I've always been fascinated by the subjectivity of perception.
How do we know that I see green the same way that you see green? It's the colour of grass, and we can point at other things that are grass-coloured, but that doesn't mean we have the exact same experience of the colour itself. Indeed, someone who is red-green colourblind will find a number of things the "same" colour that I would say are different - but I'll never know whether, when they look at grass, they see what I call green or what I call red.
Likewise for the smell of roses or the taste of chocolate. We can only ever describe our perceptions by analogy, in the language of the things we perceive.
So I was intrigued to learn that some people have more tastebuds than others, and that there are certain compounds that only some of us can taste. In fact, about a quarter of the population are classified as supertasters. I first heard about this phenomenon from a friend who had been to a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and whose husband tested (very) positive. Now, you can buy a set of supertaster test kits online to try for yourself at home.
The test consists of a strip of paper impregnated with a harmless chemical, which not everyone can taste. Although the testing kit doesn't look like much (just a couple of strips of test paper, and a page of accompanying notes), I had great fun feeding paper to my friends and watching their reactions, which ranged from bemused expressions and comments that "it tastes like paper" through to face-contorting grimaces.
I really, really didn't think I would get a positive result. Some of the 'indications' include disliking broccoli (which I love), coffee (which I love) and dark chocolate (which I really love, obviously). But the moment the paper touched my tongue I knew I'd been wrong about that. I spat it straight out and reached for a bar of chocolate to take the taste away!
I now know four people who've tested positive as supertasters, and those are two married couples (myself and Andy included). It's a very small sample, but I do wonder if that's random or not; unfortunately I can't find any scientific literature on the question of tastebuds and relationships.
Three other friends couldn't taste anything at all - though I deliberately targeted those with foodie tendencies.
Research is inconclusive as to whether supertasters just have more tastebuds, or whether they also have a different kind of taste receptor. Being able to detect the supertaster compounds is inversely related to being able to taste another bitter compound, which is particularly interesting. I hope there will be more research in future looking into these fascinating areas.
Disclosure: I was sent a few test strips to sample. Thoughts and opinions are my own.