Taste is highly subjective. You may like rhubarb, which I regard as mutated celery. I, on the other hand, like haggis, whereas organ meats ground up with oatmeal and boiled in a sheep’s stomach may not appeal to you. And so on.
Yet our tongues both respond to the same four (and only four) tastes: sweet, bitter, salty and sour. The fact we can tell apples from oranges is a tribute not so much to our tongues as to our noses: odor is an integral part of flavor. (That’s why it’s not a good idea to blow $200 on a gourmet meal when your nose id do dopped ub you’re dalking lide dis.)
Saltiness is produced primarily by sodium chloride, sourness by acids, and sweetness mainly by sucrose. We’re a thousand times better at detecting our least favorite taste, bitterness, than any of the others, probably because most natural poisons taste bitter.
Taste is not well understood, but it appears that each taste bud is like a tiny computer that analyzes, codes and sends to the brain inputs from as many as 100 sensory cells, each of which responds most strongly to one of the basic tastes. These individual taste cells only last about 10 days, which means your holiday leftovers often outlast the cells you enjoyed the original with — which makes it remarkable the food still tastes the same.
We’re all born with a liking for sweet things and a dislike for anything bitter or sour. This makes sense; mother’s milk, after all, is sweet, as are most ripe fruits and vegetables. Unripe or toxic fruits and vegetables are more likely to be sour or bitter. Sweetness may also trigger a release of endorphins, the body’s own opiates.
If we all liked the same things to start with, how come we don’t anymore? Consider this list: broccoli, brussels sprouts, buttermilk, cabbage, cauliflower, coffee, collard and mustard greens, cottage cheese, grapefruit, radishes, rutabaga, sauerkraut, spinach, strong cheeses and turnips. It may sound delicious to you, but my mother will recognize it as a list of things I’ve always hated. To me, they’re all too bitter to enjoy without either lots of sugar (coffee and grapefruit) or a pinch of salt (cabbage and radishes).
Well, Mom, I finally have an excuse: I’m a “taster,” as are about two-thirds of us. To tasters, a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC, which all of these foods contain, tastes bitter. To non-tasters, it’s tasteless. (Which are you? Put a little salt substitute — potassium chloride — or saccharine on your tongue. If they’re bitter, you’re a taster.)
Something else governing eating preferences is “neophobia,” the fear of new things (a survival trait if the “new thing” happens to be poisonous!). Tests show people are unwilling to try even ordinary foods like beefsteak and oatmeal if told they’re “laguna steaks” and “lat.” (I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am!)
Our preferences are also determined by what we eat as children. The more foods you’re exposed to as a kid, the more likely you’ll experiment later. Then again, bad experience can also turn us off a food: a peach eaten when you’re sick may put you off peaches permanently, though the fault was in the flu, not the fruit, that you upchucked.
Psychological factors affect our preferences in other ways. A person who perceives herself as a “gourmet” is more likely to be adventurous than a “meat-and-potatoes” guy. Even a desire for status plays a role: there’s not a baby in the world who wouldn’t prefer grape juice to the rarest of rare wines. They don’t have the necessary “educated palate.”
Some foods simply disgust us. Usually, it’s some kind of meat. Lots of us like it, but we don’t like to think about where it comes from, which is why we eat “pork” instead of “pig” and “beef” instead of “cow” and “veal” instead of “baby cow” and “mutton” instead of “sheep” and why we don’t eat euphemism-less horsemeat at all.
Slimy foods like oysters (spinach comes to mind, too, but I wish it wouldn’t) may arouse “secondary disgust” — we just don’t like the way it looks. But disgust varies from culture to culture. Some cultures, after all, eat giant water bugs, fried cockroach eggs, dog meat, rat stew, grasshoppers, grubs and sheep’s head, all of which I wouldn’t.
What does it all boil down to? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Our taste preferences are shaped by many different factors. One hard-working scientist has even counted them. His conclusion? “There are a zillion things that shape an adult’s food habits.”
I assume that’s an accurate figure.