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What does the 'supertaster’ test actually tell us?


I work as a beer sommelier. I'm also female. And one constant irritant is when men tell me that because I'm a woman I must be a "supertaster," that my sex means I have a much better sense of taste than my male counterparts.

"Supertaster," if you don't know, is a term that was coined in the early 1990s. It's based on a test that measures whether a person is hypersensitive to the taste of a chemical compound known as PROP and the related chemical PTC. If the compound tastes bitterly vile, then congrats, you are a supertaster – with, supposedly, a heightened sense of taste.

The whole concept (and related comments) irks me because it implies that my palate is more sophisticated because of my biology, not my brainpower. So I decided to unravel the supertaster phenomenon by visiting Dr. Nicole Garneau, who heads up the Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Science & Nature in Colorado.

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According to Garneau, the whole supertaster thing isn't super-useful. The problem, she says, is that people assume supertasters have elevated responses to all tastes, not just bitterness.

But get this: There are 40 different genes that help detect different types of bitterness. Three help pick up the alpha acids in beer's hops, while another homes in on the bitterness of caffeine in your espresso.

Two completely separate receptors detect sweetness and two others umami – and those are just the ones we know about right now. In the ever-changing world of flavour science, researchers are still nailing down how we taste sour and salt.

What this means is that passing the "supertaster" test has nothing to do with how we actually taste complex things such as food, wine and beer. It only measures how strongly you can taste the kinds of bitter compounds found in certain leafy green vegetables. The supertaster test identifies whether you've got a specific version of a receptor that binds to that PROP compound. That's it.

So why has the term become so pervasive? Probably because it starts with "super." Everyone wants to be special, especially in the highfalutin world of celebrity chefs, brewmasters and sommeliers. One television nutritionist recently humble-bragged to me that she'd passed the supertaster test (you can order it online) and that's why she was so good at recipe development.

Back to the female thing: One widely reported 1994 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior posited that around 15 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women are supertasters. Aha! That must be why so many folks like to tell me we ladies don't like hoppy IPAs or pale ales, right? Not so much.

The genetic receptor that picks up bitterness in the supertaster test isn't connected to the alpha acids in hops, Garneau says. That's a whole other set of genes. And while she did confirm that more women than men pass that supertaster test, she says the data on just how many more women test positive are unreliable.

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And despite my reservations about the whole concept, I still felt deflated when Garneau gave me PTC to taste and I failed as a supertaster (despite bringing my uterus along with me). There is, after all, something compelling about a simple test that can tell us if we are better at eating than the guy next to us. That's why, despite not being a very useful measurement, the test is probably here to stay.

But the secret to being a great sommelier, food critic or Cicerone (a certified beer sommelier) isn't being born with a heightened sense of taste, but learning how to connect what one is smelling and tasting to a certain flavour descriptor. Anyone might sense that a beer has a stale flavour, but it takes sensory training to describe it as "cardboard" and to know it's a result of oxidation – that this beer has sat on the shelf for too long. Same with picking out the bubblegum and clove aroma of a beer and being able to identify it as a hefeweizen.

That type of expertise doesn't take a vagina; it takes years of blind tasting and study. Now, please excuse me while I get back to my beer.

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