WHEN I brush my teeth each morning, I catch a glimpse of my tongue and feel slightly amazed that it’s going to be insured for £1m. Sometimes I stick it out in the mirror and study it; it seems an unbelievable amount for something you barely notice.
I never really paid much attention to it until I became a baby-food tester. Now, my tongue — specifically, my ability to determine tiny changes in flavour — is the primary tool of my job. The company I work for believes I’m such a valuable asset in terms of getting the balance of tastes in baby food just right that it’s worth getting me insured.
I’m what you call a “supertaster” — one of a small percentage of the population who are born with twice as many taste buds as the rest. Babies are typically born with more than 10,000 taste buds, but in later life they decrease to as few as 5,000. At 24 I should really be at the height of my tasting powers.
Growing up, I was never a fussy eater or aware that my palate was unlike other people’s, but at university I began to notice I was sensitive to different flavours. A friend was also studying nutrition, and her dissertation was on the baobab fruit. She used me as a guinea pig for her baobab smoothies and was surprised I was able to detect the exact concentration in each glass.
At first, baby food did taste alien to me — it took a while to get used to eating a square meal reduced to a paste. Also, I have to make a real effort to get into the mindset of a baby — to imagine that each time I put a spoonful of pureed shepherd’s pie in my mouth, I am six months old again. Babies wince at flavours we love, because they have many more working taste buds than adults, on their tongue, on the roof of their mouth and also on the inside of their cheeks. So flavours that taste bland to us are much more intense to them. I still draw the line at sampling baby fish pie after breakfast.
I am more aware of protecting my tongue these days, particularly before a tasting session, and avoid any strong tastes or smells, such as coffee and perfume. I also drink plenty of water during the day to cleanse my palate.
As well as taste, I focus on all the organoleptic or sensory qualities of the food — it’s very important for it to look and smell appealing as well as to taste good. So when I sample a jar of Sunday lunch, I ask myself, can I taste the carrots? Can I taste the potato? Can it be improved?
At first my heart sank if I was confronted with a recipe containing peas — I wasn’t a fan of them — but I have discovered that if you try something enough, you can train yourself to enjoy it. This gives hope to parents of fussy children — keep serving them broccoli and eventually they’ll learn to love it. I’m living proof — peas are now on the menu at home as well as at work.
Outside work it’s a joy to be able to taste everything so intensely. One consequence is that eating is a much richer experience, as is smelling. If I take one bite of a salad, I can tell immediately what’s in the dressing: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic — the ingredients are clear to me. I like the challenge of guessing what’s in anything I eat, and the satisfaction of rarely getting it wrong.
I tend to steer clear of anything too strongly flavoured, though. Not because it would affect my palate, just because my taste buds are so sensitive. I never add hot condiments such as mustard or horseradish sauce to my food, because it’s actually painful to eat them. It feels as if they’re burning my tongue, something I really can’t afford to do these days. — The Guardian, London