Science Figured Out How Taste Preferences Change

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Here's a fun mental exercise to do if you have some down time at the office: Think about one of your greatest fears. Not something innate like "falling from a great height," but more along the lines of "bear attacks" or "swimming in open waters" or "creaky abandoned houses" or "commitment to another person for an extended period of time." Now take that fear, scan through your memory banks, and try to figure out where it originated from.

Was it a bad camping experience or watching Werner Herzog's face as he listened to the bear attack in "Grizzly Man"? Is your fear of ocean swimming based on seeing "Jaws" at too young and impressionable of an age? Was it that abandoned house down the block you snuck into as a kid that now makes sleeping with the lights off unbearable? Did a bad relationship cause you to never trust anyone ever again?

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Most every fear we have is based on an experience that's occurred during our lifetimes. We are information-based creatures. Collect the info, analyze it using your body's various systems, use it in future decisions. This is how we are wired. And this learn-and-react behavior, it turns out, is also how we develop preferences to certain flavors. (Eat something, enjoy it, eat it again.) But, as no doubt you've experienced at some point in your lifetime, our taste preferences can also undergo an extraordinary change. (Eat something, hate it, eat it again, hate is a little bit less, eat it another time, actually like it, eat it some more.)

While this getting-used-to-once-hated-foods trait is known on an anecdotal level, there hasn't been an actual scientifically-verified reason for how this process works in our bodies:

Among the most widely observed, but poorly understood modifiable behavioral phenomena is that dietary experience can alter taste preferences. This is essential for survival, since animals from insects to humans have to respond to a changing food environment. Alterations in taste are well known in humans, as people from the Far East have different taste preferences than people from the West. Individuals who move from one culture to another typically learn to accept the local foods, some of which were originally aversive.

That is, there wasn't a good understanding until now.

To answer the question of just what physical changes take place during a change in taste preferences, scientists at UC Santa Barbara turned their attention on our annoying little friends the fruit fly, and messed with their diets by adding the food additive camphor to the mix.

What happened was somewhat predictable:

Initially, when they've never seen camphor before... they'll avoid it. They won't like it. But if they don't have the option to eat more attractive foods and camphor is in the diet for a long time, which to the flies is only a couple of days, they will accept it.

But what happens to their bodies when they accept it?

The main reaction is in the Transient Reception Potential-Like channel, a grouping of ion channels located near cell plasma membranes that "mediate a variety of sensations like the sensations of pain, hotness, warmth or coldness, different kinds of tastes, pressure, and vision." When the flies are exposed to the camphor for a period of time, the TRPL is dulled by an enzyme called E3 ubiquitin ligase. From there, synaptic connections that give the fly "oh, no, get it out of here!" reactions begin to decrease. With the barriers broken -- almost like a "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"-esque erasing of previous memories about the camphor -- the flies chow down without any problems. Theoretically, then, human taste preferences react in the same way.

Which is all fun ScienceSpeak gobbledygook and all, but what does this mean for us humans in reality?

For humans this might translate to mean that repeated exposure to disliked food over a period of weeks or months may result in the eventual acceptance of that food.

In other, more usable words: If you're trying to impress a potential partner with your worldly sensibilities but just can't get over the taste of Indian food, or are trying to cut down on the burgers and up your intake of the (I'll say it, nearly-inedible) kale, then don't give up. Keep on plowing through. And soon enough, what was once impossible for you to choke down, will be no problem at all.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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