Have you ever been in this situation: you prepare a wonderful, healthy, tasty meal for your family but your kids turn up their noses at it and say it’s disgusting? Are they just doing it to play with you or is it at all possible that the food you find delicious really tastes awful to them? After all, we do know that different people prefer different foods… but why?
The little bumps on our tongues called papillae house our taste buds. How many taste buds we have affects how we experience different foods. If you have more taste buds than the average person, foods may taste stronger to you than to other people. This means, for example, that spicy foods may affect you more or that you may find regular coffee too bitter. Humans have a few thousand taste buds which are replaced every couple of weeks while we are younger. However, after around the age of forty this process becomes slower, which means that older adults have fewer taste buds. This explains to an extent why taste sometimes changes with age.
Taste and evolution
Our taste buds have receptors which recognise certain chemicals and send signals to the brain. The brain then translates them into five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). But different people’s brains may read these chemicals differently. From an evolutionary point of view, the role of taste is to indicate to us whether what we have put in our mouths is good or bad for us. For example, many poisons taste bitter and that is a taste which most people dislike from a young age. But the evolutionary pressures in different places may not have been the same and so people from different geographical regions may have developed different receptors. For example, some people cannot taste one of the chemicals that produces a bitter taste at all while others are very sensitive to it. This depends on the type of receptor genes they have inherited. There is often a link between where these people are from and which variant of the gene they have. Interestingly, sensitivity to bitterness may explain why certain individuals hate certain vegetables – things like broccoli may simply taste too bitter for them, even if they taste nice to the average person.
Like mother, like baby
One of the things that determines taste in early childhood is the types of food that a mother eats during pregnancy. Chemicals from the food she consumes reach the baby and they get accustomed to certain flavours, making it more likely that they will prefer those flavours after they are born. A baby’s taste starts developing from around week 16 of pregnancy when they begin swallowing amniotic fluid which is flavoured with whatever the mum has consumed in the last few hours. This is good news for mamas who want their kids to have healthy eating habits – they can start very early indeed! All you have to do is have a good diet yourself and your baby is likely to follow suit.
Of course, in addition to everything mentioned above, social and cultural influences can greatly affect how we perceive certain foods, and so can our experiences. We enjoy foods associated with happy events which is all the more reason to make mealtimes calm and joyful experiences for the whole family!