April 17, 2019 at 02:00PM by CWC
Brussels sprouts are unequivocally my favorite vegetable. As I’m writing this, I had some as a snack. One of my favorite breakfasts is this amazing pesto/Brussels sprouts/egg dish at my favorite neighborhood cafe. But how did I get here? I used to hate—nay, abhor—Brussels sprouts as a kid. Along with mushrooms, asparagus, and tomatoes. Now, three out of four of those I count among my favorite foods.
In a more adult sense, the first time I tried wine I hated it. Those words seem impossible to me now. (Give my your most tannin-y red, please and thank you.) As a Pisces, I am well aware that there is a fine line between love and hate—but why do tastes change, especially when it comes to flavors we used to detest?
All humans are born with specific food preferences
It all goes back to our fundamental biology. “We are born with a sweet tooth, preferring sweet taste,” says David A. Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. He says this is to help us recognize our mother’s milk. A few months after birth, we develop a taste for salty foods—which experts believe is because salty foods generally have essential nutrients like potassium and sodium.
We’re also born disliking bitter tastes. “There are some clearly defined genetic determinants of taste, but mostly they define our reactions of very bitter tastes,” Dr. Levitsky says. “Bitter taste usually signals a potentially dangerous substance. That prevents children from eating potentially dangerous items in the environment.” (It does not, however, prevent children from eating an entire container of fish food, as proven by my little brother when he was younger.)
Individually, taste preferences may start while we’re still in the womb. “Several studies have demonstrated that strongly flavored foods consume by the mother can affect the taste prefer of children, still in utero,” he explains. (Like this one, that suggests that if a woman eats things like garlic and anise while she is pregnant, the fetus is exposed to it via amniotic fluid and it can actually change their reaction to it when they are born.)
According to other research, mouthfeel is also important. (Yes, I could have said texture, but in my research I came across the term mouthfeel many times and needed everyone to share in my discomfort.). Fatty foods, for instance, are appealing because of things like the smell, taste, texture, and palatability. And there are generally food texture “types” that people broadly fall into (say, a preference for crunchy food over chewy food) that can affect what types of food they like.
But we can learn to like new things with time
So basically, we’re all born with an ingrained preference towards sweet foods, and a hatred of the bitter stuff. And depending on what our moms ate during pregnancy, we might have a predisposition to other kinds of tastes. But that’s not set for life.
“As children we have a very narrow acceptance of foods, particularly new foods,” Dr. Levitsky says. “As we get older we become more curious and try new foods, some of which we may like.” This isn’t because your taste buds change; that doesn’t start to happen until middle age, he says. It’s simply because of exposure.
“You can train yourself to accept unfamiliar foods,” Dr. Levitsky says. This training process involves, in non-scientific terms, eating a certain food until you like it. (That explains how I came to like wine.) One study found that it takes children around 15 times of eating a food to like it. Another study found that adding sugar to broccoli and cauliflower got kids to eat it, and after six times of eating sugared-up broccoli, they actually liked eating it on its own.
The thought of eating tomatoes 15 times until I like them honestly sounds like more emotional torture than I’m willing to put myself through. And of course, you shouldn’t force yourself to get into a food if you truly despise it. But if you’ve been avoiding something for a long time because of childhood associations, it could be worth giving it another chance to see if it potentially has a shot in your everyday rotation.
So maybe the trick to liking tomatoes is to have them every time I drink wine? Guess I’d better go test this theory. You know, for science.