Archive for July 29th, 2009

Science at home: Taste

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Currently I’m facilitating a six-week program series for our early childhood visitors focused on our five senses. Whenever I think up an activity or experiment, I like to try it out myself before introducing it to my audience (because we all know what happened to David Blaine). This coming week, the early childhood class is studying taste, so I ran some of my program ideas past my colleague and cubical neighbor, Katie Bowell.

I planned on starting the lesson by having the kids observe their taste buds using hand-held mirrors. Katie suggested that I have the kids dye their tongues with food coloring first. The tongue will stain with the coloring, but the taste buds won’t, making them really visible on the tongue.

I had to ask: what color dye would work best? To find out before I did the activity with the kids (David Blaine, I’m not) we of course dyed our tongues. It was a Friday afternoon, and it seemed like a good time to give it a go. We thought blue might make for the greatest contrast and as you can see from the pictures, it definitely did.

Who's the supertaster in this picture?

Who's the supertaster in this picture?

Interestingly, some people have a higher concentration of taste buds on their tongues. These people are known as super tasters – and wouldn’t you know it, Katie is one! She definitely has more taste buds on her tongue than I do, as I saw firsthand after we dyed our tongues. Supertasters can enjoy even the blandest of meals because their high number of taste buds can discern more flavors than those of us with an average number of taste buds. On the flip side, some supertasters have real problems eating bitter foods, such as broccoli, dark chocolate, coffee and grapefruit, because they sense more of that flavor. (Of course, there are also non-tasters who have a lower than average number of taste buds. Those folks can eat anything!)

Some small children who are labeled “picky eaters” are actually supertasters who want to avoid bitter foods.  If you have one of those “picky eaters” in your family, you may want to try dying his or her tongue to determine if he or she is actually a supertaster.  A supertaster’s tongue, when dyed, will look extremely bumpy and dotted like a tiled floor. An average taster or non taster will have a tongue that looks polka-dotted.

There are health benefits and detriments for supertasters. Those bitter foods they avoid often contain compounds that protect against cancer. One study by Wayne State University reported a link between cancerous polyps and tasting ability: more cancerous polyps for supertasters. On the plus side, supertasters also tend to avoid fatty and sugary foods, which means fewer weight problems and less risk of cardiovascular disease.

Lucky for me, I’m clearly a non-taster, so I’m off to eat dark chocolate-covered broccoli with a side of coffee soaked grapefruit!

July 2009

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