Friday, April 29, 2011

Food Preferences: Why I Love Beets and Hate Broccoli Rabe

On our Foodtrainers Questionnaire we ask new clients “what are your favorite foods (healthy or unhealthy)?” and “what foods do you dislike or prefer not to eat?” Blue cheese, beets, Brussels sprouts, spicy food, cilantro and tomatoes are often listed.  The funny thing is that they are listed as both favorite and least favorite foods.  So, did you ever think about what determines whether we adore or despise a particular food? There are a few theories.

Some feel our food preferences are an evolutionary survival skill. “The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators.” A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition gave an example that the preference for spicy foods in certain cultures was based on the protective effect of spices against microbes and food borne illness. What’s sad is that our food instincts or preferences do not seem to be keeping us safe anymore. Instead of detecting artificial or extreme tastes we are now conditioned to enjoy them. I mean, do you get more “poisonous” than diet soda?

There is also interesting research focusing on the diets of pregnant women. The theory is that we are conditioned to like what our mothers ate while pregnant or breastfeeding (brandy anyone?). One study found that the infants of mothers drinking carrot juice during their pregnancies were more accepting of rice cereal with carrot juice in it than those in a control group. We know nutrients pass through the placenta so it makes sense that tastes would too. Yet how do we explain twins or siblings with very different food likes and dislikes?

A Washington Post piece entitled “Our Taste Buds are Just One Reason We Love Some Foods and Hate Others” explained the nature versus nurture side of taste. “Culture often overrides our genes and takes over the mouth’s role as the body’s gatekeeper. Few people immediately like bitter beverages or extreme spices, but many learn to love them through repeated exposure. We often learn to like what people around us like.”  You see this often with children. They initially may reject a food only to eat it the eighth or tenth time around.  And you see tastes changing with time. I grew up disliking salty foods or certainly not seeking them out. Now? I can’t get enough. Does it have something to do with being married to a saltaholic? It might although he doesn’t like mushrooms just because I do, hmn.  

So much of nutrition has to do with what foods are good for us or praiseworthy for their vitamin content. Taste can get lost in the shuffle. At a seminar entitled “Field to Plate” on Tuesday, I learned about an interesting way to think about taste and flavor. Our host, Amanda Archibald presented vegetables in flavor profiles and flights, much like wine. Romaine, green beans, asparagus and celery were in the “Grassy” group. Mustard greens, arugula and watercress were all in the “Spicy” family.  You may be able to guess some of the "Sweet" vegetables that include snap peas, parsnips and my beloved beets. Do you tend to like one of these groups more than the others? Or perhaps you eat some of these vegetables and can branch out to another member of that group. If that’s not up your alley you can return to the prenatal argument and blame your mother for the foods you dislike.
How do you think our tastes are formed? What vegetable family do you like best? And where do you stand on blue cheese, beets and Brussels sprouts?


  1. I always hated cilantro and felt like a bit of a freak - until i read this piece in the NY Times:

    I am programmed to hate it ;-)

  2. Justine, loved that article did you know there's like 520 comments, people are serious about cilantro. Loved the carrots by the way.

  3. this is so interesting. I've heard of the love/hate cilantro relationship, (i'm a lover of it) and think it's so interesting how different people experience different tastes as being either fantastic or horrible. Also, my taste has definitely evolved over time. When I was younger, I hated mushrooms and cooked carrots (raw carrots were okay). Now I love these foods. Beets, blue cheese, and brussels sprouts -- love them all. The only vegetable I can think of that I don't enjoy is corn.

  4. Very interesting post!

    I used to dislike Brussels sprouts, beets, and asparagus when I was younger. They are really the only veggies I remember not liking. Interestingly, I started to love all three of them in my 30s.

    I think exposing kids to a wide variety of veggies, but not pushing them, may help. Well, it worked with the teenager. He has always eaten all veggies (I know I got somewhat lucky with him). The toddler seems to be more opinionated about food and what he likes and doesn't like changes frequently. But he always gets curious and tries what we are eating. I think not making special meals for kids but having them eat "regular" food also helps expose them to a wide variety of foods early on.

    Finally, my hubby didn't like many veggies when we met, but through years of exposure, he now loves pretty much all veggies! :)

  5. I am considered a freak for my dislike of ketchup, mustard and the worst Mayo! I used to have a special knife that my mom would cut my sandwichs with so that none of my sister's mustard or mayo would get near my wonderbread sandwich. As a doctor I often compare Mayo to some pretty gross things...I will refrain from sharing. However, I used to beg for brussel sprouts and salad and my sister's favorite after school snack was spinach! I also will not eat zucchini because I think it tastes like mustard!

    As for protective reasons for your dislike of food or drink...I can not even smell Southern Comfort after being "over served" in college and getting quite sick!

  6. I was never picky as a child. I ate everything. Now the only things I absolutely refuse to eat are members of the cephalopod family (octopus, squid, cuttlefish, etc) for personal reasons. I think tastes are formed when you're a child - nowadays I've noticed a lot of parents who will say things like, "All he'll eat is pizza!" Well, that's probably because you let him eat pizza all the time and give in when he refuses to eat something else. I have seen so often parents eating healthy salads and the kid with pizza - why not give the kid what you're eating? I have friends who "hate vegetables," and their parents never made them eat them as a child. It definitely starts there.

    There is not a vegetable in this world that I don't like. Well I haven't eaten all of them, but really I'll eat just about any plant :)

  7. What a great post!
    It is interesting how repeated exposures make us more fond of foods. Brussel sprouts are one of those foods for me. As a kid I would eat them but didn't love them like I do now.
    Oh and yes i LOVE blue cheese. Well, pretty much all cheeses I love!

  8. Being that I cook for a living I run into a LOT of crazy food issues. One in particular that I just cant get over is the fact that I cannot sell/move "slaw". cabbage, broccoli, carrot, beet whatever. the word "slaw" freaks my customers out if it doesn't accompany pulled pork and it's not the traditional sloppy glop mayo based stuff out of a jar. It kills me. The vegetables literally come out of our garden and come with a variety of herbs, dressings, fruit and whatever my little brain can come up with that is healthier and more appealing than slop and glop slaw. It freaks them out so much that they write me e-mails and comment cards. In my mind I am just thinking "it's completely fresh and grown ON PROPERTY and it's made by a human being... also... healthier than the alternative." It makes me crazy.

  9. oh I don't know I think my tastes quite adventurous and often change hugs I was thinking of field to plate as I was reading I so need to go to a workshop


  10. I like the stinky stuff that smells up the kitchen! asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, etc... =) and stinky cheeses too! <3

    no idea about tastes but mine are much more varied now that i'm older. I hope to expose my kids to these flavors way earlier though! I grew up on bland stuff!

    Jenn @ Peas & Crayons

  11. I was uber picky as a child and ate mostly processed white stuff as an overweight adult - and never any different cuisines.

    I have actually been able to train my tastebuds to enjoy all kinds of new things over the last couple years. Sometimes it is just a matter of finding the right cooking method.

    I love brussel sprouts now. I shred them and saute in some coconut oil with salt and pepper. Delicious!

    I am a big time cheese lover and have always been. I do prefer my blue cheese with hot wings, though LOL!

    Beets - can't do it LOL!

  12. Interesting comments, I was away from the computer most of the day. It seems pretty universal that tastes get more varied as we get older (hope for all picky eaters). I wonder what determines the tastes we cannot adjust to like beets for you lori. Sometimes it's texture or with cilantro a smell. Jen love that you say you like the things that smell up the kitchen.

  13. Something I find interesting...(first, I love most all veggies) ... I did a macrobiotic "trial" a year or so ago and thus cut out all "nightshades" for a month. At first I thought it would be hard because I ate a lot of tomatoes and red peppers. But ever since then I find I don't like tomatoes, peppers or mushrooms as much as I did pre-trial. I often wonder how much our mind plays into our taste preferences. Nutrition and health have always been a prio for me, so I wonder if that is why I tend to really like and eat a ton of veggies.

  14. A great post, Lauren. As a child I was a picky eater but my taste buds grew as I got older.

  15. Beets-yes! (But wouldn't touch them as a kid!) Brussells Sprouts-can take 'em or leave 'em. Blue Cheese -No! But my 9 yo daughter loves it. I actually like to combine flavors from the different groups. Arugala, beets, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts makes a great salad. Turnips are one of the only veggies I really don't care for...

  16. i used to be so picky as a child and now i like it all. very interesting info!

  17. My favorite comfort food was set when I was in utero. My mom, an immigrant who wasn't overly familiar with pizza, ate pizza every day of her pregnancy with me. Pizza has been my favorite food all of my life. Mom, however, got over that craving fairly quickly. She also exposed me to very spicy, heavily seasoned foods all of my life, so it's not surprising that I've always loved and craved spicy, too.

    Cilantro remains the devil's herb. One itty bitty leaf and my mouth fills with an unbearable soapy taste. Yuck.

  18. Our palates definitely evolve as we get older providing we continue to expose ourselves to broader tastes as we grow. Our palates are like art -- we start with a blank canvas and then add color and complexity as we (the painting) develop