Taste and Tastebuds - Change Week


By Chloe Kent

Photo courtesy of AntToeKnee Lacey.

Recent years have witnessed the rise of so-called “flavor-tripping” parties, in which participants are given berries that inexplicably make sour foods taste sweet. Miracle fruit isn’t, in fact, a work of mere enchantment but one of science: the plant affixes to the taste buds and activates in the presence of acidic foods.

The miracle berry has been around for centuries but nonetheless begs the question: Can changing your taste buds change your taste? How do we explain the phenomenon that the very foods children are classically averse to—Brussels sprouts, for instance—become desirable menu items later on?

The foods on American children’s menus almost always seem to include some variation of pizza, pasta, and burgers—foods mild in flavor additives and especially sensitive towards burgeoning palates.

While it may seem that kids have simpler palates biologically, according to Dr. Robert Henkin, founder of The Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington, DC, it isn’t so much a question of biology, but rather, conditioning through various social factors.

“I don’t think children eat blander foods; I think it’s what parents give to them,” he tells BTR. Rather than pointing to any scientific explanation of what we normally think of as kid-friendly foods, Dr. Henkin, who has studied miracle fruit extensively, suggests it mostly boils down to a matter of practicality.

“Kid’s menus in restaurants are inexpensive, simple and often things children can eat with their fingers that don’t give their parents too much trouble. How does that relate to their taste functions?” he asks. “It’s their experience, it’s what they have at home, what’s easy for them. Some children will develop preferences early on, in part related to taste characteristics, in part texture and in part temperature. Each one of these factors influence taste receptors in their own way.”

To illustrate the process of taste, Dr. Henkin uses the metaphor of the brain as a house.

“The taste receptor is like the door,” he explains. “And there are so many rooms that you have to recognize the complexity of how the house is organized. Going through all of them takes time and effort—that’s where the experiential aspect comes in. If you can’t get through the door, it’s not going to work.”

He also points out that there are more doors in a child’s environment than an adult’s.

Unlike other senses, the sensation of taste is made up of a composite of variables, including appearance and smell. Given that taste is such an inherently complex process, is it actually possible to change your taste?

“Absolutely!” Henkin says. “You aren’t going to change the basic way you detect taste but the major manifestation of it depends upon a variety of other social, cultural and emotional factors—what you’ve learned and what you’ve come in contact with.”

Changing one’s tastes, therefore, may simply be a matter of time and continued exposure, and is as much about the experience involved in the perception of tasting as the taste itself. Much of what we consider pleasing to our palate has to do with what foods we were brought up with.

In Southeast Asia, Dr. Henkin points out, cooking traditionally incorporates complex, bitter spices, whereas in the United States our palate is conditioned toward the ability to add more flavor to food, generally making foods more salty.

A Stanford University study found that when presented with two identical meals, one in plain packaging and the other from a recognizable brand, children associated a better taste experience with the name-brand selection, which suggests that expectation has as much of an impact on perceived taste as the food on its own.

To that effect, Dr. Henkin cites a meeting among colleagues where a psychologist passed out red candies and asked attendees to identify the flavor. The room collectively decided on cherry, but Dr. Henkin pointed out that the flavor was, in fact, lime.

“Color caused people to have a miscue, which tells us that you can change perception based upon things like visual cues, social cues, familiarity. Factors like these play a role in modifying not just taste but in what the brain perceives in terms of recognition.”

Given that changing one’s taste is possible, what steps can picky eaters take to begin expanding their palates?

“One of the first things to do is think of the foods you actually do like,” recommends UK-based food psychologist Dr. Christy Fergusson. “People usually have a couple of foods in their repertoire that they actually enjoy, so just think about the flavors and the consistencies and the textures of those foods, and then start thinking about the foods that you’d like to introduce so you’re keeping part of the meal familiar and at the same time introducing something you’re not used to having.”

If you like curry-based or spicy foods but not seafood, for instance, Dr. Fergusson suggests combining the two in an increasingly equal ratio.

“When we think about our taste buds we tend to be creatures of habit, and sometimes when we’re younger we tend to prefer blander foods because our taste buds haven’t fully developed and we don’t like a lot of the bitter flavors, so what can happen is as we grow up if we don’t ever become adventurous or push ourselves to try new foods, we can end up being caught in a routine of eating only bland foods, even into adulthood,” she explains.

“As we enter into our teens we start to eat more like the adults around us, but if our families have a limited diet and we haven’t felt the need to push ourselves and try something new, we can sometimes fall into patterns of repetition.”