I hear the summer blockbusters were disappointing, but the new non-fiction at my local library has been jumping into my book bag every week. Not every book gets read, but I prefer to have options so I can pick the book I most prefer in the moment. A great recent find was You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice about the psychology of taste. Not so much why we all have different tastes, but how we decide what we like, how other people’s decisions affect our taste, and even how presentation and order can determine our preferences (if you are being judged in a competition, do your best to go last).
Our tastes define who we are, and it is disheartening to think that what we like is so easily changed by what is around us and how often we are bombarded with something (for instance that pop song you hated at first but starts to grow on you after the umpteenth play…) (102). But it happens. When presented with foods conventionally or with a bit of flair, we like the foods better with the extra flourishes (23). Or when tasting/judging many things in succession, we prefer the things presented to us later because we have all the previous experiences to judge it against (the “direction of comparison effect” 189). This psychology stems from our origins as humans surviving in a dangerous and often unfamiliar world. New things (especially foods) could often be deadly. So it was supremely to our benefit to remember and recognize foods that were safe, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen since it was last in season a year ago (or maybe longer).
That risk has almost entirely dissipated. Only the extreme minority are foraging their every meal, and an even smaller portion are trying something for the first time to determine that it is food. In fact humans are hard core generalists, and able to survive on an incredible variety of diets (Unlike, say…pandas. Bamboo or bust!) (18). Most of what we eat has been specifically cultivated for human consumption (often over many, many generations). Yes, there are new ways of preparing foods influenced by new technologies and all the foods that were prepared before them. But we have a basic understanding of what keeps food safe: not cross contaminating, keeping foods stored at certain temperatures, how light damages food, what temperature foods need to be cooked to to make them safe, etc, etc, etc. So must things that are “new” are created within these constraints of safety and availability. They are all things we could put the USDA GRAS (generally recognized as safe) stamp on, even if they haven’t been specifically tested.
So why are so many people neophobic (afraid of new foods)? Convinced that they have a concrete definition of what they like, and anything outside of the lines isn’t welcome in their mouth? Presenting people with foods they’ve never had or previously declared not to like is a regular part of my job. I most often work with kids who one would expect a certain amount of reluctance with, but I’m still surprised by the number of adults that declare hatred of something or refuse to try it. Sometimes this is in adult classes, which is mostly to their own detriment (but can also unfortunately influences the other adults), but dishearteningly it also often happens with teachers or parent chaperones with kids. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is far, far less effective in these situations (and, well, most of the time).
Vanderbilt points out that the single factor most likely to predict whether or not someone will like something is the fact that they’ve had it before (24). Our psyches are constantly working counter to our tongues. But no one comes into the world with a defined palate. Yes, we are born with certain general affinities like those for sugar, salt, and fat (19), but we all develop unique preferences based on the things we’ve tried. Every food that we love, we had to try for the first time. Our tastes change over time as we try more and more new things, have foods prepared in different ways, we develop or lose tolerances to certain flavors, or our bodies fluctuate along with our physical and psychological health, major happenings like pregnancy or menopause, or just simple aging. Do you like all the same foods you did 2 years ago? 10 years ago? 20?
Our tastes should be like our personalities: constantly changing as we experience more and try to define ourselves and our place in the world. None of us will ever like all foods, we naturally have preferences for some over others. Since I first tasted them, I’ve had an aversion to caraway in just about any quantity and strong instances of fennel. But…while they are not my favorite flavors, I still try foods containing them and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some.
The list of foods I used to not eat is embarrassing for a food blogger. Pasta with tomato sauce (though I would eat meatballs with sauce….). Lobster. Coffee. Beets, summer and winter squash, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, cauliflower, EGGPLANT. Tofu. Eggs in any form (WHO WAS I??).The list of foods I used to eat is probably even more embarrassing. Taco Lunchables with meat you squeezed out of a tube. Smore’s Pop Tarts. Cheese steak Hot Pockets. Snackwells cookies (Thanks, low-fat craze of the 90’s!). Over time I’ve become much more conscious of my health and experienced so many more foods that my palate has broadened and evolved for the better.
As some of my favorite childhood foods illustrate, this willingness to try is only as good as the foods one samples. It doesn’t benefit our bodies to be constantly trying all sorts of processed, sugary, salty, fatty foods. As long as you eat primarily fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains (real food), you are likely on the path to health. Even within the limits of real food, there are almost infinite flavors and food combinations. Encouraging variety also increases the likelihood that you will get all the vitamins and minerals you need from foods.
I’m working on my methods for making new foods less scary. I’m getting better at pairing new things with familiar things, so they are less of a shock to people. Presenting items with flair. Giving people more choices. Introducing them to something new that they will love and incorporate into a healthier diet. But also accepting that sometimes I’m just one step in a long path of learning to like something.
Don’t let neophobia win. Fully embrace your generalist nature. Try foods you thought you hated. And not just once, or always prepared in the same way. You might be surprised. And liking more things means there are more delicious things in the world to eat. No matter how old you are, there are still new foods to try and ways your taste can change. As Vanderbilt describes again and again, our tastes are in constant flux and being aware of how they can be influenced and changed can be to our benefit. Know your mind is working against your mouth, but that it doesn’t have to win. The world would be a boring place if we all liked everything, but each of us could benefit from liking a few more things. Explore tongue first.