Matthew: Three of us went to lunch and ordered three very different desserts. We decided to taste each others’ dessert and vote on the favorite one. Interestingly, there was no agreement as to which was the best. That got us thinking, how do people’s tastes for food develop? Why does someone prefer chocolate and another person prefer vanilla? Are the taste buds different? Also, our tastes change over time. When I was a child, I hated tomatoes. Now I love them. Why is that? — A Chocolate Lover, San Diego
Whoever said there’s no accounting for taste should have checked with Matthew Alice first. Nutrition researchers have lots of info. (For the moment, we’ll ignore smell and “mouth feel,” which also affect food preferences.) Genetics do play some role, in that people are born with varying abilities to smell and taste. And they influence the chemical makeup of saliva and the structure of taste buds. Saliva dissolves food and distributes the solution into little reservoirs in our tongue bumps into which our 10,000 or so taste buds are crammed. Chemical reactions between the solution and certain taste-bud cells is what tells us, “Mmmmm, crime au beurre d la meringue italienne!” or “Yikes! Okra!”
All newborns react strongly to taste; they instinctively love sweet and dislike bitter and sour. This is probably left over from our fruit-eating hunter-gatherer days, when we’d see something interesting, pick it, sniff it, and shove it into our mouths. Natural poisons in plants, insects, and amphibians generally have a bitter taste, and we’d spit them out. Taste buds for bitter flavors are at the backs of our tongues and are linked to our gag reflexes, a handy setup for omnivores like us.
So how do we end up eating things like jalapenos and coffee and garlic — alkaloid flavors we should naturally shun? Beyond sweets, our taste preferences are gradually learned as Mom introduces foods into our diets. A four-year-old who spits out his green beans is just reacting naturally to the perceived bitter taste of many vegetables. If Mom persists and Junior sees enough other people enjoying them, he might acquire the taste. In the case of Ms. Chocolate Lover’s tomatoes, it was probably the acidity that turned her off.
A family’s cultural background also shapes adult food preferences. If an infant comes into a home where Mom puts garlic in everything, the familiarity of the smell and the pleasant associations eventually make the taste of garlic acceptable. It’s also been demonstrated that breast-fed babies grow up to be more adventurous eaters because mother’s milk is tinged with flavors from her diet, introducing them in minute quantities and paving the way for acceptance of a broader range of foods. The boring blandness of infant formula can create toddlers who are even pickier than average.
It’s worth noting that we human beans are, by nature, a sensually thrill-seeking species, and the tendency extends to our eating habits. What else could explain Tabasco sauce or anchovy pizza?