is dipping in the same queso as you but having a seemingly different flavor experience, it could be that you have different taste buds. Or it could be that you had something else to eat beforehand which made you think that dip was more or less delicious that she does. Or it could be that the restaurant you are in is just too loud. Each one of these things influences what you eat, how much, and the enjoyment you get from it — which over time can impact your weight and your health.
Related on MNN:
- Do foods taste the same to animals as they do to us?
- Taste simulator makes virtual food taste like the real thing
- Does food taste better outside the U.S.?