Humans are very diverse creatures, from how we look, to how we act and even what we like; that is especially true when it comes to food. But why is it that some people love the taste of things others hate and can these likes and dislikes be altered?
In the genes
When it comes to taste, we each have our own genetic fingerprint of likes and dislikes. But our unique genetic makeup only accounts for a certain amount of our taste preferences. When it comes to deciding what tastes we prefer, there are many other factors at play.
There are many foods and tastes that we often start off disliking, but grow to love over time. Coffee, wine, dark chocolate are just some examples. These particular foods tend to be described as bitter tasting but we often grow to like. It was generally accepted that this was a matter of choice, something under our cognitive control but now scientists are realising that there are biological factors at play too when it comes to acquiring a taste for certain foods.
There are probably good reasons why we tend to dislike certain tastes, especially bitter foods. This aversion may have begun as a way of helping us avoid the ingestion of toxic plants. But there are plenty of bitter tasting foods that will not poison us, and may even be good for us so we have developed a method of altering our taste perception.
How exactly does taste work anyway? There are a lot of factors at play in the biology of how we taste, our mouth and tongue are full of
different types of taste receptors that bind specific compounds present in the foods we eat, sending signals to our brains that allow us interpret specific tastes.
One very important factor in all this is saliva; it has many different functions within the mouth. Saliva helps with the digestion of our food, it helps protect our teeth and it may even help our noses smell the food we are eating. But saliva does a lot more too.
It is made up of 99.5% water creating the moist environment necessary to allow taste compounds in food to bind to the appropriate receptors in our mouths and on our tongues. But saliva also contains some very important proteins that can alter how we taste.
Initial studies have shown that recurrent exposure to certain food types, particularly bitter tastes, can alter the amount of specific proteins in our saliva. In some cases it is thought that these proteins bind to the bitter compounds found in these foods, thereby reducing our perception of their bitter taste. The biological composition of our spit can alter enough to change how we perceive, and like, certain foods. These alterations can lead to us acquiring a taste for foods we initially dislike.
Does this mean we can get our kids to eat broccoli?
The idea that acquired taste is controlled by biological changes is still relatively new and has led to further, ongoing research. It is too early to predict the outcome or implications of these studies but it opens the possibility to the fact that specific proteins may be added to food in the future to alter its perceived taste, without the requirement of time to acquire these changes. It may indeed get our kids eating all their greens.