There are people out there who actually eat durian fruit!
Named the “king of fruits” in some regions, the durian is large and has a thorn-covered rind. The fruit can grow to 12 inches long and 6 in in diameter, and it typically weighs 2 to 7 pounds. Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the color of its husk from green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species. I’ve heard the texture described as somewhere between banana and pudding.
But the most distinctive characteristic is the smell! Some people consider the durian to have a pleasantly sweet fragrance. For them, the smell evokes reactions of deep appreciation. Others find the aroma unpleasant, overpowering, even intensely disgusting.
The persistence of its odor, which can linger for hours or even days, has led many public spaces in Southeast Asia, including hotels and civic buildings, to ban the fruit. One cannot carry it on public transportation of any sort, not even motorbike taxis.
Many people, most westerners especially, feel nauseous or gag, at the sight, scent, or taste of durian. As travel writer Richard Sterling said, “Its odor is best described as pig-excrement, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” And yet, some people—many people—enjoy durian.
Why Do We Like What We Like?
So how do food preferences come about? There is a great, comprehensive article about this at That Thinking Feeling. Food preferences are determined by lots of factors including:
- Childhood experience
- Whether you’re a supertaster
- How often you’ve been exposed to the food in question
- Social context (my addition)
- Emotional factors
Generally speaking, each of our taste-detecting tongue cells ‘specializes’ in one of five flavors: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, or umami. That last is from Japanese and roughly corresponds to ‘savory.’ Contrary to what you were taught in school, no one area of the tongue specializes in anything. Besides the tongue, we have taste buds on the other mouth surfaces and in the throat.
Big Bombshell: 90% of what is perceived as taste is actually smell! (This according to Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.) But for the purposes of this blog, that isn’t relevant.
Babies prefer sweet and salty and reject the other three flavors. If the mother suffered a lot of morning sickness during pregnancy, leading to dehydration, her child will have a stronger preference for salty compared to other babies. Also, babies tend to avoid/reject new or unfamiliar foods. Babies are most open to trying new flavors between the ages of 4 and 7 months.
People ages 20-39 years old eat the most fast food on any given day.
As we grow up, our taste buds become less intense. With age, both taste and smell change.
Taste buds regenerate quickly when we are younger, but over time they don’t reproduce as quickly, or at all. Remaining taste buds shrink as we get older too, resulting in diminished sense of taste. Typically, seniors notice this loss of taste with salty or sweet foods first.
After age 60, you may begin to lose the ability to distinguish the taste of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods. The sense of smell does not begin to fade until after the age of 70; its decrease exacerbates the loss of taste for those affected.
Older adults tend to consume less energy-dense sweets and fast foods, moving toward more grains, vegetables and fruits. Daily volume of foods and beverages also declines as a function of age.
Men eat more meat and bread, while women consume more fruit, yogurt, and diet soda. Women also have higher intakes of dietary fiber and lower intakes of fat.
In general, there appears to be greater evidence for picky eating in males than females.
Men consume more fast food than women.
Some research suggests that women respond more to environmental cues regarding food. Women’s brains tend to form stronger associations between the perception of food and pleasure. Food preferences in women’s brains are more likely than men’s to develop in response to social cues and self-perception.
The affluent have more access to higher quality, nutrient dense but typically more expensive food while the underprivileged are often forced to choose cheaper, energy dense food options.
Upper class groups prefer foods that signify exclusivity and access to rare goods; while lower class groups, on the other hand, consume foods that are readily available.
On the flip side, lack of access to healthy foods can affect mental and physical performance at school and at work. This poor performance in turn makes it more difficult for people to improve their income and wealth.
Even when more nutritious foods become available, people raised in low-income households tend to buy cheaper, less nutritious foods they are familiar with. This traces back to food preferences formed in childhood.
My personal food recipe for rearing children to become eclectic eaters:
- Have children eat with adults, whatever adults eat (with the exception of caffeine and alcohol until age appropriate).
- Do not demand that a child eat any particular thing. You can’t actually make them eat, and arguments are negative all around.
- Set clear contingencies: eat everything or no dessert and no snacks before the next meal.
In the United States, food advertisers face no regulations around marketing food to children. As they grow up, children become increasingly bombarded with social and commercial messaging. The combination of nostalgia with familiarity surrounding foods eaten in childhood encourages people to maintain eating habits developed in childhood, even if those habits are unhealthy.
Picky eaters might be picky because they are supertasters. Whether or not someone is a supertaster depends on the number of taste buds on his or her tongue. One can actually see this by visually inspecting a person’s tongue.
To supertasters, the flavors of foods are much stronger than to average tasters. This often leads to supertasters having very strong likes and dislikes for different foods.
These people have more cell receptors for bitter taste. Supertasters are also more sensitive to sweet, salty and umami tastes, but to a lesser extent.
Research suggests that those on the autism spectrum may be more likely to be supertasters. People with sensory issues, including many pregnant women, may experience food aversions due to a heightened sense of smell before they even taste a food.
Repeated exposure to the taste of unfamiliar foods is a promising strategy for promoting liking of previously rejected foods.
Fewer than 8 exposures may be sufficient for infants and toddlers to increase acceptability of a food. But there may be times when a child never likes a particular food regardless of the number of exposures.
Evidence suggests that children need to be exposed to a food at least 12 times before they start to like it. It can take as many as 15 exposures for a child to get fully comfortable with a new food.
Even when eating alone, food choice is influenced by social factors because attitudes and habits develop through the interaction with others.
Sociocultural variables contribute to food selection, eating practices and purchasing behaviors.
- Reference group
- Marital status
- Societal trends
- Messages in the media
Research has shown that we eat more with our friends and family than when we eat alone. The quantity of food increases as the number of fellow diners grows.
Bottom Line: The development of food preferences involves a complex braiding of factors. Preferences develop early and are generally stable but can shift over time.