Why do I love tomatoes but hate okra? How come cannellini beans are my favorite go-to bean while I ignore the pinto? What is it about fennel and cilantro that make my mouth feel strange? How come my taste buds explode with joy every time I eat a piece of chocolate? I began to wonder about our tastes after cooking a lunch for some friends. In addition to the gazpacho and potato salad, I had made cold eggplant caponata, which, by the way, was delicious. Unfortunately, they told me that they never eat eggplant and wouldn’t even give it a try. So, why am I a lover of eggplant while others can’t bear it?
We all know that taste buds are little organs or nerve endings all over our tongues that allow us to distinguish different tastes. In high school biology class we learned that there are four basic types of taste: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Recently, a fifth taste, umami, has been discovered. Umami means savory in Japanese. It is usually detected in Asian foods like miso and soy sauce. However, food preferences involve much more than our taste buds.
There are many reasons for liking and disliking foods. First of all, we are products of our culture, ethnicity and environment, and many of our favorite foods are influenced and determined by those around us. Much of what we eat is molded by what our parents fed us. (My husband loves peanuts but does not eat peanut butter because his mother did not like peanut butter.) Food preference is often a learned process based on our life’s experiences. Whether good or bad, we develop different tastes for food. A lot of it is about our attitude, beliefs, and practices around food.
It is not uncommon that a negative first experience with a food will result in a lifelong dislike of that food. I can’t remember exactly why I don’t like peas or raisins, but I’m sure it had to do with an early memory. (My husband loves both peas and raisins, although not mixed together.) I believe that we can learn to like previously distasteful foods. For example, I will eat peas in a risotto, but I continue to pick out the raisins in rice pudding.
Genetics plays a role in our likes and dislikes of food. If your system cannot tolerate a certain food, then you are not going to want to eat it. On the other hand, our bodies yearn for sweet and high-fat foods that store up energy. Our brains may say no to deep-fried, sautéed, sugared or otherwise high-calorie edibles, but our bodies may say yes. Fast food that is laden with fat, sugar and grease can be addictive and hard to resist. If we are fed this kind of food as children, then that is what our tastes will expect and require. Parents certainly have an obligation to feed their children the healthiest food available.
It is hard to resist food commercialism and we are heavily influenced by food advertisements. You can’t watch television without being bombarded by ads for sugary cereal and fat-laden chicken breasts. It’s hard not to give in to our children’s food choices but we have a parental obligation to steer them in the right direction regarding those food choices. I grew up in a traditional American household where my mother cooked most of our dinners. Although, we always had some type of meat on the plate, there were always vegetables. I applaud my mother’s efforts to get us accustomed to eating broccoli, kale, beets and beet greens, foods that I still enjoy today.
Eat real food. Try a variety of different foods and don’t limit yourself to what you have always eaten. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try a new vegetable as an adult. Perhaps that eggplant you ate as a child didn’t taste good, but you might like it today. Even though I eat mostly plant-based foods, there are still vegetables that I discover at the Farmer’s Market that I have never tasted. This summer I cooked kohlrabi for the first time. I’m even going to give those peas another try!