Where Do Taste Preferences Come From?

In America, more so than most countries, our taste preferences are strongly affected by advertising and a fast-moving, convenience-based culture. By the time most kids can watch cartoons, their food preferences have been strongly influenced.  The consequence is a progression of acquired tastes that are more often about gratification than nutrition.

Today, most children (and quite a few adults) find plant-based whole foods unappealing and yet a generation ago many of these foods were appetizing staples in the American diet.  It’s not unusual to hear children refer to whole foods, especially vegetables, with words like ‘gross’ and ‘yucky.’ The power of marketing and convenience has distorted taste preference with many unintended health consequences.  To significantly improve national health and bend the rising health care cost curve, America needs a taste preference reset.  Unfortunately, returning to a diet of delicate natural whole food flavors will be challenging in a fast food culture that’s only getting faster, more processed and more nutritionally deficient with each generation.

For most, acquiring new taste preferences is the biggest hurdle in learning to enjoy a healthy diet.  The problem is that fiber and micronutrients needed for health are often removed from the processed foods most have come to know and prefer. 

A healthful diet requires a variety of plant based whole foods. Granted, finding more than a few dozens of these whole foods (vegetables, grains, fruits, etc.) in a traditional grocery store can be challenging.  The key is diligence in reading food labels and phone apps like Fooducate to help unravel confusing labels and help in making better choices.  This is not a challenge to be taken lightly given that so much of our health depends on acquiring a taste for the right foods.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I know what I should eat, I just don’t like it.”  If that’s your view then don’t feel alone and don’t despair.  Most likely you are a victim of cultural programming that began long ago when you were impressionable and in an environment where good food choices were decided by others.

If you still live on some variation of the Standard American Diet (SAD), don’t blame yourself.  Culture, clever marketing, and food engineering sneaked one over on you.  However, now that you know, that excuse is going to sound a bit weak in the future.  Fortunately, you aren’t going to need a 12 step program to acquire a new taste.  In only three steps you can make a break from the past and acquire a taste for more nutritious foods.

Step 1. Put the food you want to replace out of view and ideally out of the house.

Step 2. Put the new food in a visibly prominent location on the kitchen counter or front and center in the refrigerator.  If possible, prepare it as finger food.

Step 3. Eat at least one piece of the food each day for ten days.

In a study of children, trying a new food eight or nine times was enough exposure to make the food appealing.  This approach works best when there is no alternative.

In the early stages of acquiring a new taste, blending the new food with more familiar taste may be necessary. If strong resistance is encountered, use a little butter, sugar or salt. Granted this is not the ultimate goal but can help bridge what might otherwise be insurmountable objections.

As an example, the taste of kale can be a special challenge.  To help the taste, rub the leaves with lemon juice and olive oil to help it break down, and then toss it with some lemon juice and salt.  For Brussels sprouts, best start with a recipe that’s more interesting than boiled sprouts. For the uninitiated taste buds, I suggest first roasting the Brussels sprouts in the oven. Then, follow with a flash-sauté using a little butter, brown sugar, and perhaps a splash of your favorite sauce. As acceptance grows decrease the butter, salt, and sugar.

While optimism in trying new foods is the by word, there may be a few foods that never catch on. When that happens, accept defeat and move on.  Personally, I don’t like cottage cheese, Velveeta, and cookie dough ice cream.  Fortunately, none of these are necessary for a healthy diet.  As for plant-based foods I can’t say that I like all of them.  With over 100,000 editable plants in the world, I’ve probably only tried a hundred or so.  Of course, I have preferences.  The good news is that with over 99,900 more plant foods to try, there should be ample opportunity more delightful adventures in the kitchen.

Should you fail to successfully introduce a new food you may find consolation in knowing that taste preferences often change as we get older?   You may have noticed that while most kids have an innate fondness for sweetness, as adults they often develop a fondness for sour and bitter taste.  One theory suggests this aversion is part of an evolved defense mechanism that protects us until we have matured enough to know which foods are safe.

Understanding that food choices are in part determined by natural defense mechanisms is key to having a successful taste acquisition strategy.  In essence, we don’t eat foods because we like them, we like them because we have frequently eaten them.  In an ideal world, each generation would teach the next which foods are safe to eat.   In a world dominated by profit-driven marketing, this knowledge about food selection is being lost. Fortunately, all is not lost if we understand the forces working against us and counter with a good strategy.  In three easy steps, we can acquire a new taste preference.  Continuing to introduce one new food at a time can lead to resetting taste preferences and a much healthier diet.  For more about why changing the foods we eat can be a challenge, read “The psychology of hating food (and how we learn to love it.”

For some, genetics affects foods they can tolerate.  This is the case with food allergies and certain foods that present insurmountable taste challenges.  For some, cilantro may forever taste like glass cleaner and for others, mushrooms may forever taste like mildew.  Others may have inherited more taste buds than the average person and as a consequence taste flavors more intensely.  Interestingly, these people tend to shun strong-flavored foods.  For more about these effects read, “The Genetics of Taste” and “PTC The Genetics of Bitter Taste.”

When we reset our preference to healthy choices, life is more enjoyable.  Perhaps you have a reset in mind. I’d love to hear about it on a walk around the lakes. For a delightful Spring morning walk, an umbrella is recommended.  Should your inner kid long to dance in the rain just come sans umbrella.  We can dance and sing B.J. Thomas lyrics “Raindrops are falling on my head …but there’s one thing I know, the blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me. It won’t be long ’till happiness steps up to greet me.”

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

Facts About The Tongue

  • The average adult has between 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds.
  • The sensory cells in the taste buds renew themselves about once a week.
  • About one-quarter of the population has a heightened sense of taste, particularly for bitter foods.
  • Another quarter can taste foods, but are less sensitive and can’t detect the bitter taste.
  • There are taste cells in the back of your throat and on your epiglottis (that flap of cartilage in the mouth at the back of the tongue.
  • The tongue is made of 8 muscles that intertwine much like the muscles in an elephant’s trunk.
  • The tongue muscles are the only muscles that work independently of the skeleton.
  • The back of our tongue is sensitive to bitter tastes so we can spit out poisonous or spoiled foods before we swallow them.
  • The tongue has a biometric pattern that is as unique as a finger print.


The Tongue Provides Clues About Health.

  • A bright red tongue may be a sign of folic acid or B12 deficiency, scarlet fever, or Kawasaki disease.
  • White spots or a white coating on the tongue could indicate oral thrush (a type of yeast infection), or leukoplakia (which can be a precursor to cancer)
  • A black, hairy tongue can be a sign of bacterial overgrowth, and can also occur in people with diabetes or those on antibiotics or chemotherapy
  • Painful bumps on the tongue may be canker sores (mouth ulcers), or oral cancer


Don’t Like Tomatoes? (Maybe it’s the Tomato)

            Over the last 50 years, the once distinctive taste of tomatoes has been slowly drained out of supermarket tomatoes.  As tomatoes were bred for appearance and shelf life, many of the genes for flavor were lost.  The cumulative effect has been tomatoes that look great but have little flavor.  Fortunately, a scientist at the University of Florida has discovered the missing genes and is reintroducing them into new varieties.  For now, this is an experiment in progress and one which you can participate in by growing a few of the new tomatoes from seed.  To learn more about getting back tasty tomatoes read, “New Flavorful Tomato Cultivars for the Home Gardener.”  For a donation of $10 they will send you 15 seeds from their most recent attempt to rediscover a tasty tomato.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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