The Senior
Tuesday, 5 December 2023

The science behind 'acquired tastes': A guide for senior foodies

Do our taste buds evolve, or is the process affected by cultural influences and psychology? Explore the factors behind the "acquired taste" phenomenon in this article. Picture Shutterstock
Do our taste buds evolve, or is the process affected by cultural influences and psychology? Explore the factors behind the "acquired taste" phenomenon in this article. Picture Shutterstock

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As we age, our preferences and relationships with food evolve.

Like other life experiences, we gain broader knowledge as we sample different styles of beverages, vegetables, and meats.

Regional cuisines and diverse cooking styles offer us enlightened viewpoints, and our appetites reflect these experiences.

During our college years, we may be partial to light-lager beer.

Then, later in life, perhaps an appreciation for the smoky, woody depth of bourbon whisky takes hold.

Do our taste buds evolve, or is the process affected by cultural influences and psychology?

Continue reading as we explore the factors behind the "acquired taste" phenomenon.

Understanding Taste Perception

Our taste buds are sensory organs located on our tongues.

These receptors communicate the information flow to our brains, describing what different foods and drinks taste like.

The taste buds pick up and translate what we know as sweet, sour, salty, and savoury.

These receptors aren't uniform, though.

They have varied sensitivity to different flavours, and this variance isn't evenly distributed amongst individuals.

Some folks are more sensitive to sweetness, influencing their preference for doughnuts, brownies, and other desserts.

While other people's taste perception steers them to the bitter side, they might prefer dark chocolate over milk chocolate.

Ageing's Effect on Taste Perception

We experience diminished taste sensitivity as we age.

The number of taste buds we have decreases over time.

The buds that remain tend to lose sharpness and shrink.

These changes often cause a reduced ability to pick up subtle flavours.

Tastes that used to make us perk up have lost their kick and seem less vibrant.

While formerly subtle ones now seem too intense for us to bear.

The Role of Aroma in Taste

Our sense of smell is closely linked to our taste perception.

Have you noticed that your sense of taste becomes muted when you have a stuffy nose or cold?

Foods suddenly have significantly less kick; they seem bland, almost like they were diluted with water or milk.

This is because our taste senses closely align with our olfactory senses, the receptors responsible for detecting aromas.

Much of what we " taste" is due to our ability to smell. If our olfactory is diminished, our taste buds experience similarly reduced capacity.

If you have an initially negative opinion of a dish based on aroma, perhaps it wasn't cooked properly.

The food might be close to or past its expiration date.

The Psychology of Acquired Taste

Repeated exposure, also called habituation, decreases our intensity of taste perception.

This plays a significant role in the development of acquired tastes.

Familiarity with certain flavours gradually diminishes our initial unappealing reaction to certain dishes.

Our dislike of particular foods may have resulted from early experiences, perhaps things going on alongside the first tasting.

Our parents might have been mad at us for something we did, or the food might have been prepared incorrectly.

These situations could have planted a negative connotation in our minds.

Peer pressure from our childhood friends could also be a factor.

Evolving Taste Preferences

We underestimate the power emotions have on our psyche.

Pleasant childhood memories linked to certain foods or activities stick with us.

The overall experiences we have while consuming foods have a strong influence.

Think of your favourite birthday cakes or those special Christmas cookies grandma made.

Were they really so unique?

Or was it that you woke up and found that new shiny red bicycle you had been dreaming about under the Christmas tree?

Many people have opposing opinions on green vegetables such as spinach or peas.

Sure, kale is mildly bitter, but the others aren't so bad.

They all have a beautiful shade of green, a trait many people love about food: vibrant colours.

We love spicy food like red and green peppers partly because of their appearance.

The colours pique our curiosity, and we have to try them.

The same idea goes for healthy fruits like peaches, strawberries, and blueberries.

Some would say a higher power created them with those colours so that we would gladly eat these healthy superfoods.

Overcoming Challenging Flavours

Acquiring appreciation for the many nutritious foods that bring intense initial reactions is a process.

It takes time and repetition.

The key is understanding the reasons for these aromas or flavours.

Fermentation, for example, preserves food and changes the profile to tangy or sour.

Seafood has certain aromas partly due to the oils that benefit our health.

While these aromas and tastes might initially put us off, we learn and adapt.

We find out how to prepare the dish with unique sauces or seasoning mixtures more agreeable to our palettes.

Studies show that a diverse diet promotes a healthy microbiome in our gut.

This reduces the inflammation commonly associated with the onset of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

By overcoming the food-related habits formed earlier in life, you open yourself to new sources of nutritional balance and life-extending benefits.

Something we can all agree on is food for thought.