Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Mysteries of Human Taste

So recent events have set me to thinking about taste, and how incredibly varied it is from person to person. Different folks have remarkably different ideas about which things are pretty, which things sound good, and especially, which foods we like.

This fact was brought home to me recently when my parents were having me over for a birthday dinner. My step-mom wanted to make a fancy dessert and was calling to make sure that it wouldn't cause any allergic problems for me. She was excitedly telling me all about the custard that she had planned, and I tried to sound positive, really I did, but honestly, I just hate custards.

Apparently my voice gave me away, and we settled on something different - which also turned out to be something I'm not terribly fond of - crispy cookies... not sure why, but I just am not a big fan of crispy sweet things, I think they should be soft and chewey. But I was very polite and ate a few remarking how good they were.

But I just find it very interesting that different people have such different ideas about what does and doesn't taste good. I wonder why that is? Does it have to do with associations we have with the food? I'm sure that's part of it, but I think there's got to be something more.

CatMan and I once stumbled upon an article about "supertasters." Apparently different people have different numbers of taste buds. And the more you have, the more strongly you experience flavors. Well, we both counted our taste buds and discovered that while I fall into the "non-taster" category (fewer than average number of taste buds) he is a supertaster (with WAY more taste buds than most people have.) Hmmmm.... No wonder we have such a hard time agreeing on which foods taste good!

But I think the differences extend way beyond the number of taste buds. I remember when I was a kid we did an experiment in science class. We each got a little piece of paper laced with quinine and were instructed to lick it and describe the taste. Lots of the kids reported that it just tasted like paper, but to me it had an incredibly horrible bitter taste. Well, apparently this is genetic - some people can taste quinine and others can't.

It all makes me wonder what other differences there are in how we actually experience the taste of our foods.

Anyhow, I thought it might be fun to compare lists of things that we like and dislike, just to see if anything interesting surfaces. So here goes.

Foods I dislike:

  • Chocolate Ice cream - it's sooo bitter! But a chocolate shake made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce is delicious.
  • Potato Chips - they just taste like grease to me
  • Custards of any kind (especially flan - yuck!)
  • Black licorice or anise (seriously - people eat that voluntarily?)
  • Wintergreen or "winter mint" - "blicky mint" I call it
  • Wasabi Mustard - eeeeewwww!
  • Peanuts and especially Peanut Butter (sometimes OK as an ingredient, but I can't stomach them plain)
  • Pears (mostly because of the texture, but I'm not a real fan of the flavor either)
  • Milk (except for in certain very specific situations)
  • ANY artificial sweeteners - how can people stand them?
  • Granny Smith Apples - they literally make my teeth hurt!

Foods that others seem to dislike but I enjoy:

  • Spinach, Cabbage, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts etc. (CatMan complains about how bitter they are, but I totally don't get it - they taste sweet to me)
  • Lima Beans (buttery and delicious)
  • Sweet Potatoes (my Dad HATES them, but I think they're yummy)
  • Vinegar - I think most foods are improved by dousing them in a hefty dose of strong vinegar
  • Salt - I crave the stuff - seriously, sometimes I think I need a salt lick - maybe my chronic low blood pressure has something to do with this?
  • Grapefruit - most people I know won't eat it without sugar on it, which I totally can't understand because it's yummy the way it is
  • Coffee - My mother hated it, and so do many of my friends, but I think it's yummy!
  • Tea - especially green tea - Another thing that most people I know like to add sugar to, but I love it plain.
  • Soy Sauce - I think I could drink it straight, but CatMan really dislikes the flavor
OK, that's all I can think of at the moment.

Looking at the list, I'm a bit puzzled - there are things on there that I think taste good, but others I know think taste bitter. Meanwhile there are things I dislike because of the strong bitter taste (anise, wintermint, wasabi) that other people don't seem to find bitter. Very interesting...

Anyhow, I'm curious to know, what's on your lists? Any theories about what factors are at play with this stuff?


  1. I don't like sweet foods or drinks and I particularly
    dislike chocolate for some reason. I always feel like
    I'm some sort of freak when people start moaning
    about their chocolate addiction!

    1. Interesting... I used to hate chocolate as a kid, but somewhere along the line I grew to love it - well... most chocolate - I still hate chocolate ice cream and things like Tootsie rolls. Perhaps you and CatMan would make a good eating team - he hates sweets too!

  2. Sadly, I love just about EVERYTHING. While I am a really small, (skinny) person, I do have to watch the amount I eat and this is made harder due to the the fact..I LOVE just about EVERYTHING.

    My list on don't likes would be horse radish, wasabi, liver turnips and parsnips.

    There are a number of things I don't eat routinely because I don't like the texture but the flavor is fine if it's prepared in a way that gives it a different consistency. For example: Red delicious apples can be grainy but if they are apple cobbler..I am good.

    1. Oooo... I totally forgot about horse radish and liver - yuck!!! And I'm not entirely sure I can remember what turnips and parsnips taste like - both are on my questionable list for allergies so it hasn't seemed worth the risk to try them in the past 20 years. And yes... red delicious are only good when they're really really fresh - but they go mealy REALLY fast, at which point the only way to eat them is cooked!

  3. Besides the total number of taste buds you have, I'm sure preferences have something to do with the number of different kinds that you have.

    And how in the world did you count the number of taste buds you have? Did you count one section and extrapolate to the whole tongue? I just looked at my tongue in the mirror and I don't think I could count them unless I had a magnifying mirror and a lot of patience.

    Do you dislike all chip type snacks in all brands? I find with some brands I too feel like I'm eating grease, but with others there is a delicate flavor with a good crunch and good salt.

    I don't like sweet potatoes or raspberries. Both have an aftertaste for me that I really don't like. And, of course, who likes liver? I don't like my food very spicy, but I haven't tried to get used to it. I read once that you can build up a tolerance to hotter and hotter foods because it gradually kills off some of your taste buds if it's hot enough.

    I'm also with you on the custard thing. I think that's largely a texture thing for me. And I prefer soft cookies also.

    I could go on and on. Food likes and dislikes is a very complicated subject.

    1. Ha! Well, you don't count all of your taste buds - you punch a hole in a piece of paper and then just count the number inside of the space created by the hole... seems like there was something about food coloring too, to make them stand out I think.

      Anyhow, I LOVE tortilla chips, but interestingly, I'm not really a fan of corn tortillas themselves. Hmmm... I'm not sure what it is about potato chips, but I've never found a brand that I could stomach.

      And I used to hate hot foods, but now I love them. It never dawned on me that I might have killed off some taste buds in the process!

      You are certainly right that it is a very complicated subject!

  4. My husband loves liver. He wishes I would cook it for him, or he would be allowed to cook it for me. Um, no thank you. He thinks I've just not had "good" liver before.

    My entire family loves fish. I think it tastes metallic. Even the not canned versions of fish taste like a tin can starting to rust.

    I do love really intense flavors, though, like black licorice and dark roast coffee. And I don't think I've found a vegetable that I dislike. They're all good to me.

    1. My mother loved liver too... I just can't get past the texture. Liverwurst, on the other hand, I think is delicious. Hmmm....

      And that's fascinating about the fish. I mean, they say that fish absorb heavy metals like mercury from the environment. Do you suppose that's what you're tasting? Sort of a frightening thought!

  5. I like black licorice! I also like brussel sprouts, parsnips (roasted, they taste like walnuts to me), beets, etc.

    For grapefruit, sprinkle some salt on it. My boss grew up on a grapefruit plantation and he said that is actually what you should do, not sprinkle sugar. the salt makes the flavor of the grapefruit stand out (and makes it sweeter). He's right!

    1. Hmmm... well since I also detest walnuts I'm not sure I can see that as a selling point. I always figured my dislike for walnuts and pecans was because I was allergic to them, but maybe there's more to it than that. And black licorice always tastes a bit like barf to me. Not sure what that's all about!

      The grapefruit thing is fascinating. I'm not sure if I can bring myself to try that or not, since I find it so delicious just the way it is, but maybe once...

  6. My big dislikes are mainly combinations rather than individual foods. I'm more of a savoury person than sweet, although I like both. But put them together - fruit in a savoury dish - and I am revolted. I remember as a kid my mother used to put sultanas in her curries. Nothing in this world is more revolting than chewing a big mouthful of savoury dinner, only to have it turned into a kind of mutant dessert by plump dried fruit. And d'you know what? I don't just dislike it, it actually makes me angry. How's that for freakish?
    Another dislike is watery gravy, especially in stews. I like stews in which a spoon would not voluntarily lay down - no free moisture at all! Chunks of boiled vegetables swimming in brown water - yep, makes me mad as hell!
    Couscous tastes ok but has a nasty texture. Doesn't make me cross though.
    Animal milk and anything made from it tastes and smells of baby vomit, especially Parmesan.

    I'm a joy to have over for dinner. :D

    1. I'm with you on the 'putting fruit in savoury stuff' thing- it just ruins a perfectly good meal! It makes me a bit angry too.

    2. OK, I have to disagree about fruit in savory dishes, I LOVE it! Like sweet and sour pork... yum! And one of my very favorite dishes is a spicy Mexican stew made with pork, chicken, sweet potatoes, apples & bananas.

      Milk though... except in very specific situation, or when used as an ingredient in certain dishes - it's just revolting to me. It's always seemed like drinking a glass of phlegm to me. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that we were only allowed skim milk as a child, and I HATED it. But I wasn't allowed to leave the table until I'd drunk my milk. So I'd let it sit there until it was warm and disgusting, and then I'd have to hold my nose and chug it. It still makes me want to puke just thinking about it!

    3. NicolaB - right on sister! ;)

      Cat - the stew you describe is proof that the devil exists.
      Re milk - odd that you should find the fluid revolting, but love some things made from it, such as cheese, which is merely the revoltingness concentrated. Taste is indeed a peculiar phenomenon.
      I'm wondering whether any of your allergies can be attributed to your parents' insistence that you drink milk with every meal

    4. Yes, yes... it's my evil mother's fault!! No, actually, I don't think so. But I am lactose intolerant - which might explain why I enjoy things like cheese & yogurt but hate milk. I actually love lactose free milk in my coffee - it doesn't exactly taste like milk. I suppose it would make sense that one would develop a distaste for things that made one sick.

      CatMan tells a story about his sister, who, when growing up always insisted that she was allergic to corn. Everyone thought she was just making up stories to justify the fact that she didn't like it. Many years later, as an adult, she got tested and discovered that she was indeed allergic to corn! So who knows!

  7. This is a fun topic.

    My main dislikes (that other people seem to like, at least) are chocolate, milk, dark meat (like the legs, etc from a turkey or chicken), duck, corn, jello, bananas, mushrooms, white bread, any non-toasted bread, beer, hazelnut anything, Pepsi, and any red meat served anything less than well done.

    Foods I really like that most people seem to dislike are pretty much plain vanilla anything, soy sauce, sweet potatoes (seriously didn't realize these weren't popular until you said so), Miracle Whip, peanut butter, peppermint, wasabi, collard greens, cilantro, and seriously overcooked beef.

    Do you think smell has anything to do with it for you? I know it does for me. I can't stand even the smell of a lot of the foods I don't like. I can never tell if milk is okay by smelling it because it all smells bad to me. My sister says the same thing.

    Or maybe texture? I know that's a huge thing for hubby. Most of the foods he doesn't like are more because of texture than flavor.

    It is interesting how almost everyone has their weird food things.

    1. It is bizarre... and I think the smell thing is huge. With peanuts, I actually don't mind the taste so much, but the smell turns my stomach - it's just sooo strong!

      And the texture thing is also quite valid. I LOVE dark meat - thighs and legs all the way baby. If I have to eat a chicken breast I can sometimes make myself do it if it's smothered in something, but otherwise I just find it dry and mealy and yucky. So it's definitely a texture thing for me with chicken. And liver... oy! That's definitely a texture thing too.

  8. I have read that most "picky" eaters really object to the texture of a food more than the taste. I'm not sure, in reading the comments, that this is consistently true (you seem to have very strong flavor preferences but I suspect you have some texture preferences as well). One of the "symptoms" of kids with sensory problems is being picky about food textures, for whatever that is worth in this discussion.

    I have a friend who has some sort of genetic thing that makes cilantro taste bad to her.

    I hate the texture of liver (or overcooked meat of any kind), I agree with a friend of mine who refers to lima beans as "slima beans", and I will happily eat your share of the chocolate and peanut butter. Cantaloupe has a weird aftertaste. Black licorice is nasty. Sometimes I like cruciferous veggies and sometimes they smell like sewage to me (how's that for an appetizing thought?). Functionally, what this means to me is that I have learned to offer choices in veggies for my family rather than insisting on everyone eating the same thing ... and while I won't cook separate meals, I will modify a meal (my son eats cooked ground meat and spaghetti noodles but I leave off the tomato sauce when we have spaghetti) to make it more palatable. I figure if I have foods I won't eat (peas!!! Bleach!) then I shouldn't force food on my family.

    1. OK... the connection of the food texture thing with sensory problems is fascinating. What does that mean exactly? I mean, what is a "sensory problem"? Like trouble with eyesight or something?

      Anyhow, I didn't used to like lima beans because I thought of them as a mealy vegetable, but one day it occurred to me that they are beans! And suddenly when I started thinking of them like garbanzos or pintos, I decided that I loved them. How bizarre is that? Mentally re-categorizing the food changed my perception of it? Hmmm....

      Anyhow, I think you've got a very sensible approach with feeding your family. No point bashing your head into a brick wall and making everyone miserable along the way!

    2. A sensory processing disorder ... well, our brains are constantly interpreting input from all of our senses--touch, smell, taste, sound, vision ... and we react to those sensations. Some people don't process this information properly--they may over-respond or under-respond to sensory information and it can make it hard for them to have the correct behavior. Imagine, for instance, that scratchy feeling you get when the tag on your shirt is bothering you. Now imagine that you are a 7 year old kid and your entire outfit feels scratchy and uncomfortable. Are you going to sit quietly in class, listen to the teacher, and respond appropriately to your peers, or are you going to be fidgety, distractible, and irritable? This is one example of a sensory processing disorder. This link is a great resource if you want more information. It's pretty fascinating stuff.

    3. Very interesting... so the food texture thing - the idea is that people with a SPD would be hyper-sensitive to the textures of certain foods. That makes total sense.

    4. Cilantro tastes like BO smells. How anyone can voluntarily put it in their mouth is beyond me!

    5. OK... that's a new one. I've heard people say that it tastes like soap, but never BO!

  9. I also have low blood pressure and my doctor told me to "indulge the salt" i.e. eat as much as I wanted, and it was so weird to hear that but okay, she didn't have to tell me twice!! So I don't put salt on food when I'm cooking it (because my husband shouldn't have too much) but then I usually put a ton of sea salt on whatever I'm eating. I'm tried to not give my teenage son a taste for salt but he loves it, too, and will usually eat non-teenager-y things like Brussels sprouts (which I adore!) if there is a good shake of pink Himalayan salt on it. Also, I second Kris' comment above about kids with sensory problems having issues with the texture of food. My son has Sensory Processing Disorder and was a very picky eater when he was younger (luckily, he's a lot better now). I always got so mad at people (usually older) who told me to force him to eat stuff or to let him go hungry instead of fixing him something more palatable. I have a very vivid memory of being forced to eat creamed tuna on toast and gagging on that when I was little. I've been a vegetarian for 11 years and one reason I chose that, aside from animal rights/environmental/health issues was that I could not stand the texture of most meats.

    1. Sorry about your experiences with your son's sensory problems! It is definitely a hallmark of the older generation to insist on the "clean plate club". I have learned that, when inviting people over for dinner (including kids), that a bar-style meal works out best. Taco bar, baked potato bar, whatever, it seems to be the most adaptable meal for different tastes. Now if only I can get some of the parents to stop insisting on having their kids eat everything I offer! It seems like the clean-plate-club is finding its way into the younger generations .... as a former kid who would stuff the food into my cheeks and spit it out into my napkin, I know that it doesn't always produce the results the parents hope for!

    2. OK... I totally LOVE your doctor's advice about the salt! Seriously, I've craved it my entire life, and I feel much better when I get enough of it - I'm able to stand up without the world going black etc. I actually sometimes take a salt supplement when I go on long bike rides and it really helps me.

      Anyhow, I totally agree about not trying to force kids to eat foods that they hate. And now I really have to go Google "Sensory Processing Disorder" to figure out what the heck it is!

  10. I basically like all foods...though my favourite things are cheese/dairy related...usually with some carbs too (pizza, pasties, sandwiches...)

    I HATE raw celery though- to me it tastes of aniseed/liquorice which I dislike intensely.

    I generally like meat (except if there is too much fat/gristle) but don't like offal or pate as the flavour is too strong. I went through a phase as a teenager of not eating meat because the thought of it made me feel ill- that might have been a texture thing.

    I think cilantro is parsley- not a fan of that either- it tastes bitter and yuck to me.

    I have a friend who is a bit of a foodie and loves most things- except cucumber which tastes disgusting to him. Apparently there is a chemical in cucumber which not everyone can taste, but he can. (Though it does sound like an elaborate excuse!)

    I've noticed quite a lot of men dislike/refuse to eat mushrooms- so I have female friends who stock up on mushrooms when their husbands are away!

    1. Well, your celery thing actually has some basis in fact. I'm violently allergic to celery and almost everything in the same plant family, and most of them do have that anise taste. So technically, it's the parsley family, and it includes: anise, caraway, carrot, celeriac, celery, coriander (cilantro), dill, fennel, parsley & parsnip. The only one of these that I can eat is carrots - but ONLY if they are well cooked and don't include any of the green color that you sometimes get near the top. So anyhow, it's not strange to me that celery would taste like anise.

      And the gender mushroom thing is fascinating! CatMan loves them, whatever that means!

    2. It means he is lucky and gets to enjoy the wonder of mushrooms!! :)

      Interesting that those are all in the same family- I like celeriac (but only in soup with apple) parsnips, carrots and coriander but not very keen on the rest. I suppose allergies mean you end up knowing a lot about which plants are related!

    3. True... I know WAY more on the subject than I'd like to. And before I had these allergies, I'd never even heard of celeriac - still don't know what it is.

  11. I like everything on your like list and most stuff on your dislike list, but I do hate wintergreen and licorice. I can't stand anything fish or seafood. I don;t understand people's love of lobster.

    1. Interesting... I LOVE shellfish, but can no longer eat it due to allergies. Of course... looking back on my love of crab and lobster as a child - it may have had more to do with the fact that it was served with a little cup of melted butter - the only time I ever got real butter as a child, and I LOVED it!

  12. I love this discussion! One I'd love to know scientifically is: I detest cooked greens (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, etc.)--both the taste and just the smell of them. But I think they are pretty lovely raw. My husband and daughter (neither genetically related) are the opposite--won't touch them raw, like most of the cooked.

    With grapefruit, did you know it tastes a lot sweeter than it did 20 years ago? I used to eat it with sugar, but think it's lovely now. But that might be due to the breeding!

    1. OK - that's fascinating about the grapefruit! I didn't like it much as a child, so maybe that's why.

      And CatMan claims that greens get more bitter when they are cooked - I don't really share that opinion, but who knows... he must be reacting to something!

  13. I think the most interesting part of this was the fact that you and CatMan did the experiment. It got me thinking how you two have such a good relationship. Now if I could find a man who could respect the fact I didn't want to live with him but who shared so many of my interests and we could have fun learning together I'd have found the perfect relationship.

    The idea of super tasters is interesting but not enough to dye my tongue. Reading your list of likes and dislikes I can find foods on both lists I enjoy or dislike.

    My dislikes are anise. It's so bad I can't even stand the smell of it when it's being used to bake and can smell it in the entire house. Hot sauce and any really spicy foods which means all cajun foods are out. I don't want to burn my tongue and prefer to actually taste the ingredients. I don't like pepperoni and other processed meats (even when I ate meat) and never could stand the taste of milk or coffee.

    On the other hand, I love lima beans and could eat them every day of the week. Also on the list of foods I enjoy would be most all fruits, most vegetables and chocolate!!

    1. Awwww... you're so sweet with your kind words about me & CatMan. It's funny, most people I know would not want the kind of relationship that we have - they just can't get past the fact that it doesn't "look right." But I think there is great power in accepting each other as we are and not trying to force anything into a pre-defined box.

      Anyhow, I didn't used to like spicy foods, but somewhere along the line I developed a taste for them. Though at the moment I'm sorta questioning that decision because my parents took me out for yummy spicy Vietnamese food on my birthday, and I've been suffering with horrible heartburn ever since! So, I dunno... might have to start a new category of foods that I love but that don't love me back!

  14. To quote one of my sons, "there's no known food that my mother wouldn't eat"!! I do have preferences (I'd rather eat veg than meat and I'm not keen on cooked bananas) but he's pretty much correct.

    1. Seriously... ANY food? Even raw oysters or Vegemite?

    2. I've never had the opportunity to try oysters and I LOVE Vegemite!!

    3. Really?!? I tried Vegemite once in New Zealand - or maybe it was Marmite, not sure. But it literally took effort not to spit it out on the spot! I totally don't get it!

  15. I once saw an article in _National_Geographic_ that had a scratch-and-sniff survey in it. I and a bunch of my friends took that survey. I could smell all the scents but one--turns out my friends say it smelled like spices. My boyfriend of the time also could smell all but one--the gym sock one. He would stick his nose right on the paper and not smell a thing!

    So I know that people have different taste preferences but they also taste things differently.

    Celery is the big food that shows me that people taste differently. Many people think it's basically flavorless but is a nice refreshing crunchy thing. It sure sounds great in the summer! But to me it is extremely bitter. It doesn't taste like anise to me, which I like; it tastes like ear wax. Yet I like it fine when it's cooked (such as in dressing and chicken soup).

    I consider myself a very picky eater, but it turns out lots of people are picky. I mainly don't like any vegetables except those in other food groups (potatoes and corn are starches, iceberg lettuce is water, pinto beans are proteins), though there are some exceptions (sweet potatoes, raw spinach and other lettuces are okay).

    Texture doesn't bug me. (Except maybe for soda--I prefer my liquids not bubbly.) It's the actual disgusting flavor that bugs me. Although the idea of some things squick me out so much that I don't even want to taste them (crickets).

    I don't like sweets in my savory food, but mostly because I'd rather save that sugar for dessert foods. I don't think it improves the food most of the time or "cuts the acid" or whatever. Same with adding salt to my desserts--I don't need salty chocolate and would rather save the salt for fries or popcorn or something.

    My boyfriend likes pretty much everything but cantaloupe and squash. He's also not into sweets at all except for dark chocolate, mousse, and custardy things.

    Things most people like but I don't: alcohol, coffee, tea, shrimp (and many, many more things I'm forgetting). And I don't really like raw berries (except when strawberries are sweet like at La Madeleine).

    Things most people don't like but I do: gefilte fish and liver pate are okay. Whole wheat bread and brown rice are good. And I'm happy to take most desserts off the hands of all those people on diets. And I don't generally mind mixing things that shouldn't go together (or having foods on my plate touch) as much as some other people do. I can keep them separate in my head.

    And I have different feelings about related foods. I like processed tomatoes but not fresh. I like soy sauce (a lot) but not fish sauce (at all). I like strong hot chocolate (lots of cocoa), but prefer it made with skim milk than with cream.

    I never liked milk (except with rich desserts like cookies or cake) until that time I worked at summer camp (outside, temperatures from 80 to 105 all day) and our drink choices were tepid water, tepid punch, or ice cold milk.

    I once had a friend who had to eat everything on his plate growing up and so he didn't form strong preferences, because those were irrelevant. For example, for him, there were two kinds of cheese: yellow and white. His main answer when I asked for food preferences was "Anything handy is pretty favorite."

    1. Oh my! Well the first thing I've just gotta ask is this: How do you know what ear wax tastes like?!?

      And your comments about food touching made me laugh out loud. My step-mom has a real "thing" about that. Dinner with my parents is always so complicated because everything is served in separate little dishes so nothing can touch. It sorta makes her crazy that I like to mix everything together as I eat. I have this elaborate system for piling things on my fork so that I get a little of everything in each bite.

      And your comments about smell are also very interesting. I've heard that a huge amount of what we think of as "taste" is actually smell - so maybe the fact that different people have different abilities to smell certain things impacts which foods they like and dislike. Hmmm....


I welcome your thoughts so please leave me a comment and I promise I will respond.

On older posts I've had to enable comment moderation to prevent spammers, so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up right away - unless you're just commenting for the sake of embedding a link, in which case I really wish you wouldn't waste your time or mine because I'll just delete it.

Thanks, and have a fabulous day!