Accounting for Taste

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering lately: Why do we all have such different food preferences? What makes me crave sweets when I’m stressed while my sister craves salt? Why will I eat almost anything–I’m a fairly adventurous eater, and I’ve even eaten bugs–but refuse to put a mushroom in my mouth? I have a new feature in Psychology Today that attempts to unravel the various strands that contribute to our individual food preferences.

For early humans, the entire world was a supermarket stocked with seasonal fare. Each forest crawled with potential edibles, each thicke offered a buffet. But alas, this open-air store was void of nutritional labels and the protection of the FDA.

People could only rely on instinct and harsh experience to guide them. Ripe fruit was safe and also packed with vitamins, and so our ancestors developed a preference for sweet foods over the years. At the same time, they evolved an aversion to bitterness, since natural poisons are bitter. Those who avoided such flavors were less likely to eat something toxic and die.

The legacy of the ancient food environment survives to this day. Babies are still born with a love of sugary foods like cookies and a dislike of bitter substances such as coffee. Most people crave fatty fare, which was scarce in the old days (and all too prevalent now). But beyond such general patterns, there are surprisingly few universals when it comes to the human diet. Some of us love tomatoes, or hot peppers, or stinky cheese, while others cannot abide them. When it comes to eating, “the larger problem of accounting for preferences is an area of considerable ignorance,” says Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. But researchers are now beginning to understand the complicated stew of genes and environment that helps determine our favorite—and least favorite—foods.

The story discusses a wide variety of things–how biology might play a role in creating picky eaters, how culture and personality might interact to create adventurous eaters, and whether extremely disciplined, healthy eating shares features with classic eating disorders. (Some researchers have proposed the term “orthorexia” to describe people who become overly fixated on “healthy” diets.)

The full text is behind a paywall, but you can download a PDF here.

Image: Flickr/JavierVazquez

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3 Responses to Accounting for Taste

  1. Ed Yong says:

    Genes, unsurprisingly, play a role too. For example, some affect your ability to taste PTC, a bitter-tasting chemical found in various vegetables, coffee etc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenylthiocarbamide Some people experience a far stronger bitter taste when they eat these foods, which could affect whether they do so.

  2. Emily Anthes says:

    Yep, I talk a bit about that in the story. Incidentally, I’m a non-taster (can’t really detect those bitter compounds), which may explain my utter love of Brussels sprouts.

  3. That’s a nice and revealing post you have there. Although the impact of this will have missed a lot of people who eat for the sake of eating and don’t relish the lingering tastes that awesome dishes leave behind!