In college, Tara Jesson had a neat party trick: She could tell a Bud Light from a Coors from a Miller Lite by blind taste. It wasn’t a matter of familiarity with beer; they just tasted different to her. It wasn’t just beer, either.
Jesson has always had highly sensitive taste buds. She hates anything with artificial sweeteners, anything super sweet, anything hot and spicy. IPAs? Too bitter.
“I was always that way. I never really thought much of it,” says Jesson, who works with children with sensory feeding issues. “It wasn’t until I started working in pediatrics — ‘Oh! I get this!’ — how this relates to some kids. I know where kids are coming from.”
Jesson, an occupational therapist at Sound Children’s Therapy in Issaquah, and about a quarter of the population are what is known as “supertasters,” people who have an actual biological basis to tasting things more acutely. Green tea is exceptionally bitter, cilantro almost perfume-like, and many vegetables overwhelmingly strong. A supertaster experiences flavors much more intensely than the average person. They could get a great job with Ben & Jerry’s, but their sensitivity might also cause kids anxiety: How do they eat at a friend’s house or a birthday party?
Marlene Hillyer, a registered dietitian nutritionist who owns Dandelion Nutrition, has seen kids who can distinguish different brands of ketchup.
Among picky eaters, there’s probably a higher percentage who are supertasters, Hillyer says. And it’s not just tastes that they’re more sensitive to; it’s also sounds, smells, bright lights. “It can make some things a little difficult,” she says. “Because eating is something we do so many times every day, and it’s so closely tied with our social connections.”
For official proof of supertaster status — and the ‘Get out of ever eating Brussels sprouts’ card — count the number of fungiform papillae on the tongue. Those are the little bumps that house your taste buds. Dye the tip of the tongue with blue food coloring and count the bumps inside a circle the size of a paper hole punch. People with more than 30 fungiform papillae are supertasters; average tasters have 15 to 30 fungiform papillae.
Jesson has never counted the bumps on her tongue, or anyone else’s. Her goal is to help kids be less anxious about food, and expose them to foods they’re willing to try. When kids come in to see her, she asks what they eat. Sometimes, it’s just pasta and crackers and white cheese. One little boy would turn all the way around in his chair because he couldn’t bear the sight of carrots and celery sticks.
“I know some kids, everything’s just too much for them,” Jesson says. “That’s why they’re picking the bland diet. I’m still going to try to expand that diet, so they can have more nutritious foods in their repertoire.”
How many picky eaters are actually supertasters? It’s hard to say, because many factors other than taste are involved with picky eating. Some kids don’t like messy hands and a messy face. Or the food is too cold. Or it’s too hot. Kids consider the way a food looks (“Oh, that’s green!”) and its texture (Gooey? Super crunchy?) before it even hits their taste buds.
Feeding the supertaster
If your kid is a supertaster or just a plain old picky eater, therapists have a few tips on how to coax them to try new foods.
“The best thing you can do is exposure, exposure, exposure,” Jesson says. “Just have patience and continue to introduce the foods. Give them a chance; say, ‘Okay, you don’t want to taste it? Let’s talk about it.’ Touch it to our lips. Play with the food.”
Occupational therapist Sneha Parikh helps a supertaster experiment to figure out which food groups and textures they like, and to build a vocabulary to describe what they’re tasting. Does it melt in your mouth? Is it crunchy? Is it sour? Is it sweet? A little bit of a bitter taste? In the beginning, the middle, the end — or the whole time?
Parikh tries to get kids to talk objectively about food because it takes them past their knee-jerk reaction: “It’s food, it’s disgusting.” She’s seen more success with kids kindergarten-age and older, because that’s when their vocabulary grows beyond “yucky.”
“I will not shove food in a kid’s mouth. I will not give them a reward if they eat it,” says Parikh, who works in MOSAIC’s Bellevue office. “My approach is to let kids play with the food and get more comfortable with the food. Talk about the characteristics and the properties of the food. Make foods fun.”
Supertaster: ‘A blessing and a curse’
Bothell mom Stephanie Konat always knew she had a heightened sense of smell and taste. Her family teases her for her uncanny ability to say, sniff out a dead mouse in a basement: “It smells like death!” Her kids, now 16 and 20, are the same way.
Once, when the kids were in elementary school, they happened upon a Pacific Science Center exhibit about supertasters: if the litmus paper tasted bitter, you were a supertaster.
“We all tried it. Ahhh! It was so bitter!” says Konat. “We all have a high degree of sensitivity to everything. Sound. Taste. Smells. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s good in that I really appreciate food. I love to cook, and I love to try different flavors because I can taste everything. Sometimes people don’t taste what I taste in food. To them, it’s very similar to the last piece of pizza, or whatever.” The downside is that Konat might smell something that induces her gag reflex.
She has a keen knack for expiring freshness.
“I can tell if something’s going to go bad faster than other people,” says Konat, joking about her ability to suss out certain smells, likening herself to a taster for royalty. “Maybe if we were in a place where we had to worry that food was poisoned, we’d all survive.”
This article was first published Sept 1, 2018.