Acquired Taste

Why we like disgusting things

by Joseph Sahakian

Do you know what I always hated as a child? Broccoli. But now, I can’t get enough of it; a sophisticated person might say that over the years, I developed an acquired taste for it. What is it to acquire a taste? The expression sounds fancy, but if you remove the thesaurus glamor, it’s just another way of saying that I ate it enough times to stop hating it. You might think that acquired taste only applies to red wine, liver, and coffee, but understanding how to acquire new tastes can be the way on how to get kids to eat veggies.

What does acquired taste mean?

Acquiring a taste is something you’re probably already familiar with. The first time you tried coffee when you were still little, you cringed at that hot bitter taste. Fast forward a few years, and now you are probably one of the people who say, “I like coffee and maybe 3 people”. The list for acquired taste foods is long; Blue cheese, dark chocolate, jalapenos, wasabi, a glass of red wine, and coffee are a few of the things that strike our taste buds as soon as we eat them. Strong flavored foods just don’t agree with us when we try them the first time, but over the years, they grow on us, and we somehow learn to eat them, or rather savor them, rather savor the moment itself. This behavior of learning to enjoy a taste that one shouldn’t under normal circumstances is known as an acquired taste [1].

The evolution of acquired taste: from sugary grape to bitter wine

In order to understand acquired taste, we should first figure out the meaning of innate taste. When we’re born, our lives do not start with a clean slate; the entire past struggle of human evolution and survival is saved in your genes [2]. Innate taste is one of those important pieces of information that are already genetically downloaded in your brain. It makes up inherited behaviors in humans that were created during the evolution of our species to encourage or discourage eating certain foods and behaviors [3].

Ever wondered why do we crave fat and sugar?

The right way to answer that question is to ask how did a craving for sugar benefit our ancestors? We don’t love sugar because it simply tastes sweet, but because the natural sugar in fruit played a central role in our species survival in terms of energy supply (but please don’t use this as an excuse to finish an entire cake and check out our other article on our blog about the sugar industry [4]). And similarly, our first reaction to spoiled blue cheese with a rotten taste and smell was spitting it out because this served as another evolutionary reminder to yourself that “this might make me sick to the stomach or kill me.”.

Why do some plants taste bitter or spicy?

Acquired taste is not the result of developed taste buds but simply a psychological behavior of conditioning, teaching ourselves to accept certain things that our brains initially rejected [5]. Food is essential to life, and eating is one of the basic needs of living things in order to continue to survive. Prehistoric times used to be “things chewing other things”, but lessons were learned with this gustatory mantra. Tastes like bitter and spicy are chemical defense mechanisms in plants to scare away animals from eating them [6]. While spoiled foods were the source of disease caused by bacteria in humans who ate them, these often tasted rotten, funky, and sometimes alcoholic. So, over time, these flavors became ingrained lessons in our blueprints and DNA that the food is probably poisonous [7].

What is tasting?

How do taste buds work? Our tongues are covered with tiny taste sensors that tickle the different types of tastes, whether something is sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or umami [8]. Think of them like five different buzzers; each different taste particle would ring on its corresponding buzzer; the stronger the taste, the harder they would buzz. This information is sent to our brain, which tells us what we are tasting. In the case of bitter foods, the PROP chemical, which stands for 6-n-propylthiouracil, is the bitter-tasting chemical that would ring on the bitter buzzer encoded by the better gene, and inform the brain that it’s here and your brain would order your face to crunch up [9].

Tasting is a mechanism of evolution and natural selection intimately intertwined with an animal’s survival. It is an inborn talent, usually more sensitive in defenseless and vulnerable children than adults, to avoid eating potentially deadly and dangerous foods. Our basic biology and psyche encourage sweet things and warn against the taste of bitterness and food poisoning [10].

Do children have a heightened sense of taste?

But not everyone is born equal. The number of taste sensors on our tongues varies due to both age and genetics [11]. Children are more sensitive to new tastes because they have a larger number of taste buds on their tongues; evolution was considerate enough to make sure children are born with a lot of sensors because of the child’s fragility in defending and taking care of itself [12]. Yet, as the child grows and matures, the numbers decrease to an adequate level. But still, some people can be genetically programmed to retain very large or very few numbers of taste sensors throughout their entire lives due to some gene mutations that they have inherited from their parents [13].

Most of us are in the normal spectrum of taste sensitivity that would extend from non-taster, hypotaster, and all the way up to supertaster. Both extremes have their drawbacks; everything would taste bland for those with reduced taste sensitivity, or they would even fail to detect spoiled food, while the ones with increased sensitivity to different types of tastes would become very picky eaters due to a heightened sense of taste [14]; imagine thousands of bitter buzzers ringing from a sip of coffee.

Can acquired taste be good for us?

The times of picking berries in the wild and taking the risk of eating them are way past us. And this is where the importance of good parenting comes into play; by looking into the ingredients of different sorts of foods, responsible parents can make healthy food choices for kids. Nowadays, what was considered like something that has passed its expiry date has become healthy foods to eat every day

Bitterness is a taste frequently associated with poisonous chemicals, but poison is not always bitter, and not everything bitter is poison [15]. In a time where we have almost forged mastery over nature, our reasoning prevails over our evolutionary instincts to allow us to enjoy a glass of dry red wine after work. But those instincts still echo in children, as their initial reaction to funky tastes remains disgust [16].

One cannot deny the health benefits of an acquired taste, especially to certain types of foods that offer the consumer several health benefits. By choosing dark chocolate with high cocoa content and less sugar (and less processed sugar side effects), people can enjoy the disease-fighting benefits of antioxidants, which are also available in that bitter green tea everyone is recommending and even in a glass of wine [17]. Most vegetables packed with vitamins tend to be bitter as well, but with the proper early exposure, parents can help develop healthy habits for kids [18]. And that coffee that you have in the morning might also be helping fight off disorders and aging. Caffeine is an effective way on how to prevent diabetes type 2, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease [19]. But as always, remember that moderation is key in anything.

How to develop acquired taste?

After the third time of cringing from blue cheese, you might start to ask yourself how many times do you have to try something until you like it. Some adults cannot seem to develop an adequate acquired taste and are still inherently averted to coffee, oysters, and even dark bitter chocolate.

The development of acquired taste is dependent on when the person begins “training their tongues” to accept foods that we are programmed to refuse; introducing these tastes at an earlier age will make it more likely to satisfy your palate at a later stage [20]. This could be a good technique on how to encourage children to eat vegetables. This was especially evident in a report that showed children became more willing to like their greens with early and repetitive exposure due to the effect of parental influence on eating behavior [21].

Cultural contexts also largely influence food preferences in terms of accepting or rejecting specific food items [22]. Taste perception is not only about how something tastes, other clues like how the food looks and smells [23], and previous memories and negative interactions with the food (your mother forced you to eat broccoli in a harsh way) also come into play when our personal taste preferences slowly get defined [24].

Synesthesia: tasting colors and musical notes!

That’s not even the end of it. Synesthesia disorder causes some of our senses to get crossed in our brains [25]. We covered acquired and innate taste, but what about your taste in music or colors? We are not talking about genre preference here, but about a genetic and neurological phenomenon that makes people with synesthesia experience creative versions of reality. There are different types of synesthesia for people with this condition, and they would be able to taste the sweetness of the color red, the sourness of a square shape, or the saltiness of techno music.

What color would taste bitter?
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