Do Men and Women Experience Taste Differently?

Women may have a more acute sense of taste than men. So say scientists.

Here’s one for the “Did you know … ?” file: Women have a keener sense of taste than men. Who says? Well, science, actually.

NPR’s The Salt blog recently gathered evidence that women may be better able to pick out the subtle nuances of flavor (and, relatedly, aromas) than men:

The nose knows. A 2002 Rutgers University study asked participants — men and women of all ages — to identify two odors in decreasing concentrations and found that women of reproductive age experienced an increase in their sensitivity to one of the odors by about five orders of magnitude, on average.

No, it really knows. A follow-up study, in which participants of both genders and various ages were trained to identify different odors at increasingly diluted concentrations, found that women of reproductive age were even more sensitive to the odors — able to identify them at concentrations that were 11 orders of magnitude lower than men, which was a dramatic difference.

Is it a matter of focus? The studies’ lead author, Paul Breslin, told NPR’s Eliza Barclay the increased sensitivity may be due to both hormones and attention. “It's not that women are super sensitive to everything — it's that women are a little better when they focus their attention on a smell," he said. On the downside, women also have a higher incidence of intolerance to chemical odors, becoming irritated by them at low levels.

Or it could be a defense mechanism. One theory is that women of reproductive age may be more sensitive to odors in order to protect their children from toxins in food. Another is that it may help them bond with their children. “It's been shown that mothers can pick out their baby's smell from a big group," Breslin said.

It may carry over into our perceptions of food. Women are more likely to be supertasters — experiencing tastes more intensely — than men. One study, cited by University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste professor Linda Bartoshuk, estimated that 34 percent of women were supertasters, while only 22 percent of men were.

Consider ability versus confidence. While several experts told Barclay they’d noticed women may be better able to perceive flavors and recall those flavors more readily, some also observed that men have a way of compensating. "Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don't know why. Maybe men don't pay as much attention?" Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif., posited. He added, "Men use confidence in lieu of ability.”

Training trumps all. Regardless of your gender, the best thing you can do to sharpen your perception of taste is to make an effort to dial in on what you are tasting, Barclay concluded.

Practice makes perfect and all.

Photo courtesy of iStock
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