The Science of Taste: Nature or Nurture? / by Rachel Eva Lim

A complex medley of factors accounts for the startling variety in our dietary preferences.

Licorice. Blue Cheese. Vegemite. What constitutes the ideal midnight snack for one person may make another bolt for the nearest gag receptacle. The subjectivity of taste accounts for these polarizing preferences and is in part responsible for the myriad different diets that individuals around the world adopt. But why exactly do we favor certain flavors over others, and are these penchants malleable or relatively fixed at this stage in our lives?

The basic sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami chemical receptors scattered throughout our mouths predominantly dictate our sense of taste. Thousands of these cells work in symphony with other oral and olfactory receptors that are sensitive to smell, temperature, and texture to fire off signals to our brain. These transmissions tell us whether to continue consuming the meal before us or if the substance we’re about to ingest is potentially harmful. For example, the sensation of sweetness allows our brains to identify and react positively to energy-dense foods, while bitter compounds can warn us of the presence of toxins.

Genes play a significant role when it comes to individual taste preferences. Take cilantro: an herb revered by many a pimped out taco and banh mi enthusiast and shunned by the haters that equate its taste to a bar of wholly unpalatable off-brand soap. Research carried out by Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, concluded from experiments conducted on identical and fraternal twins that certain individuals may be born with an innate aversion to cilantro. Other studies reveal that the presence of a particular taste receptor gene, known as the PTC gene or TAS2R38, makes some of us more sensitive to bitterness than others. 

Furthermore, while the average adult has around 9,000 taste buds, individuals with more than 10,000 of them generally taste things more intensely. This unique phenomenon can lead to extreme flavor parties in one’s mouth, or the far less desirable attribute of picky eating coupled with unpleasantly strong taste sensations. A small percentage of the population is born with taste disorders that result in muted or distorted flavor perceptions. And age is also a factor; with the amount of taste buds we have gradually diminishing from around the time we hit 60.

However, the effect of environmental influences on taste perhaps trumps genetic predisposition. It’s been proven that babies develop a liking for foods they’re exposed to within the first 15 days of weaning, and a 2010 study conducted on young children concluded that having them repeatedly taste vegetables including peas and carrots resulted in an increased liking for these previously despised items. Many adults have also reported successfully transforming their finicky palates to enjoy foods that they previously avoided.

Additionally, cultural and geographic differences in cuisine and available food supplies greatly influence taste preferences. For instance, what each of us deems as comfort food depends as much, if not more, on the meaning and memories associated with a particular dish than the actual taste of the food itself. Indeed, although the average American may favor a heaping plate of macaroni and cheese, someone who grew up in a traditional Chinese household is far more likely to turn to century egg congee as their go-to hug-in-a-bowl.

Recent research shows that it takes roughly 66 days to form new habits, which means that we can train our taste buds to acclimatize to pretty much anything. Whether we’re striving to incorporate more variety into our meals or switching up our usual recipes in response to nutritional or environmental concerns, attaining our goals is entirely possible as long as we keep our minds, and mouths, open to new flavor possibilities

Commissioned by Ui CULTURE