Why do we like what we like? What exactly is taste? How does it develop? Is there a universal standard for good taste? Why are some people just not adventurous with food? People seldom ask these questions, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Learning the answers can help us better understand the factors that shape our dining habits.
After a lot of research, here’s what I found: taste is a lot more complicated than I initially thought. Below, I did my best to summarize all I’ve learned into five easy to read sections that you can finish before your lunch break ends.
You already know the four basic taste sensations. There’s sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The fifth one, umami (aka the taste you know from Ajinomoto), is still being debated upon. We start developing our ability to perceive these flavors as early as the embryonic stage (weeks 1-8 of gestation). It’s probably why we’re fond of saying that some people are “pinaglihi” to a certain food.
While in gestation, a fetus swallows 200-760ml of amniotic fluid daily. The flavors consumed by the mother reach this fluid, which means babies are already introduced to certain taste patterns well before they come out of the womb. Try asking your Mom what she craved for when she was carrying a parasite (you) in her belly. There’s a good chance you enjoy the same food or similar tasting items today.
If your Mom breast-fed you, her diet likely had an even greater influence on your food preferences. The taste of garlic and vanilla can be detected in breast milk 1-2 hours after consumption. Researchers have even found that babies whose mothers drank carrot juice during pregnancy and weaning preferred carrot-flavored cereal during infancy while the control group (those with mothers who didn’t drink carrot juice) did not.
However, there is one taste almost all humans are born craving: sweetness. Likewise, we enter this world with an innate disdain for bitterness.
The reason for this natural bias was survival. For ancient man, sweetness indicated a high-energy food source that was safe to eat. Conversely, bitterness suggested that the food was harmful and toxic. The other tastes serve similar functions; sourness or acidity can warn against spoiled food, a salty taste can indicate the presence of essential minerals and electrolytes, and umami can be a sign that the food is a good protein source.
Exposure and Acquired Tastes
Remember the nature versus nurture argument in your freshman psychology class? It applies to food as well. We might have been born craving sugar and fat and whatever our moms gorged on, but later exposure to different stimuli can change that.
It’s a bit like music, the more you listen to a certain song or genre, the more likely you’ll find yourself humming it to yourself in the shower. Simply put, you’ll eventually love anything as long as you’re constantly bombarded by its presence. It’s why I find myself devouring plate after plate of sashimi even though I found it extremely unpleasant (I had to wash away the aftertaste with Coke) the first time I had it. It’s also why Starbucks is raking in billions when none of us were born craving the bitterness of coffee.
Now, here’s where it gets odd, some people are born with a flavor aversion so intense that they’ll never try any food they didn’t like ever again. They are also less likely to be adventurous with food, with a low threshold for the unfamiliar and exotic. This was useful back when humanity lived in caves, since eating strange things can unintentionally lead to it becoming the poor caveman’s last meal.
But remember, we didn’t rise to the top of the food chain by just picking berries and growing vegetables. We had to learn to eat the unfamiliar. At some point, homo erectus needed to be less picky and more curious about what it ate in order to become the splendid homos we are today. It stands to reason that people on the opposite end of the spectrum should exist as well. Some people were born to eat just about anything, like Andrew Zimmern and Bear Grylls.
This means that your rejection of cilantro (while your neighbor devours copious amounts of the stuff regularly) might be hardwired into you, and has nothing to do with how sophisticated or cultured you are. The ability to discern what’s edible isn’t always aligned with what looks, smells, and tastes good to us on the surface. In the event of an apocalypse, it might be your genes that determine whether or not you survive. Guess who’s more likely to live through the end of the world: the picky eater or the human buffet destroyer?
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Another factor that may affect our consumption habits is our innate threshold for the familiar. There’s a finite amount of the same food we can tolerate before getting sick of its taste. Frequency of consumption also plays a part in this. Also called umay, it may affect one meal or our dining habits in general.
If you’ve noticed, we tend to tire of simple tasting food faster than those more complex. Going back to the music analogy, it’s the same reason why intricate melodies like jazz pieces (or epic metal riffs) tend to be less cloying than the latest, LSS-inducing pop tunes. In food terms, it’s why an expertly made, deep-flavored ramen is harder to get tired of than good old beef brisket mami.
It’s ironic, really. New flavors excite food adventurers, but the more they indulge that same craving, the less pleasurable it becomes. So they move on in pursuit of other culinary thrills.
This phenomenon somewhat contradicts the exposure effect discussed earlier, except, curiously enough, when it comes to dessert. Our brains are hard-wired to seek the sublime pleasure that sugar provides. The science of it is complicated, but basically, what happens is that sweets activate certain pleasure receptors in the brain. And like any addict, it reacts by wanting more. The more you indulge this dependency, the higher the tolerance for sugar you build. Soon enough, you can’t stop and it’s hello, diabetes and XXXL pants.
Expectations and Categorizations
The first time I had real laksa, I didn’t like it. I was too used to eating the cheap knockoff from Pao Tsin to recognize how terrible it was. It took me a few bowls before I could fully appreciate its taste.
My experience is far from uncommon. According to Anthony Bourdain, we are so used to eating mediocre food that once we taste the real thing, we don’t recognize it. It’s like a man with bad eyesight getting new glasses: the sudden adjustment and overflow of details overwhelm him, causing poorer spatial awareness than when he was half-blind.
However, this is not always the case. When I had my first taste of real corned beef, all the canned ones (even Palm!) seemed pathetic in comparison. My first visit to Bellini’s made me realize what an abomination Jollibee’s sweet hotdog spaghetti is. And my meals at Ikkoryu Fukuoka and Santouka have made me swear to never have ramen in subpar casual joints ever again.
That is how expectation and categorization works. You measure everything against what you’re already familiar with and sort them into tiers. Laksa was fairly new to our shores during that time, so I had no idea what it should taste like. But spaghetti, corned beef, and cheap noodle soups were all familiar childhood friends of mine. Of course my expectations of the latter would be lower.
Once you’ve categorized your food into levels of perceived quality, you will be less likely to step down the taste ladder.
Interestingly, though, having such a wide knowledge of what is supposed to be good won’t automatically make you a food snob. Such expertise lowers a person’s “hedonic contrast.” Put simply, the more you can discern what is good about good, expensive food, the less you’ll care about the lack of it in not-so-good, inexpensive food. It allows you to have a better perspective when it comes to your expectations and personal categories.
It’s the reason why we get surprised when hospital food turns out to be decent. It’s why some of the best chefs in the world crave for simple food like a fresh garden salad or why David Chang likes chicken nuggets. These people have tasted finer feasts than most of us likely ever will, but they can also get more enjoyment than we do out of less sophisticated grub.
Untrustworthy Senses and Assumptions
Magicians make a living out of the mantra of “what the eyes see, the mind believes.” It’s an idea that’s been been proven true with food numerous times. When you put red food coloring in white wine, people think they’re getting drunk on red. Serve the same vanilla ice cream with different labels, and people will prefer the fancier sounding “premium Madagascar vanilla bean mousse.”
Just look at food advertisements. Most of them border on pornographic in terms of visual styling. And like porn, it gets an instant, albeit different, response from the viewer. We salivate at the sight of slowed down, tightly shot food commercials. My grandma has been duped numerous times by such tactics, even when she knows from experience how disappointing the food tends to be in real life.
We barely notice that eating is a full sensory experience. What you see, hear, and smell influences your perceptions even before you take a bite. Try eating a gourmet meal out of a plastic bag while standing in a stinky sidewalk and see how enjoyable it is. Oh and did you know that apples, onions, and potatoes all taste the same when your nose is plugged?
Our senses have never been perfect. Taste actually relies heavily on smell. In fact, 70-75% of what we taste is due to what we smell, In one experiment, scientists successfully made an apple taste like vanilla just by manipulating its smell.
Price perception is also a major factor. Sadly, it allows unscrupulous businessmen to get away with ripping off their customers. In the absence of other tangible factors to differentiate similar products, people will always look at the financial damage. If it’s expensive, it has to be good, right? After all, that’s how Chivas Regal turned from a fairly-priced bargain whiskey into the preferred drink of wealthy old men. By raising their prices to ridiculous levels (above the competition’s), they actually sold more booze. They punched the face of conventional economics and won! Which proves just how much we suck at math and money.
We may have pre-set preferences and limitations when it comes to our personal taste, but I believe that going beyond them is what makes the eating experience so much fun. Had I been more reserved with my food choices, I would never have gotten over the stink of durian, the sliminess (and weird mouth-feel) of sashimi, or how ugly dinuguan and laing look in a bowl.
Tell us, what is your opinion of taste and how it evolves? Are you adventurous when it comes to food, or are you more reserved? Feel free to leave any questions or comments you might have below.
Vanderbilt, T. (May 2013) Why you like what you like. Smithsonian. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
Author Unknown (February 2011) Tastes differ – how taste preferences develop. European Food Council. Retrieved August 3, 2013
Author Unknown (n.d.) The science of taste and smell: insights from an evolutionary perspective. Wineanorak. Retrieved August 3, 2013
Jaminet, P. (24 March 2011) Why did we evolve a taste for sweetness? Perfect Health Diet. Retrieved August 3, 2013.