Hana Schank’s daughter is most likely a supertaster, a person who is highly sensitive to certain textures and flavors. Her son, an adventurous eater, is a non-taster. (Photo: Hana Schank)
Parents of picky eaters face plenty of challenges, from mealtime meltdowns to offbeat menu requests. But while such food habits may be a sign of trouble ahead (one recent study linked depression with selective eating), it can also be a genetic quirk.
I was the lone picky eater in a family of adventurous foodies. While my family teased me mercilessly for my eating habits, in my mind I wasn’t picky, I just had specific tastes. Which included not eating meatloaf, red or green peppers, salmon, clams, mussels, Doritos, soda (except root beer), or anything with the slightest hint of hot spice. I also couldn’t stand Parmesan cheese or tomato sauce, which meant I didn’t eat pizza and often left birthday parties hungry. Then one day when I was 11, my mother, a graduate student in psychology, came home with four thin strips of paper and had everyone place one on their tongue. I grimaced and spit the paper into my hand.
“What was that?” I shrieked, and ran to the bathroom to wash my mouth out.
The rest of the family shrugged. They didn’t taste a thing.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother had just proved scientifically that my picky eating was a result of genetics, not my difficult behavior. The paper was coated in PTC, a chemical used in labs that, according to the Wall Street Journal, is similar to a compound found in dark vegetables. Some people experience it as bitter and others simply don’t taste. I later learned that my outsize reaction was an indication that not only could I taste bitter foods but I was likely to be a supertaster, someone who is hypersensitive to bitter flavors, spicy foods, and texture. Supertasters, who make up 25 percent of the population, have far more clumps of taste buds, called papillae, on their tongues than the average person. (Typically people have about three papillae; supertasters have 30 or more.)
As a mom, I’ve watched my genetics play out in my two children. My 9-year-old son is probably a nontaster. His favorite food is “anything I haven’t eaten before.” The other day we were in a deli, and he asked me if I thought an onion bagel with olive cream cheese, capers, salami, and jalapeños would be a good combination. When he was 2 and we ordered a whole fish at a restaurant, he wanted to eat the eyeball. I proudly believed that my fantastic parenting skills had produced an adventurous foodie. Then my daughter arrived.
Hana Schank’s son, a suspected nontaster, enjoying cricket tacos (left) and a plate of pig ears (right). (Photo: Hana Schank)
As a baby, she refused to eat anything green. Now, almost 7 years old, she loves traditional kid fare like mac and cheese but has a long list of foods she won’t eat. At first I couldn’t figure out how my parenting skills had changed, then I started paying attention to her preferences. One day we were eating steak with a very mild dusting of pepper, and my daughter burst into tears, fanning her mouth with her hand.
“It’s spicy!” she yelped. I knew that feeling. It wasn’t picky eating — it was physical pain. While my son experiences spice as an enjoyable sensation, for my daughter, as with many supertasters, it feels like the roof of her mouth is burning off.
“Unlike picky eaters, whose behavior can be a warning sign of deeper emotional problems, the behavior of supertasters is a reflection of their anatomy,” Carole Lieberman, MD, a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist who has worked with picky eaters, tells Yahoo Parenting. “If a child’s preferences vary — one month hating spinach if he’s in an ornery mood, but the next month eating it if he’s happy — there are more likely emotional reasons behind his food choices.” In other words, he’s likely to just be a picky eater.
The only way to know for sure if your child is a supertaster is — believe it or not — to count the bumps on his or her tongue. But even without an exam, if you have a child who tends to recoil at foods that have a bit of a bite to them (such as Brussels sprouts, kale, grapefruit juice, soy products, spicy foods, onions, garlic, or seltzer) while happily chowing down on dishes that traditionally picky eaters avoid (unfamiliar or colorful foods, for example), the odds are good that you have a supertaster in the family.
Hana Schank’s daughter, a suspected supertaster, drinking an egg creme. (Photo: Hana Schank)
So what’s the best way to get little supertasters to branch out a bit? According to Linda Bartoshuk, a psychologist at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste and one of the scientists responsible for the discovery of supertasters, don’t force food on a child. “That leads to future problems,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s one thing for kids to not want to try something new. That’s universal. But there are children for whom some things truly taste disgusting.”
Sometimes simply altering the texture of a food helps. When my daughter stated a few years ago that she hated bananas, I probed a bit.
“Do you hate the taste?” I asked. “Or do you hate the way it feels in your mouth?” She still couldn’t articulate her dislike, but one day I gave her a banana smoothie and I had my answer: She likes the flavor of bananas but not the mushy, slimy feeling that comes with eating the fruit whole. I later discovered this is true for a range of foods, including peanut butter and cauliflower, both of which have ended up in smoothies that my daughter slurps down happily as an after-school snack.
Supertasters also have a preference for salt, according to a 2010 study. And since it can help mask the bitterness of, say, leafy greens, parents of supertasters can switch kale salads for kale chips or replace spinach with dried seaweed snacks. Melanie Potock, co-author of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater, also suggests using sweet foods to help override a food’s bitterness. “The trick to learning to enjoy foods like kale is to chop them very finely in a food processor and add a naturally sweet dressing that includes an acidic food to break it down,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.
While my daughter has broadened her palate a little, her preference still leans toward an all-yellow-cheddar-and white-pasta diet, which makes me fear a bit for her health. Because supertasters tend to avoid leafy greens, research found they’re at higher risk for colon cancer. But a recent study found that supertasters may have an easier time fighting off sinus infections than non-tasters because their overzealous bitter-taste receptors could work as an early-detection system for bacteria.
Fortunately, Bartoshuk says, most kids can get the nutrients they need even from a fairly restricted diet. Though she also recommends that parents take their child to a nutritionist if they have concerns.
But perhaps the best news of all is that over time many supertasters lose some hypersensitivity and can enjoy a wider range of foods due to a reduced sense of smell (a natural aging process), which affects how food tastes. My supertaster genes were still going strong in college (my freshman roommate and I bonded over ordering plain, buttered pasta at an Italian restaurant), but by my 20s, spicy foods no longer caused acute pain. The other day, I shocked myself by adding hot sauce to a dish, then enjoying the tingling sensation. Of course, that doesn’t help my daughter, who recently asked me to rinse the “spicy” barbecue sauce off of her ribs. So for now, I do my best to accommodate her, one peanut butter-banana-kale smoothie at a time.