News Column

Denver Museum of Nature & Science Scientist Challenges Supertaster Phenomenon

June 9, 2014



DENVER, June 9 -- The Denver Museum of Nature & Science issued the following news release:

A Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientist recently published findings from her taste perception research that challenge the supertaster phenomenon. Nicole Garneau, PhD, curator of human health, used crowd-sourced data and citizen science-driven research from the Museum's Genetics of Taste Lab and discovered that one characteristic previously thought to predict supertasting was not a reliable predictor.

The scientific definition of supertasters are people highly sensitive to the bitter taste from the chemicals propylthiouracil and PTC, bitter molecules commonly used in taste research that are related to foods like broccoli and kale. The data confirm that while genetics is a key predictor in the ability to taste bitter, it is not responsible for supertasting. In an effort to explain this phenomenon, previously published works have attributed supertasting to a high number of papillae (bumps) on the tongue. Garneau and her team were surprised by what they found when they tried to reproduce this effect.

"No matter how we looked at the data, we couldn't replicate this long held assumption that a high number of papillae equals supertasting," said Garneau.

The implications of this research are far reaching. Supertasting is one of the central dogmas of taste research and has long been a term embraced by both the media and the public alike to explain everything from why people don't like spicy foods and "hoppy" beers to why some kids are picky eaters.

"There is a long-held belief that if you stick out your tongue and look at the bumps on it, then you can predict how sensitive you are to strong tastes like bitterness in vegetables and strong sensations like spiciness. The commonly accepted theory has been that the more bumps you have, the more taste buds you have and therefore the more sensitive you are," said Garneau.

Garneau's findings argue against this theory and the frequent misuse of the term supertaster, and she hopes that these findings will lead the field to adopt the more scientific term hypergeusia to objectively describe people who are sensitive to all tastes and all sensitivities when eating.

Garneau used participants from the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab to study the relationship between the papillae (bumps on the tongue) and one's sensitivity to the bitter molecules. The data found papillae density is unrelated to high bitter sensitivity.

"What we know and understand about how our bodies work improves greatly when we challenge central dogmas of our knowledge. This is the nature of science itself," said Garneau. "As techniques improve, so too does our ability to do science, and we find that what we accepted as truth 20, 30, or 100 years ago gets replaced with better theories as we gather new data, which advances science. In this case, we've proven that with the Denver Papillae Protocol, our new method for objective analysis of papillae density, we were unable to replicate well-known studies about supertasting."

The study also highlights the importance of community-based research to study complex and labor-intensive questions. Because the Genetics of Taste Lab is located in the heart of a Museum exhibition, it is uniquely situated to attract both a large population of human participants and a team of dedicated volunteer citizen scientists who conduct population-based research about human genetics, taste, and health. The Lab hosted 3,005 study participants from the community, and trained more than 130 volunteers, making science accessible for a large audience.

This work was published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. The full paper is available for free at http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnint.2014.00033/abstract.

Garneau is currently working on the Fatty Acid Taste study to determine whether there is a sixth taste. The study will run through 2015. It is also a public-based research project offered in the Genetics of Taste Lab. For more information about Garneau and her research team, visit www.dmns.org/genetics and follow her @yopearlscigirl on Facebook and Twitter.

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