Archive for October 15th, 2010


On Taste, Taste Buds and Perceptions


Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad,
the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in
the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages,
eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat and
the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the
standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to
tithing, and stock- punished, and imprisoned; who
hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his
body, horse to ride, and weapon to wear;
But mice and rats, and such small deer,
Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.
(William Shakespeare, King Lear: Act 3, Scene 4)

Almost every single one of us has phobias against certain foods, whether due to an unpleasant childhood experience, or just being repulsed by the thought, whatever the cause maybe, we usually hate some foods which we likely never even tasted. As I grow old(er) I find that foods I would never have thought of touching before, as I take the adventurous step of actually tasting them (being a food critic has its rewards and punishments!), often surprises me at how good they actually are. Psychologists tell us that when we grow older, dishes or ingredients we hated in our younger years suddenly become our favorites. What has changed? Were these phobias merely due to wrong perceptions, did the taste buds evolve perhaps?

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th – early 19th century French politician, epicure and gastronome, was one of the earliest writers on gastronomic subjects. In his book La Physiologie Du Gout – The Physiology of Taste, he writes that before we experience the taste of food, the look and aroma will either seduce or repulse us, and the ultimate taste of it represents a very small percentage of our total experience. As we come in contact with that food again, the memory of one’s past experience will determine whether he/she ingests it, and how much enjoyment one might derive form having it.


Fries make us feel chipper, their looks and smell remind us of happy times, such as childhood holidays or getting a favorite treat. (Photo by:


In many psychological experiments where food colors are altered and shapes are changed, people’s experience with some loved or repulsive foods will most often yield surprising results that will shutter both the tested and the tester’s preconceived notions.

So why do we dislike certain foods? I found the following online:

To begin to understand this, we need to understand classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is the most common way humans and animals alike learn behavior. The most famous example is the experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the 1900s. Pavlov managed to teach dogs to salivate by ringing a bell. He did this by feeding them and ringing a bell repeatedly. Eventually, the dogs salivated simply from hearing the ringing of the bell.

In this example, Pavlov managed to pair an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), in this case a bell, with a conditioned response (CR), such as the salivating in anticipation of food. We make these kinds of associations all the time, and it’s the fundamental model of how the human brain takes in information.

Taste aversions, however, fly in the face of this model. Pavlov’s experiment showed that the conditioned response manifested only after repeated and closely associated experiments.

In the other example, the one in which you regurgitated (CR) after eating the toffee candy bar (UCS) – it only happened once and perhaps minutes or even hours apart. And yet, you instinctively shy away from toffee.

How is it that such a strong association can be created with only one interaction?

Humans aren’t alone in having this kind of reaction between certain flavors and sickness. Psychologist John Garcia managed to demonstrate a similar reaction in rats when he gave them flavored water, and, hours later, injected them with a chemical that made them sick. After the sickness, the rats stayed away from the flavored water.

A likely explanation may be that we human beings have a strong need to stay alive by eating things that won’t make us sick. If we eat something and, in the course of digestion, that something makes us ill, we’ll often remember it for years. From then on, the human brain knows to associate that smell and taste with a food that caused illness. So, if you have a food aversion, just know that it may be irrational, but it also means that your brain is just trying to do its part to keep you alive.

Are food aversions always caused by unfortunate interaction(s)? There are foods I would never touch as the mere look of them utterly repulses me and having grown up in a fully kosher home, having never tasted any non-kosher food – even as an adult – I can assure you I’ve never had any pleasant or unpleasant interaction with them (for example, lobsters). So what then makes some dislike some foods while others may love those same foods? And why is it that something we may have utterly disliked, suddenly as we advance in years, becomes a favorite?

What do you think, gentle reader?


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