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As South Africans, we love salting our food, but the more salt we consume, the more at risk it puts us of heart disease and stroke, which annually claims the lives of 78 475 people in our country.

A fascinating piece of research done by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences in the US suggests that people who tend to salt their food more could be ‘supertasters’. These are people whose sense of taste is heightened possibly due to the TAS2R38 bitter taste receptor gene.

 In gist, supertasters typically add more salt to their food to disguise or cancel out the bitter taste the palate picks up when eating certain foods such as cheddar cheese, broccoli, spinach or olives for example. Whereas those with a more neutral sense of taste are less inclined to add additional salt.

Currently, SA’s discretionary salt consumption sits at 41% a day, which may indicate that many South Africans have been dealt the ‘supertaster’ gene, especially if one considers that in most other Westernised countries, the discretionary use of salt is in the region of 15%, pointing to a more neutral sense of taste.

So, if you’re among the many South Africans that find themselves reaching for the saltshaker at every mealtime, there might be more to your urge than just a bad habit. To find out if you’re a ‘supertaster’ try this:

  • Get hold of a Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) strip to detect a definite taste. Test strips treated with PTC may taste bitter, sweet or salty depending on the chemical and genetic make-up of the taster. If you’re a ‘supertaster’, you won’t be able to stand the bitter taste on the strips. Ask your local pharmacy if they stock these.
  • Another way to test whether you’re a ‘supertaster’ is to dye your tongue blue with some food colouring and to then stick a hole reinforcer (those white round stickers used to reinforce the holes made in paper when placing them in a file) on your tongue. Then use a magnifying glass and get someone to count the pink bumps on your tongue within the hole of the sticker. If you have more than 35 pink bumps (papillae, you’re likely to be a bona fide supertaster. If you have between 15 and 35 papillae, you are an average or medium taster. Anything under 15 makes you a non-taster. Also watch this SciShow video about ‘supertasters’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7Pzhvypg9A

The challenge to find out if you’re a ‘supertaster’ is being put to the public in the wake of World Salt Awareness Week (12-16 March) by Pharma Dynamics – a prevention-minded pharmaceutical company that promotes a diet low in sodium.

Despite being the biggest provider of cardiovascular medication in South Africa, Pharma Dynamics promotes prevention over cure. Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for the health firm, says even though modern medicine can help patients to manage symptoms, it’s important to tackle the root cause if we are to curb the growing number of diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, which are primarily related to lifestyle.

“What tastes good to us largely drives what we eat and if ‘supertasters’ mask certain tastes by adding more salt, they may find it much more challenging than others to follow a low-salt diet.

“Once you know your ‘salt status’ and have identified yourself as a ‘supertaster’, you need to be extra aware of your salt use. Supertasters can however train their taste buds by shifting their sense of taste to enjoy foods made with less sodium by using natural herbs and spices instead of salt to achieve the desired taste. They could use fresh garlic, basil, dill, oregano, lemon or red pepper flakes as healthy alternatives to salt,” advises Jennings.

Experts estimate that limiting salt consumption could decrease 11% of deaths from heart disease per year and save the SA government in the region of R713-million per annum in healthcare fees.

Salt consumption in SA still remains alarmingly high with most adults ingesting as much as 40g a day, which is way above the World Health Organisation’s recommended intake of less than 5g a day.

Low sodium recipes with great salt-swapping tips approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA, can be found at www.cookingfromtheheart.co.za.