Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the surface of the tongue, close up.

Differences in taste

Food doesn’t taste the same to everyone. Jon Turney looks at how genetic variation between people means that it’s easier for some of us to eat our greens

Some people have lots of taste buds on the tongue and experience most tastes more intensely. There are also differences in individual taste receptors. The best known is a genetic variation in a receptor that registers bitterness: people with two copies of a variant in the receptor gene find certain chemicals unbearable, including the man-made sulphur-containing compound phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Those with two copies of the insensitive variant usually cannot taste them at all, and one of each leaves you somewhere in between. The variance was discovered in the 1930s, but the gene involved was only identified in 2003.

PTC evokes similar responses to the sulfur-containing compounds in some vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Children are more sensitive to unpleasant tastes; this may have given them better protection against the toxins found in some wild plants. In some children, extra sensitivity to bitterness (often resulting in a dislike of Brussels sprouts) goes with a strong liking for sugary foods and drinks, possibly because sweetness can overwhelm traces of bitterness.

Lead image:

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the surface of the tongue, close up.

David Gregory and Debbie Marshall/Wellcome Images


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Food and Diet’ in June 2011 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Genetics and genomics
Food and Diet
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development