Distinguishing Flavors in Cigars: Are you a Supertaster?
by Rob Gray, Ph.D.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Part of the enjoyment of cigar smoking involves seeking out and finding cigars that we really like. It is helpful if we can describe the body, flavors and aromas in cigars so we can match those descriptions to our own taste preferences. In the end, these descriptors can be useful in finding other cigars we might like and guiding our future purchases.
Why are some people better than others at picking out the different flavors in a cigar? How does one improve this ability? This article is the first in a series that will explore detecting flavors in cigar smoking. Making a distinction between flavors like cedar or leather in a cigar can be thought of as a three-stage process that is illustrated below.
The first stage, flavor detection, involves the receptors on your tongue (the taste buds) and in your nasal cavity (the olfactory epithelium) interacting with the molecules presented in the tobacco and in the smoke. When these molecules contact the receptors a pattern of electrical signals is then sent to memory areas of your brain. During the second stage, flavor recognition, your brain looks for a match between the flavor you are currently experiencing and one you have experienced in the past (stored in memory).
In the final stage, flavor identification, the language areas of the brain spring into action and generate a label for the flavor you are experiencing. For example, “That tastes like bitter chocolate,” is a label for a flavor memory. A person can create such a label based on their prior consumption of bitter chocolate. It is fairly common for us to have difficulty with flavor identification because most of us do not have a good vocabulary for describing flavors and do not have a lot of practice at doing it. This can lead to a “tip of the tongue phenomenon,” the feeling that you know you have tasted a particular flavor before but just can’t get the name out.
Differences in sensitivity at each of these three stages can account for variations in the ability to pick up flavors in a cigar from smoker to smoker. In this article, I focus on stage 1 – in particular individual differences in the anatomy of our taste buds. Research in this area has shown that some people are much more sensitive to the molecules present in things we consume.
What is a “Supertaster”?
Research by Linda Bartoshuk at Yale University (Prutkin, J., V. B. Duffy, et al., 2000) has shown that there are large differences in the number and density of taste buds on the surface of the tongue and mouth from person to person. About 25% of the population have an abnormally large number of taste buds and have been dubbed “super-tasters.” You are more likely to be a “super-taster” if you are a woman: 35% of females are “super-tasters” vs. only 15% of males.
“Super-tasters” get stronger sensations from sweet and bitter foods and get more burning/pain from spicy foods. For example, it has been shown that “super-tasters” tend to dislike grapefruit juice more than other people. Another 25% of the total population have an abnormally small number of taste buds and have been dubbed “non-tasters.” It has been shown that “non-tasters” can chug a glass of bitter liquid that makes a “super-taster” gag. The remaining 50% of people are “normal tasters.” The most common method for identifying the different type of tasters is to have them drink the chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil (called ‘PROP’ for short) and rate its bitterness. As can be seen in the figure at left, “supertasters” find this substance to be unbearably bitter while “non-tasters” do not detect any bitterness at all.
These differences have now been linked to the expression of one dominant
allele (genetic code) on our DNA, called “T” for short. It works pretty
much the same way as your eye color. People with two recessive alleles (tt), are “non-tasters.” People with one of each (Tt), are “normal
tasters.” And people with two dominant alleles (TT), are “super-tasters.”
So, like eye color, you are likely to have tasting traits that are
similar, but not necessarily the same, as your family members.
How do you know if you are a “super-taster”? There is a fairly simple test that you can do to find out. To illustrate how this is done I will describe the results for myself and my wife Tyra. From our eating habits we went into this test with the assumption that I was a “non-taster” or “normal taster” while she would more likely be a “super-taster.” I will eat just about anything including incredibly hot and spicy foods while she is more of a picky eater and affected more strongly by certain foods.
The Super-taster Test
What you will need:
• Blue food coloring (available in the baking section of most grocery stories)
• Cotton balls
• A piece of white paper with a 0.5” diameter circular hole cut in it
• A high resolution digital camera. Try using your macro feature.
• Someone to take the photographs
1. Dip a cotton ball in the food coloring and spread it all over the tip of your tongue. Swirl the coloring around in your mouth and then spit it out. Give your tongue a few seconds to dry.
2. Press the paper against the tip of your tongue so that your tongue sticks through the hole in the paper.
3. Have someone else take a picture. Or alternatively you can have them hold up a magnifying glass to it.
4. From the photo or using the magnifying glass count the total number
of pinkish, blister-like bumps (see picture below) on your tongue that
you can see through the hole in the paper. These are called fungiform
papillae and each one has a taste-bud on top of it.
• 15 bumps or less = “non-taster”
• between 15 and 35 bumps = “normal taster”
• 35 bumps or more = “super-taster”
My photo is below on the left and Tyra's is on the right. The large pink bumps are what we are looking for. I have a total of roughly 22 papillae on the tip of my tongue (marked with black circles in the image) which puts me at the low end of a “normal taster”. [Note: the image I used to count was much clearer than the one shown here.] You can see right away that Tyra has a lot more papillae… a total of roughly 34 which puts her on the high end of “normal” and just below a “super-taster.” So it looks like our initial impressions based on our eating habits turned out to be pretty accurate.
What does this mean for cigar smoking?
A good way to conceptualize this is to think of it in terms of vision; a “non-taster” or “normal taster” has a more blurry perception of flavor than a “super-taster.” As a “normal taster,” I will not be as sensitive to the fine details as an eagle-eyed “super-taster.” In terms of cigars, I think the research suggests that “super-tasters” would be more sensitive to the spicy/peppery flavors in some cigars and would be better able to pick up the very subtle flavors. They also will be more sensitive to the bitter ammonia flavors you get from low-quality cigars. So being a “super-taster” is not always a good thing; you may be overpowered by some really full-flavored/strong cigars that taste okay to a “non-taster.” And, of course, it goes without saying that you can enjoy cigars no matter what type of taster you are, though your preferences for different cigars will likely be related to your “taster type.”
Taster types can, in part, explain why reviews of the same cigars by different people can produce widely different results and reactions, and why it is important to find a reviewer who seems to share your preferences in cigars. The bottom line is that there are genetic differences in our “tasting anatomy” that will lead to individual differences in the ability to detect subtle flavors in a cigar.
Prutkin, J., V. B. Duffy, et al. (2000). Genetic variation and inferences about perceived taste intensity in mice and men. Physiology & Behavior 69, 161-173.
About the Author
Rob Gray is an educator, researcher and writer. Rob conducts research in Human Factors Psychology at University of Birmingham, England.blog comments powered by Disqus