Ever wonder how someone can pop hot peppers like there is no tomorrow while you just look at one and your tongue starts to burn? Well it turns out there’s more at play than you might think when it comes to your food preferences.
You Can Thank Your DNA
The effect of genetics on taste was first discovered in 1931. Chemist Arthur Fox discovered that different people had differing reactions to powdered phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Some couldn’t taste it at all while others observed varying degrees of bitterness.
Later geneticists found that PTC flavor perception was based on a single gene, TAS2R38. This specific gene has many different variations, which account for why some individuals experience a much more bitter taste than others.
Aside from the combination of inherited taste receptors, odor receptors vary from person to person as well and also play a huge roll in how an individual experiences flavor. In fact, every individual lacks the ability to detect at least one scent.
For example, androstenone is the chemical responsible for the scent of truffles. Some can’t stomach the smell, others love the earthiness of it and 25 percent of the population can’t smell it at all.
The Body’s Defense Mechanism
The tongue detects five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and unami, the Japanese word for savory. And while everyone’s response varies in degree, in general we are hardwired to like and dislike certain tastes.
The detection of sweetness tells the brain that this food provides energy, savory foods signal a good source of protein while bitterness is compared to toxic compounds and sourness warns of under-ripeness. Salty foods are often craved after intense workouts where sodium is lost through sweat.
Like Mother, Like Daughter…Or Son!
Believe it or not, what a mother consumes while she’s pregnant can have a direct impact on a child’s food preferences after birth. In a recent study, babies whose mothers ate garlic were more willing to consume garlic-flavored breast milk than those of non-garlic-eating mothers.
Similarly, an Australian study found that mothers who consume a high junk food diet predispose their babies to fat and sugar addiction. The overload of these highly palatable foods before birth desensitizes the normal reward center in the brain, meaning these unfortunate children will crave more fat and sugar to feel satisfied.
Even though we may be hard-wired to like or dislike certain foods, that’s no reason you can’t train your body to think differently.
The cues we get from our cultural surroundings greatly impact what we eat and what we can therefore learn to like. For example, most young people turn their noses up at the bitter taste of coffee while most adults drink three or four cups a day. Why? Because culture dictates that we drink coffee to get our engines going. So we learn to like it.
Similarly, think of different ethnic dishes, the spiciness of curry hardly appeals to most, yet for those who were raised on it, the spicier the better!
In fact, a recent study shows that with repeated exposure we can grow accustomed to even the most unpalatable tastes. This proves that with just a little practice, even those with the pickiest palates can become A+ eaters.