March’s UF EyeOpener Discovery Breakfast featured Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, Ph.D., the director of human research and overall assistant director of the Center for Smell and Taste on how UF researchers are unlocking the secrets of taste and smell and how that research can translate to new and enhanced products.
Bartoshuk began the talk by pointing out just how complex the science is with an explanation that there are no fewer than 25 genes that code for the ability to taste bitterness. Bartoshuk’s own research proved that there are certain people, called supertasters, with many more tastebuds than normal, who experience bitterness and other tastes to an extreme level. Jalapenos, she said, have a slightly hot taste to her, but to a supertaster they are a fiery experience.
Research shows that women are more likely to be supertasters and Caucasians are overall less likely to be supertasters, and a graduate student is looking into whether supertasters live in a more intense sensory world than others. Research also shows that supertasters are at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease because of taste preferences, as well as alcoholism and head and neck cancer while also being at a higher risk for colon cancer because of a distaste for vegetables.
In order to make foods like vegetables more palatable, chefs and other food handlers have added sugar to foods for generations, but what Bartoshuk and her team have found is that taste is also tied to the human sense of smell, specifically retronasal olfaction, or what happens when people chew and scent compounds are forced up the back of the nasal passage and bond with smell receptors. A new direction for IFAS research is focusing on how to make tomatoes taste better, which has many implications.
After growing 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, the researchers found that sweetness is derived from sugar, acids and volatiles, which are scent compounds. Surprisingly, volatiles have shown to have a stronger impact on sweetness than sugar, so vegetable breeders can breed new tomatoes that express the right volatiles for a much sweeter experience. New strains from this research will hit the market in a couple of years, Bartoshuk said, and the process is not difficult, so the researchers have grown and looked into strawberries, oranges and blueberries as well.
“We may be able to alter palatability more than we ever imagined,” Bartoshuk said.
Altering palatability could lead to new products like sweeter vegetables, new artificial sweeteners and medications with their bitterness suppressed so that parents have an easier time getting babies and young children to take their medicine.
“Sweetness is big money,” she said. “We have commercial partners interested and the university is interested – enough that they patented it.”