A taste for salt may be a superpower

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 18th June 2010

A US researcher has linked a preference for salty foods to a heightened sense of taste, in a study at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

The study asked 87 participants to rate the taste intensity of a variety of salty foods over several weeks.

The subjects with a heightened sense of taste – known as ‘supertasters’ – were found to consume more salt than most people, and to experience salty tastes more strongly.

Lead researcher John Hayes said that salt is an important flavour for supertasters compared to those who experience a lowered sense of taste (called ‘nontasters’).

“Most of us like the taste of salt. However, some individuals eat more salt, both because they like the taste of saltiness more, and also because it is needed to block other unpleasant tastes in food,” said Hayes.

“Supertasters, people who experience tastes more intensely, consume more salt than do nontasters. Snack foods have saltiness as their primary flavor, and at least for these foods, more is better, so the supertasters seem to like them more.”

However, supertasters also used higher levels of salt to block unpleasant bitter tastes in foods like cheese.

“For example, cheese is a wonderful blend of dairy flavors from fermented milk, but also bitter tastes from ripening that are blocked by salt,” Hayes said. “A supertaster finds low-salt cheese unpleasant because the bitterness is too pronounced.”

Bitterness is the one of the ways that scientists distinguish between supertasters, nontasters and those in between.

“Supertasters describe bitter compounds as being extremely bitter, while nontasters find these same bitter compounds to be tasteless or only weakly bitter,” he said. “Response to bitter compounds is one of many ways to identify biological differences in food preference, because supertasting is not limited to bitterness.

“Individuals who experience more bitterness also perceive more saltiness in table salt, more sweetness from table sugar, more burn from chili peppers, and more tingle from carbonated drinks.”