Mind & Body

How Exactly Do You 'Acquire' a Taste?

Coffee. Oysters. Broccoli. Dark Chocolate. Bleu cheese. Beer. If you're like most people, at least one of these used to taste awful to you, but over time, you changed your mind. These are all what many people refer to as "acquired tastes," meaning if you don't like them on first sip, slurp, or bite, you might "acquire" a taste for them if you keep trying. Why do some flavors seem to grow on us? The answer is a little bit psychology and a little bit biology.

I Want Candy

Even if you never learned to like coffee or bleu cheese, your tastes have still probably changed since you were a child. And while it's not true that your taste buds change every seven years (in reality, they regenerate so often that 1 in 10 cells in your taste buds are brand new at any given moment), your taste preferences change drastically from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, and even into old age.

The most obvious change, of course, is your desire for sugar. You might still love sweets, but it's likely your sweet tooth today is nothing compared to what it was as a child. Research suggests that babies are born loving sweet flavors, and sugar has even been shown to act as a natural pain reliever in children. In fact, researchers have given sugar water of different concentrations to adults and children of various ages to test their preferences. While adults tended to think the concentration in an average soda was just right and anything above that was too sweet, children preferred at least twice that concentration.

Why? It may be because children need all the quick calories they can get while they're growing. When researchers performed that same test with children and adolescents and measured their rates of bone growth, they found that the participants who had stopped growing had sweetness preferences similar to those of adults, while those who were still growing had a sweet tooth to match.

The Bitter Truth

Of course, sweetness is only one part of a very complex equation. Not only are the most common acquired tastes less sweet, but they're also often bitter, sour, or just plain funky — think beer, coffee, kimchi, and aged cheese. Avoiding these flavors just makes good evolutionary sense since in the natural world, they act as an alert that something's poisonous or rotten and could make you sick. And yet, many of these flavors are also signs that a food is good for you: Polyphenols are bitter-tasting antioxidants present in red wine, beer, tea, and chocolate, and probiotic-rich foods like kimchi and kombucha get their health benefits and sour flavor from fermentation, which is the same process that happens uncontrolled when food spoils.

It turns out that your tolerance for bitter flavors, at least, also changes as you age. Even in people with a genetic variation that makes them particularly sensitive to bitterness, children can detect bitter flavors in much lower concentrations than adults. There's also some truth to the idea that you can just get used to these flavors: In a study, participants given more polyphenols in their diet began producing polyphenol-specific proteins in their saliva, and at the same time, they started to report that they found the bitter flavor more pleasant. Eating bitter foods actually changes your saliva, and that can change how you perceive bitter flavors.

And just like the rest of the body, your sense of taste as a whole starts to break down as you age. Steven Parnes, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, told NPR's The Salt that women tend to start experiencing some loss of taste in their 50s, while men experience it in their 60s. The less sensitive you are to particular flavors, the less likely you are to have a strong reaction to them.

Brain Candy

Finally, there's the psychological element. Habituation is a concept that says the more you're exposed to something, the less you react to it. (Just think about the number of opinions people have about a social media platform one day after a redesign as compared to a month later). When it comes to taste, this happens both in the short-term and the long-term. When scientists feed participants a squirt of lemon juice over and over, they salivate less and less with every new squirt.

The same seems to be true over days or weeks: If you try the same food in the same context again and again, your reaction to it will dull, whether that reaction started as pleasant or unpleasant. Note that we said "in the same context": it turns out that if you change the environment or the situation, you may be able to cancel out your existing habituation to the food.

That's an especially handy tip for anyone who can't get over a food's texture or has a bad association with a food that once made them sick. If you had some bad sushi at a local restaurant, try it again when you're on vacation and see if you have an easier time enjoying it. It's also worthwhile to reframe the way you think about the food. If you think the texture of raw oysters is too similar to snot, think of other foods that share its texture: pudding, gelatin, ripe mango! Delicious.

It's worth noting, however, that no one should feel like they have to enjoy a particular food or beverage. But if you have the desire, just try it — over and over. You might learn to like it.

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Learn more in "Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good" by Barb Stuckey. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 22, 2019

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