Distrust Your Tongue
If there’s one thing I learned from stuffing myself silly with studies on the science of taste, it’s this:
Our sense of taste is easily influenced and extremely unreliable.
We shouldn’t blindly trust it. Or at least we don’t need to.
And that’s a valuable thing to keep in mind. Because if we increase our awareness of factors that affect our perception of taste, we can use them to our advantage. We can learn to like foods we think we don’t like, enjoy the ones we do even more, and help others do the same.
It makes for an extra delicious life.
Genes are the Presidents of the perceived palate. They get most of the credit (or blame) in the outcome but in reality they only play a small part1The Influence of Taste Liking on the Consumption of Nutrient Rich and Nutrient Poor Foods, Liem Djin Gie, Russell Catherine Georgina—maybe 20%, reports Bob Holmes in his book, Flavor.
Here are a couple of the ways our genetics affect our perception of taste:
Number of Taste Buds
Like how we roughly classify ourselves as either short, tall, or average height, we can categorize ourselves based on our number of taste buds. We’re either bumpy-tongued “supertasters” (around 25 to 30 percent of the population), “average tasters” (45 to 50 percent), or relatively flat-tongued “non-tasters” (25 to 30).
As you could guess, the more taste buds you have, the more sensitive you are to particular tastes. Supertasters tend to appreciate subtle flavors more, avoid strong sensations like hot sauce, and dull bitterness with can with sugar, salt, and fat. And non-tasters tend to do the reverse.
Tend to. That’s the catch. Some supertasters love spicy food and super-bitter cocktails. And some non-tasters are super sommeliers who can’t stand black coffee and Brussels sprouts. The following factors that affect taste perception can completely level-out the number of bumps on your tongue you’re born with.
Sensitivity to Specific Smells
The genetic lottery deals each of us scratch ‘n’ sniff cards with about 350 “odor receptors.” Yours only has about half of them in common with the person next to you. The other half are odors you can pick up and they can’t, and vice versa. So we’re all living in unique smell worlds.
For example, people who dislike cilantro miss out on the pleasant citrusy, herbal scent2Taster’s Choice: Why I Hate Raw Tomatoes and You Don’t, Scientific American that the rest get. They only get the soapy smell, as they’ll inevitably complain to you if you have the misfortune of going for Mexican food with them.
A couple other examples of genetically-related smell differences:
- Up to 30 percent of the population can’t pick up on one of the key aromas that make truffles such a luxury.
- As many as 3 out of every 5 Americans can’t smell the funky odor in urine that others can after eating asparagus.
What’s extra noteworthy is that there’s evidence that our brains can learn to add new smells to their scratch cards with extended exposure.3Evidence for peripheral plasticity in human odour response, The Journal of Physiology So if you eat enough asparagus and keep sniffing your pee, you may eventually understand what others are talking about.
“People like what they eat, rather than eat what they like,” as anthropologist Kurt Lewin puts it in Mary Roach’s book, Gulp. And what you eat mostly depends on where you’re from and who raised you.
Our perception of what smells “good” and “bad” is 100 percent cultural. To a baby, a $100 eau de toilette smells no better or worse than an outhouse. And real-life Mowglis who grew up in the wild without human contact do not show any overt signs of disgust.4The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Ian Miller, William Ian Mille
Because of this, when the U.S. military tried to make a universal stink-bomb, they failed.5Ah, Sweet Skunk! Why We Like or Dislike What We Smell, Dana.org Any scent that made some people gag was inoffensive or even appealing to others.
Take lavender for example. In one French study, those who could identify the flower’s smell strongly liked it.6Implicit learning and implicit memory for odors: The influence of odor identification and retention time, Journal of Chemical Senses Those unfamiliar with it did not.
Extra Early Exposure
Traces of whatever moms eat gets into their amniotic fluid and breast milk, which gets into their babies, which acquaint and endear them to those tastes.
For instance, babies whose mothers were randomized to drink carrot juice during their third trimester and first two months of lactation were found to be unusually big fans of corn-flavored cereal later on.7Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants, Pediatrics
“Anything can start to taste good if you have enough positive memories of being fed it by a parent,” Bee Wilson writes in her book, First Bite. She shares a study that found that babies fed a nasty sour-tasting formula ended up preferring it over the standard recipe and continued having strong preferences for sour tastes at age 4 and 5.
Our brains are conditioned to throw the baby out with the bathwater and condemn any food that happens to be present when we puke. For example, a nasty bout of food poisoning from Hawaiian pizza can make pineapple unpalatable forevermore, even if rotten ham was responsible.
Speaking of throwing and babies, if you threw up a lot as a baby, this might explain why you have so many food aversions. Flavors your mom was feeding you that happened to coincide with a nasty bout of nausea are on your brain’s hit list. You certainly can’t recall those events, but your subconscious brain does. And it doesn’t give second chances.
Prizes and Punishment
Force-feeding veggies to helpless children leaves a lasting nasty taste for that food. It’s akin to PTSD for food. As Wilson puts it, “think of how offensive it must feel to have a large, powerful person bearing down, cramming a hard spoon between your teeth.”
Bribery with sweets backfires, too. It only teaches kids (and adults also) to value those veggies less because anything you need a reward to swallow must really suck.8Early Influences on the Development of Food Preferences, Current Biology
What works are non-food rewards. Give someone a sticker for bravely biting those Brussels sprouts, and they may eventually acquire a taste preference for them.
Give the same olive to 5-year old you, 20-year-old you, and 70-year-old you and all three will report wildly different taste perceptions. As food developer Barb Stuckey writes in her book Taste, “Our individual food preferences change over time continuously from the time we are born to the time we die.”
Here are a few factors that cause this to happen.
Part of the reason taste perception changes with age is that infection, accidents (especially head injuries), incidental nerve damage caused by dental procedures, smoking addiction, and diseases like Parkinson’s can all put permanent dents in our taste perception packages.
French kiss the person beside you and you’ll observe that saliva has taste. You just don’t taste your own spit because your taste-perception system has calibrated itself to neutralize it. This is why water has a “flavor.”
Our saliva alters taste, too. Proteins in our spit interact with our food to break it down, release aromas, and neutralize certain astringent and bitter molecules.9The role of saliva in food sensory perception: relevant knowledge to design healthy foods (PDF) So the more you drool over a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon, the less you will perceive the tannins that put off others.
The quantity and composition of our saliva also change based on factors like age, body weight, genetics, and how often we French kiss strangers.
The more you eat a food, the more likely you’ll form a fan club of bacteria associated with that food in your stomach that will clamor for it and cheer when you send it down. These bacteria alter your perception of taste10Your Gut Bacteria Want You to Eat a Cupcake, The Atlantic and your hormonal urges11Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms, BioEssays so you give them more encores.
- Chocolate lovers have different bacteria in their guts than non-chocolate lovers.
This can partly explain the common wisdom that if you eat anything enough, you’ll start to like it.
The bacteria in our mouths play a similar role as those in our guts. They especially like to huddle around our taste buds so, since supertasters have more of them, they accommodate more bacteria. This may be part of the reason why they’re more sensitive to tastes.
Women’s peak ability to smell is at mid-cycle, and the nadir is during their period.13Fertile Women Have a Heightened Sense of Smell, Scientific American Apparently, this is to turn on their awareness to men’s musk, and thus turn them on. Since smell is a major component of our perception of taste, as a side-effect it can turn on women’s appreciation of, and desire for, donuts and other delicacies, too.
We tend to live by the saying, “You are what you eat,” by eating like the people we aspire to be like and the groups we want to affiliate with. Fake fondness for a food long enough and eventually it becomes real.
We also enjoy the taste of food more when we eat with other people.14The “social” facilitation of eating without the presence of others: Self-reflection on eating makes food taste better and people eat more, Physiology & Behavior This is true even when those “other people” are ourselves, i.e., we eat in front of a mirror.15Eating in front of a mirror makes meals taste better, say scientists, The Telegraph
Other People’s Bacteria
Food scientists hypothesize that taste preference may be more than socially contagious but also truly contagious.16Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms, BioEssays That’s because close contact with others can lead to the transmission of taste preference-influencing bacteria.
Language is our tongues’ second-most important role in affecting our perception of taste. The better we’re able to describe a flavor, the higher our appreciation of it. This may explain why cultures whose languages do a better job at describing foods, like Farsi, Lao, and Cantonese, have more sophisticated cuisines than those who don’t.
It’s one thing to know the word and it’s another to match that word with the smell or taste you’re experiencing. Your perception can depend enormously on the word you settle on.
In an experiment Bianca Bosker shares in her book, Cork Dork, scientists subjected their participants to a synthetic smell of dirty feet and vomit. When they told their test subjects it was parmesan, they rated as highly as they rated fresh cucumber. But when they were asked to smell it again and revealed what it really was, they were repulsed and cut their score by half.
As Brian Wansink writes in his book, Mindless Eating, “Basically, if you expect a food to taste good, it will. At the very least, it will taste better than if you had thought it would only be so-so.”
Your brain even creates flavors that don’t exist based on expectations. In one experiment, trusting tasters stuck their tongues into a box (not that type of box), and looked through a lens. They thought they were looking at their tongues but were actually seeing someone else’s. When they watched lemon juice be dropped onto it, they tasted the sourness, even though nothing touched their tongues.17The Fake-Tongue Illusion, The New Yorker
The first bite is always better than the fourth or fifth because, like spoiled brats, our brains quickly get accustomed to the special foods we spoil them with. You already know this from experience.
What you might not know is that even looking at photos of a food18How Instagram can ruin your dinner, BYU News or smelling it19The Surprising Way to Resist the Lure of Junk Food, Time before eating it can bring about the same effect.
It won’t surprise you when I tell you that packaging,20Effects of packaging design on sensory liking and willingness to purchase: A study using novel chocolate packaging, Heliyon price,21Why expensive wine tastes better, INSEAD News and naming22How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants, Food Quality and Preference affect our perception of taste. But you’re inevitably swayed by these factors anyway. That’s why we’re huge fans of doing blind taste tests to look beyond the marketing and find our true favorites.
Next time you host a dinner party, try this experiment to use marketing to your advantage (in addition to these 5 counterintuitive strategies for better dinner parties):
Serve a cheap wine out of label-less bottle or carafe and tell your guests it’s from an expensive, exotic producer. People generally prefer the taste of cheap wine, but are positively influenced by exotic names and high prices, so it’s a win-win (…until they discover your deception).
The weight of your plate or bowl can affect your perceived appreciation of taste. For example, people found yogurt to taste significantly better when they ate it from heavier, but visually identical bowls.23A touch of gastronomy, Flavour
Crockery’s color matters, too. Strawberry mousse served on a white plate has been found to have a significantly more intense and sweet flavor than if served on a black one.24Is it the plate or is it the food? Assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it, Food Quality and Preference
Participants in one experiment were prepared to pay twice as much for a salad plated to resemble an abstract painting than one presented normally. And they found it to be 18% tastier even though the ingredients were exactly the same.25A taste of Kandinsky: assessing the influence of the artistic visual presentation of food on the dining experience, Flavour
In one of my favorite experiments I read about, dinner party guests were treated to a seemingly ordinary meal of steak, peas, and chips in an unusually dimly lit room. Halfway through, the lights were turned up and the guests realized the steak was artificially colored blue, the peas red, and the chips green. This apparently sent a few guests to the toilet with nausea.26On the psychological impact of food colour, Flavour
Color “creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge,” said a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. It “is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life.” Or maybe rather than “taking the pleasure out of life,” banning food dyes would tilt the odds in favor of genuinely colorful foods like fruit and vegetables?
Our physical surroundings play a part in our perception of taste.
When 441 people drank the same whiskey in three different rooms with dramatically different decor, their taste ratings varied by 10 to 20 percent. Their perceived attributes of the whiskey varied, too. In the room decorated with exposed wood, clocks, and the sound of a fireplace, tasters perceived the whiskey to have a more woody taste.27Assessing the influence of the multisensory environment on the whisky drinking experience, Flavour
Oysters taste better and saltier when our slurping is accompanied by a soundtrack of sea sounds like seagulls and waves rather than barnyard noises like clucking chickens and mooing cattle. And bacon and egg flavored ice cream tastes more like bacon if we hear the sound off sizzling strips while eating it, and more like eggs with chickens clucking in the background.28Pitch/Fork: The Relationship Between Sound And Taste, Scientific American
The sound of the food itself matters, too. When Pringle’s eaters were told to pop until researchers told them to stop while wearing headphones that enhanced or dulled the crunch sound, the heavy crunch munchers reported their chips to taste 15 percent fresher.29The Role of Auditory Cues In Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips, Journal of Sensory Studies
Taste preferences change depending on the time of day. As the guru of food psychology, Paul Rozin, puts it, “To say one likes lobster does not mean that one likes it for breakfast or smothered in whipped cream.” But then again, if you’re starving after a multi-day fast, it may taste fantastic.
Wine will taste blander if it follows a robust, fruity wine than if the previous one was subtle. This contrast effect is so strong that it obliterates any real differences in quality. And it obliterates the reputation of expert wine judges, who are wildly inconsistent when trying, and failing, to consistently rate dozens of different wines at competitions.30An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition, Journal of Wine Economics (PDF)
Most of the smell that makes up our perception of taste doesn’t come up through our nostrils but via the back of our mouths.31The Flow of Flavor: How Exhaling While Eating Affects Smell and Taste, Yale Scientific Breathing heavily and unevenly as we scarf down food hampers that flow.32Mechanics Of Eating: Why You’ll Miss Flavor If You Scarf Your Food, NPR So breathe evenly and easily to push more aroma up and enhance flavor.
Hopefully you’ve heard the news by now (it came out in 1974, after all): the “Tongue Map” is less accurate than early explorers’ maps of North America. All parts of our tongues can detect all types of taste. Plenty of other body parts, like our stomachs, lungs, and intestines, have taste receptors too.33Taste isn’t just for taste buds anymore, F1000 Biology Reports
The mouth is where most of the magic happens, so the more we chew and move that food around the mouth, the more taste we will perceive. It also gives more chances for your saliva and the bacteria in their mouth to process and release more flavor.
A food, like yogurt, will be perceived as richer and more expensive if the cutlery you use is lighter than you think. And the contrast between the color of your cutlery and that of your food color will also have a small effect.34The taste of cutlery: how the taste of food is affected by the weight, size, shape, and colour of the cutlery used to eat it, Flavour
Here at The Zag, we’re proponents of cutting out the cutlery middle man and eating with your hands.
Take Control of Your Taste
The short lesson from this long list of factors that affect our perception of taste is this:
Taste is whatever you make of it.
You can either love or hate the food in front of you without making any change to it. Tinker with all of these factors and train your brain to appreciate taste the way you want. Make every bite in life a little more delicious.
Still Hungry for More?
Here are some fact-filled sources of more info on factors that affect perception of taste:
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About the author
I'm Chris. Canadian, husband, dad, writer, investor, athlete, and obsessed explorer of the secrets to living a never-boring, always improving, unfollowable life story.