But before I share my unscientific studies with you, let’s talk a little bit about the science behind taste. “The sense of taste is a sensory system like the eye,” says Ilene Bernstein, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “The tongue is sensitive to different tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, or salty.” The tongue is also sensitive to a fifth taste, umami. Umami encompasses that which is savory, meaty or full-bodied. Umami is a Japanese word which translates roughly into the words “wonderful taste.” Taste, as a sense, is the perception of a combination of these the sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami on your tongue. But really, taste is so much more than just a flavor on your tongue. It’s highly complicated and to the mix you must add how food smells, looks, and sounds. If you shaped your favorite sweet treat, a chocolate brownie, into what appeared to be a pile of dog doo, chances are this typically delicious food would gross you out! When we eat a carrot, it has to crunch. When we drink coffee, we expect a certain aroma. Get it? Anticipation is part of taste.
Nature and Nurture
And finally we must add nature and nurture. “Taste is a product of our genes and our environment,” says Leslie J. Stein, PhD, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Our food preferences are determined by multiple factors, including genes, experience, and age.” Genes do a play a part in our predisposed desire to eat certain foods. Genes help us detect basic tastes by influencing the configuration of taste receptors. Hmmmm…a complicated way to say our genes detect tastes we either like or dislike. And then there is environment. If you grow up in a home where salty, fried, chicken nuggets and potatoes are the go-to meal, chances are, you will long for chicken nuggets and French fries. But here is what really intrigues me…repeat exposure to a food whose taste you don’t like, not only can decrease your dislike, it can actually increase your liking. For instance, research done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that people who stick to a lower-sodium diet over time eventually PREFER lower levels of saltiness in their food.
And of course, there are acquired tastes, such as caviar. And here, my friends, is the crux of the matter, ACQUIRED taste. At the start of this blog I told you, unscientifically, that you could acquire a taste for a food. I know because I’ve done it. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t stand asparagus. Its taste was bitter and just plain awful. But every time my mother served asparagus, I was encouraged to take a tiny taste. I always held my nose and made that awful face, (you know the one where you resemble a raisin?) but I got my asparagus down. And then one day (I don’t remember specifically when) I didn’t have to hold my nose anymore. And then one day, further in the future, I actually liked asparagus. And now, as an adult, I can honestly say, I LOVE ASPARAGUS! So don’t give up on yourself, or your kids, just because they don’t like a fruit or veggie first time around. Keep making it. Keep eating it. I am proof that you CAN acquire a taste for it.