Radio Cade

Super Tasters

March 11, 2020 Linda Bartoshuk Season 1 Episode 69
Radio Cade
Super Tasters
Chapters
Radio Cade
Super Tasters
Mar 11, 2020 Season 1 Episode 69
Linda Bartoshuk

“Super tasters" are people who experience more intense sensations than others. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk is a University of Florida researcher who figured out how to identify super tasters by using “cross-modality” testing. For example, subjects are asked to compare the sweetness of a soft drink to the intensity of various sounds. Linda attributes her interest in taste research to the experience of seeing her father and brother suffer from cancer, which prevented them from being able to taste or enjoy most foods.  

Show Notes Transcript

“Super tasters" are people who experience more intense sensations than others. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk is a University of Florida researcher who figured out how to identify super tasters by using “cross-modality” testing. For example, subjects are asked to compare the sweetness of a soft drink to the intensity of various sounds. Linda attributes her interest in taste research to the experience of seeing her father and brother suffer from cancer, which prevented them from being able to taste or enjoy most foods.  

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965 my name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Welcome to a bittersweet episode, also a sour and salty episode in which you will get a taste of a new method invented by a psychologist at the University of Florida. I'm Richard Miles. My guest today is Linda Bartoshuk, a researcher who discovered the concept of supertasters. Welcome to the show, Linda.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

So Linda, I was going to offer you some Radio Cade coffee, but I'm suddenly afraid it will not measure up to your standards. So tell me, are people afraid when you come to their house for dinner? Do they order out all of a sudden? Is that a problem?

Linda Bartoshuk:

No, I never stopped to think about that. People do want to know if I'm a super taster and I have to tell them no, I'm not only not. I'm at the opposite end of the distribution.

Richard Miles:

So, so any listeners thinking of inviting Linda to dinner, you can relax and she won't show you up. So Linda, we usually start out each show by asking the inventor, entrepreneur or researcher to explain what the what is of what we're talking about. So why don't you give an explanation of what is a supertaster and how did you find out that they even exist?

Linda Bartoshuk:

Supertasters are people who experience more intense taste sensations than do others. That's the simple original definition of them. Then of course, we started to learn a lot about these people and one of the first things we learned was that they have more taste buds. Not surprising, I suppose more taste buds. They experience more intense taste , but not only do they have more taste buds, because of the anatomy of the tongue and because they're pain fibers in baskets around tastebuds , they also feel more pain in their mouth. And because the structures that hold the taste buds have touched fibers, they feel more touch. And one of the most important components of food is fat. And we perceive fat by touch. It's viscous, thick, creamy, oily. These are all touch sensations.

Richard Miles:

Do these people self identify? I mean, did you give surveys? How does somebody even know that they're super tasted ? Like most people think the way I taste or look as normal? How do they know that they're not normal?

Linda Bartoshuk:

That's an extremely good question because it gets to the heart of what was special about this work. How do we know if someone's a supertaster for that matter? How do I know what you taste? If you and I try to compare a taste experience, we use ordinary language. Like I say, Hmm , this lemonade is very sweet to me. Is it very sweet to you? And it doesn't matter what you say, we haven't communicated a thing because you don't know what I'm experiencing that I described as very sweet. So the first question is how can we compare sensations across people? Unless you're a mind reader, it's obvious. It's impossible. So what did we do? Well, we came close. We didn't solve the problem when it came close. Consider the following. If I can think of something that's independent of taste and let's start maybe with sound and I hear a sound as loud or soft and I can match that sound to a taste intensity. If the perception of loudness and the perception of taste are not related, then I can use perception of loudness as a standard and use it to compare taste . And that's exactly what we do.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. Okay, so you sort of triangulate your way into this in terms of finding these people who have these extremely intense reactions to taste .

Linda Bartoshuk:

You came to my lab, I put up a set of earphones on you and I'd play you a pure tone and I'd allow you to adjust the loudness of that tone with a knob. And I'd give you something to taste and I'd say taste this. Think about how intense it is and match the intensity of the taste to the loudness of this tone. Now that's called cross modality matching and a very, very interesting psychologist, SS Stevens at Harvard. In the 1950s and sixties designed this technique. Humans are extremely good at it. You may not think about it, but you can compare intensity across sensations, no matter what the modalities are. So we pick a modality not related to taste and we use it as a standard. So for example, if I study genetic variation in taste and we use a compound called prop, P. R. O. P., It's very bitter if you're a super taster. To me, I'm a non taster, I don't taste it at all. Now that's an extreme difference. But how would you measure lesser differences? Well, suppose I took an ordinary Pepsi. I want to know how you experienced the sweetness of Pepsi. I want you to set the sound loudness to the sweetness of a Pepsi. Now a supertaster will turn that knob up to 90 decibels, which is the loudest of train whistle. And somebody like me will turn that knob down to 80 decibels, which is the loudness of a telephone dial tone. Now we know a lot about sound. We know a lot about hearing. We know that 10 decibels is a factor of two. So we now can say that a supertaster you get it.

Richard Miles:

Yea, you can quantify it.

Linda Bartoshuk:

P epsi i s twice as sweet to the supertaster because to match it, they u se a sound that was twice as loud.

:

So I'm surprised marketers haven't caught on, this wouldn't be great to say these are loud fries or soft asparagus. Right. Okay. So if you're a super taster , you experienced these tastes much more intensely. Is that across the board? I mean, every time you put something in your mouth you just sort of like, Oh my God. Or is it nuanced? Even for a supertaster ,

Linda Bartoshuk:

It's every time, a factor of two is average. So imagine there are some two supertasters out there to experiencing three, four times as intense taste . Now how do they know that it's the world they live in? They think it's ordinary, but it's not same as the world I live in and the world I live in I think is ordinary. And what's fascinating is to think about how many experiences out there like this.

Richard Miles:

So just give me an idea of what rough percentage of the population is super tested?

Linda Bartoshuk:

That's an interesting question. In the United States, we probably have about 15% of the population are supertasters.

Richard Miles:

Oh, that high. Wow .

Linda Bartoshuk:

But more women than men.

Richard Miles:

Interesting.

Linda Bartoshuk:

And it varies by race. So as you start to go around the world and you get to non-Caucasian groups, they have more supertasters. So in fact male Caucasians are the least likely to be supertasters of anybody in the world.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. Okay. So nobody has to buy me dinner. Right? So what do supertasters do with this superpower? Do you find more of them gravitating to being cooks ? Do they tend to congregate in certain professions or what would I do with this if I had it?

Linda Bartoshuk:

You know, I was asked this question some years ago and I just sloughed it off and I said, nah, that couldn't be any connection. What do you like? What you do is too complicated. Actually to my amazement, I've done tests in a lot of different professions and there is a connection. A wonderful group of professional cooks invited me to a conference some years ago and they let me test them. There were several hundred people there, there were too many supertasters in that room. And most of those cooks were Caucasian men. So here I am finding all these supertasters in this group and I don't understand this. I truly do not know why cooks would tend to be supertasters. It's gotta be more complicated than just tastes . If anything, you think that the cooks would be the non tasters who are less opinionated about hating strong taste . Cause supertasters can get very upset about some things.

Richard Miles:

Because in addition to being able to enjoy something more they'd probably irritated by, well enjoy .

Linda Bartoshuk:

It's interesting you said that because we actually did something recently which shows a connection there that I wasn't expecting. We are measuring, and remember I told you how exciting it was to find this cross modal match technique to find supertasters. We're doing something similar with pleasure. So we can measure the pleasure of food in supertasters and others. And I can tell you that supertasters get more pleasure from the foods they like a lot.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. So I joked earlier about marketers getting a hold of this, but there is a serious component here.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Very serious .

Richard Miles:

Is there, there's gotta be, I'm assuming work being done. Maybe you're doing it on synthetic version of the apparatus and allow supertasters to taste. Can that in some way be reduced to some sort of additive or a new GMO that would give you the same effect as if you were a supertaster ?

Linda Bartoshuk:

I have no idea because most companies don't share what they're doing. They consider it proprietary and they're not going to tell me what they're doing. Even if they ask me for help, they're not going to tell me what the results are.

Richard Miles:

I see . Okay. But is it possible in theory to do this?

Linda Bartoshuk:

I'm not sure. I once had a phone call from a fellow in California who owned a vineyard. I'd given a lecture in California and he wanted me to send him prop papers. These are little bitter circles of paper that have a compound on that is particularly good at picking out tasters. Supertasters non tasters. And I had demonstrated it at a lecture and apparently he was there and he wanted to test all his employees and I said, why do you want to do that? And he said, I'm going to fire any of them that aren't supertasters. I said, I'm not sending you papers at all. And I said, that's the wrong thing to do. What you need to do is think about how you're going to use these different specialties. A supertaster is going to be fantastic at picking up an off flavor, but they're going to pick up bitter that shouldn't be there in your product. Those are the people you hire to be the specialist to go out and check. But you're selling wine to , most people are not supertasters and you want to know how they feel about the wine you're selling.

Richard Miles:

Exactly. So I imagine back in the days of old, the supertaster would be the guy who tastes the food for the King right?

Linda Bartoshuk:

Exactly.

Richard Miles:

And he's gonna know uh oh, something's wrong with this, you know, send it back. Oh , that's fascinating. So how did you sort of end up looking at taste it's just somebody asks you a question, you got curious. Tell us the path from psychology to an expert on super tasting.

Linda Bartoshuk:

The first time I heard a question like that I would have answered by saying, well, when I was an undergraduate, the chairman of my department of the psyche department had done his PhD on taste and when I was ready to go to graduate school, he sent me to his mentor, Carl Hoffman, Brown university and I did my PhD with him also. But the truth is I don't think that was it at all. I think what really did this is my father got lung cancer when I was a junior in college and I remember what was the most disturbing to him was that his sister made him a canned beef. He was a farm boy and this was one of his favorite foods and he tried to eat it and it tasted metallic and it put him off and was one of the main things he talked about when he was ill and I didn't think about that consciously. But it's interesting that I ended up working on that problem, on taste, Phantoms , what produces them, how you can treat them. And I didn't learn this in time to help my father, but many years later my brother developed colon cancer and he had a phantom also and I went to see him, evaluated him and I could tell him what caused it. I still couldn't fix it. Now I'm working with a friend in Canada, Miriam Griskha, we can actually treat these phantoms. I think that experience with my dad really made this salient and made me want to work in this field.

Richard Miles:

I hadn't even thought about the medical aspect and I should have because I recall that my father-in-law, Dr. Cade , one of his inventions apart from Gatorade was a drink called go and it was a high protein milkshake and they were testing it on athletes, but some of the early consumers of that were cancer patients because they really liked the taste of it and it was the only thing that they would want to eat and keep down. And of course it was good for them because everything in milkshake. At the time, he was mostly focused on building up proteins like that and it just happened. It tastes good, but because it tastes good, it was their only.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Right.

Richard Miles:

Thing that they wanted to have, right. Linda, so you grew up in a small town in South Dakota and your original love I understand was astronomy correct?

Linda Bartoshuk:

Yes.

Richard Miles:

So tell me about some of your early influences. Uh, what was it like to grow up in South Dakota? I, what like five people that live there. Who were some of your early influences? You mentioned your father or did you have other teachers or friends or mentors? What was that like pre-professional before you became a psychologist, what was your life like?

Linda Bartoshuk:

No, I remember my teachers as being absolutely wonderful, but it's interesting. I can recount to you some anecdotes and it's going to sound like I grew up an angry young woman. That is not true because those events didn't make me angry at the time. They make me angry looking back on them. We had a career day in junior high and each one of us was supposed to write what we wanted to do on a three by five card. A school would get us somebody in that field and we'd interview them. So I wrote down, I wanted to be an astronomer and they had me interview a secretary and I should have begun to catch on then. And so I get the high school and I want to take physics and chemistry and trig and algebra. And my guidance counselor told me these were unrealistic choices for me and he wouldn't approve my schedule. So I bargained with him and I agreed to take typing and bookkeeping in return for being allowed to take these other subjects. And I should tell you, I think there was one other girl in chemistry. And other than that, it was the only girl in those courses. I gotta tell you though, the typing came in handy. I've got to admit that. But the teachers who taught me those subjects, I think were delighted that a girl wanted to take these subjects and they treated me just like the rest of the people in the class. So I don't have any bad memories of that at all.

Richard Miles:

Did you enjoy chemistry? Did you find it difficult? Challenging? What was your reaction?

Linda Bartoshuk:

It's interesting-

Richard Miles:

Because it tends to be one of those classes to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you don't like it, you'll take the basics and you're out right?

Linda Bartoshuk:

I didn't like it much, and yet I'm in the chemical senses and chemistry is really important. And what can I say about that? I don't think maybe the teachers made us like it enough. I think they didn't expect us to like it either. And that's a mistake. And wow. If there's one thing that kids should be helped to like it's science and math because it's gonna help you everywhere, right? It's going to help you think.

Richard Miles:

But then you chose to go into psychology. You went to high school in South Dakota, right? And then where did you go do your undergrad?

Linda Bartoshuk:

Well, I was going to go to South Dakota school of mines and technology and that was my home state school. And my parents took me for a visit and I would have been one of three women in a class of a hundred freshmen. And I said, uh-uh , I do not want to do this. So I went to Carlton college and the thing that made it so wonderful is that my family couldn't afford to let me stay there for four years, but they were willing to let me go and try it out. And I was walking through the reception line with the president of the university shaking the hand of every freshmen , Lawrence Gould, the great Explorer. It was very exciting and he whispered in my ear, you've just been awarded a merit scholarship. Ooh, wow. It paid for my school. I could stay at Karl for four years. So I was all set. They had an observatory. I was going to be an astronomer. I took the math and the science absolutely loved it. And I get to my junior year, and lo and behold, I find out that women aren't allowed to use the big telescopes we're considered, I guess, too fragile. Now I'm getting pissed off and my college roommate and I sat, went through the catalog and looked for any major I could switch to that would give me credit for all that math and science. Guess what? Psychology would give me credit for all that math and science. So I could spend the last two years at Carlton taking all the psych courses and catching up with that and graduate with an astronomy, math, and psych. But what happened in my first class, I took it from John Bear, wonderful teacher, and I encountered the study of the senses and I never looked back I just loved it. Wow.

Richard Miles:

And so the rest is history. How did you end up at Florida? That's a missing link.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Florida. Oh boy. I might as well tell you the truth because I've written it. I was at Yale for 30 years and I was mad. Yale didn't treat women well and they didn't treat me well. I hate to think back on all of the things that happened there. Well let me give you an example. I had an appointment at the Pierce foundation, which is a research Institute affiliated with Yale. And when I got pregnant with my first child, the director, Dr. James Hardy , ex Admiral from the deep South, sorry to say, said to me, we'll be really sorry to lose you. And I really didn't know what he meant. And I said, I don't understand. And he said, well of course you're going to resign and take care of your child. And I said, no, I'm going to keep working. And he said, women like you are going to destroy Western civilization. And he made my life miserable after that. And eventually it was more than I could stand at . And I actually moved to Yale full time and left the Pierce foundation and went into a clinical department, department of surgery. Now in surgery, they do operations on people that cut the taste nerve. If they can't help it, it's in the way certain kind of operations in ear, nose and throat. And I could study those patients before and after. They had a nerve cut and it opened incredible vistas.

Richard Miles:

Right.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Why did I eventually leave Yale 20 years? I'm really getting tired of it all. I served on sexual harassment boards. I was on one committee after another. I worked very hard for these causes. My husband was a professor in physics. He's a theoretical physicist and he loved Yale and I didn't want to leave while he loved it, but when he retired he said, you know, I've had my way all this time. Let's go where you want. Well, the university of Florida has a smell and taste center. It was set up by Barry Ache and I wanted to be a part of that.

Richard Miles:

Great story. Linda, I'm sure you probably get asked to talk to students and other groups and they probably ask you or you dispense some advice. What would you share, say with an up and coming researcher or even a budding entrepreneur? Do you look back on anything and say, gosh, I wish I'd done a little more of that and a little bit less of that? Think of a 21 year old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself now that you didn't know then.

Linda Bartoshuk:

I would tell them to do what you love because when everything else settles out, the fact is you want to get up in the morning and go to work and do something you love every morning I go into work and I can't wait to get there. And there is just nothing that can substitute for that.

Richard Miles:

I agree. It's probably the most common advice that we hear on the show.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Take a lot of math too.

Richard Miles:

Love what you do, but study up in the math. Yeah, I was going to mention earlier when my daughter graduated from college, very, very few people had double degrees in both math or science related field and humanities related field. Out of all the graduates, there's either one or the other and occasionally you saw somebody like my daughter got a degree in math and in Spanish. It's a very unusual combination and so I think it just sort of shows the breadth of your interests that you went from a love of astronomy to chemistry to psychology. So you must enjoy what you do. I imagine when you're doing it.

Linda Bartoshuk:

I do very much.

Richard Miles:

Linda, thank you very much for coming on the Radio Cade. Hope to have you back at some point and find out about loud steaks or soft potatoes.

Linda Bartoshuk:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

From Radio Cade , Richard Miles signing off.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinists , Jacob Lawson.