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The Nature and Nurture of Our Taste

July 31, 2020
Greg Georgaklis

It is hard for me to grasp the concept of a picky eater. This is not because I believe that people shouldn’t be discerning about their food choices. Rather, I struggle with the idea of a picky eater because for me trying new foods, tasting different flavors and textures, and smelling unfamiliar aromas emanating from the kitchen, is one of the many joys of life.

During my time of raising children, and spending time with other families of different cultural habits around food, I learned both nature and nurture play a large role in what we like to eat.

I learned in high school about the nature or chemistry behind our tastes. Did you know about the role of the surface of your tongue and the tiny bumps called papillae that contain taste buds? These taste buds have receptor cells that contain proteins on their surface, and they bind to chemicals in the food we eat. These chemical compounds are responsible for telling our brains whether we experience bitter, sour, salty, sweet or umami. They also tell us whether foods taste yucky or yummy. There are other scientific factors as well, such as our own genetic response, or the smell of foods that stimulate our olfactory system.

The nurture part of forming tastes and understanding flavor is exciting. It is where we can be most hopeful that our picky eaters will reach out of their comfort zones. We have potentially associated positive emotional responses to foods, for instance, if we try them with friends, at a holiday meal or when it is served beautifully on our plate. If there is someone in your life you are trying to get to stretch their palate, you can try incorporating a new flavor or new food of the week, pair the new foods with old faithful favorites and repeat exposures in different ways. One study by Healthy Families British Columbia reported that we need to be exposed to foods at least 12 times (but up to 30!) before we truly decide if we like it or not.

If it means lasting results the idea of exposure leading to eventual acceptance seems worthwhile. It may be easier to convince someone, especially a child, to try a new dessert than to try a strange looking or sounding vegetable: Rutabaga. But the nutritional results and the opportunity to eat many foods with diversity and flair makes it worth it!

We may not all turn out to be an epicure, a food connoisseur, gormandizer, foodie, or food nerd, but as they say variety is the spice of life. So perhaps this week, join me in trying out a new locally produced vegetable, fresh baked bread, a new kombucha flavor or fresh herb. Then let us know what you think. You can tell those you share a meal with that well, it’s about thyme!

Sending gratitude from Vermont,