Imagine you’re at a restaurant for a family reunion, and Weird Uncle Fred orders himself a round of escargots as an appetizer. You, on the other hand, are a gluten-free vegan who orders the house salad with dressing on the side, but your appetite seems to disappear completely as you’re forced to watch in horror as Weird Uncle Fred scarfs down snail after snail like it’s no big deal.
If humans all share the same five senses, taste being one of them, why do everyone’s taste preferences differ so much? Is it because everyone is just stubborn and really closed-minded?
Sort of, but not quite. It turns out that the psychology of taste goes much deeper.
Innate Predispositions to Taste Types
On a very basic level, all humans have strong, innate preferences among the five taste types – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. It’s human nature to prefer sweet, salty, and savory flavors, just as it is to reject flavors that are overly bitter or sour.
The reason for flavor type preference has a great deal to do with evolution. Take sweetness, for example. Ripe fruits are not only sweet to taste; they’re also packed with nutritious vitamins and minerals. That would make them an ideal source of food, and partly explains why the human brain is hard-wired for sugar and sweets.
In contrast, bitterness raises a red flag; it’s an indication of danger from poisoning. Plants that have developed toxins to avoid being eaten are usually bitter to the taste, and this is why some children – and adults, too – dislike vegetables so much. In other words, you can chalk up your distaste for veggies to an innate need for survival.
Humans are also naturally inclined to prefer fatty foods for their higher calorie count and denser source of energy – especially if it’s a combination of fatty and sweet, or fatty and salty. No wonder it’s so difficult to say no to a side of French fries or a piece of chocolate cake!
Developing Tastes through the Early Stages of Life
Besides taste preferences that make you human, your unique taste palette started developing in the womb. Amniotic fluid containing flavors from the food that a pregnant woman eats is inhaled and exhaled by the fetus, leading to heightened preferences for the same foods later in life.
Researchers conducting a study on pregnant women who consumed carrot juice throughout their final trimesters found that the babies preferred carrot-flavored cereals at a higher rate than babies who hadn’t been exposed to carrot juice during fetal development. The same phenomenon can occur via flavors detected by a newborn during breastfeeding as well.
During the first two years of a child’s life, his or her flavor preferences continue to form as they’re exposed to various foods. After about age two, however, it becomes necessary for the child to learn to like certain flavors.
Learning to Love Certain Foods as a Result of Repeated Exposure
Everyone knows that kids are picky eaters, but that doesn’t have to stop parents from trying to get them to like certain foods. Children who are exposed to more sweet, salty, and savory foods do tend to cling to their innate preferences, and could possibly set themselves up for becoming picky eaters as adults, too.
A study that monitored the eating habits of a group of American children found that toddlers preferred fruits over vegetables, and one in four didn’t eat any vegetables at all on some days. Dark green vegetables were nowhere to be found in the top five foods that the children consumed, likely due to the fact that dark green equates to the height of bitter taste.
At an early age, though, even the most disliked foods can become likeable if the child is exposed to them over and over and over again. Research suggests that 10 to 15 exposures to a certain food can change your picky eater’s taste preferences. Developing taste by association, such as by adding sugar or salt to a food that’s typically disliked, may also work.
When there’s Just NO WAY that You’re Gonna Eat It…
Even with repeated exposure and taste association, some tastes just can’t be cultivated or adopted through repeated exposure or taste association. In fact, just the sight or smell of a particular food might even nauseate you.
If you simply can’t stomach something specific, it’s because you’ve developed a natural aversion to it. This is a survival response that protects you from foods that are potentially unhealthy or even dangerous.
It would be completely logical for anyone to never want to eat – or even see – scallops ever again after living through a case of food poisoning caused by eating bad scallops at a Chinese restaurant, even if it happened years ago. And if you drank a little too much tequila on vacation last year and found yourself hanging your head over the toilet the entire night, that could explain how even the faintest scent of hard liquor has made you queasy ever since.
Your personal taste preferences are shaped throughout your life, and they really do exist to help you stay alive. So, don’t beat yourself up for feeling like you’re programmed to crave glazed donuts and reject a plate of boiled asparagus. That’s just Mother Nature’s way of saying that you’re a normal