Can We Train Ourselves to Enjoy the Foods We Hate?
Kale is king. With its reputation for being one of the most nutritious plant foods known to man, ingesting copious amounts of it seems like a no-brainer. Except for one minor detail: Its taste. While many self-proclaimed foodies happily blend and glug down jugs of this so-called superfood for breakfast, others can’t even bear the thought of trying.
Which brings us to an interesting question. Can we train ourselves to enjoy the foods we hate? And is it possible to develop a sincere love for a specific food, like kale, just because we know it’s good for us? Or are our taste preferences so deeply ingrained in our being that we shouldn’t even bother trying? While research on this rather complex subject is still limited, there is hope. Here’s how, with an open mind and a lot of determination, most of us can retrain our taste buds to love the foods that are good for us.
How do food preferences develop?
But before we get to the action steps, let’s have a look at some of the ways in which food preferences develop in humans.
Exposure during pregnancy and lactation
In a study published in Pediatrics in 2001, 46 pregnant women in the last trimester of pregnancy were given either water or organic carrot juice to drink at specified times and intervals during pregnancy and later lactation. Then, approximately four weeks after cereal was introduced to the infants’ diets for the first time, they were filmed while being fed cereal prepared with water, and on another occasion, the same cereal prepared with organic carrot juice.
The outcome? According to the research team “…infants who had exposure to the flavor of carrots in either amniotic fluid or breast milk behaved differently in response to that flavor in a food base than did non-exposed control infants. Specifically, previously exposed infants exhibited fewer negative facial expressions while feeding the carrot-flavored cereal compared with the plain cereal, whereas control infants whose mothers drank water during pregnancy and lactation exhibited no such difference.” It, therefore, appears that what your mother ingested during both pregnancy and lactation may have a significant impact on your own taste preferences.
The neophobic period in children
Secondly, many children go through what is referred to as a “neophobic period.” This is a phase in which a strong aversion is expressed by the child towards any new foods and tastes. And while many parents think that this issue will resolve itself, experts warn that, without a gentle intervention from parents, neophobic kids may grow into super fussy eaters. So do your kids a favor and expose them to a wide variety of colors, tastes, and textures from an early age.
‘Flavor flavor’ learning
A form of Pavlovian conditioning, ‘flavor flavor’ [sic] learning is another way in which our taste biases develop. If, for example, you drink a certain type of soda for the first time, you might enjoy it because you already have a fondness for sweet things. Then, the more you drink this particular soda, the keener you might become on its other gustatory characteristics.
In the words of Professor Anthony Scalfani from the Psychology Department of Brooklyn College, “when we’re talking about real foods … most of the preferences are learned.”
A potential obstacle to retraining your palate
Which is great news if you want to teach yourself to like healthy foods, right? And while changing food preferences is perfectly possible for most people, there is one thing that could potentially stand in your way: Being a supertaster. A small portion of the earth’s population (possibly up to 25%) have taste buds that are super sensitive to bitter tastes, like coffee, grapefruit juice, and dark green vegetables. And while the jury is still out on the possibility of changing supertasters’ taste preferences, it doesn’t seem likely. (To find out if you fall in this category, take one of these tests.)
Tips for retraining your palate
Ready to take action? Here are some tips for retraining your palate to love the foods that are good for you:
- Increase your exposure to the healthy foods you want to learn to love and decrease your exposure to non-nutritious foods. According to a review published in Chemosensory Perception in 2015, “shifts in salt preference are thought to occur as a result of adaptation to what eventually becomes familiar.” And while there is some variation in the length of time it takes to become familiar with new tastes, the study’s author states that “findings generally suggest that at least several weeks are needed.” So go into the process knowing that there is no quick fix. Retraining your taste buds will take time – have the patience to make it happen.
- Learn to love new tastes by combining it with tastes that you already love. And no, this isn’t the green light to drench your broccoli in ranch sauce laden with chemicals! A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013 showed that “2 of 3 preschoolers preferred vegetables lightly misted with small amounts of sweetener to plain vegetables.” In addition, serving lightly sweetened vegetables to preschoolers over a four-week period also resulted in an increased vegetable intake compared to preschoolers served plain vegetables. So find a healthy, all-natural seasoning that you like, such as cinnamon, garlic or nutritional yeast, and liven up that veggie that you can’t stand.
- Find what it is that you don’t like about a specific healthy food, and change that. Does the strong taste of kale put you off? Combine it with other, more pleasant tastes to create a delicious smoothie. Is the texture of soaked chia seeds too much to bare? Blend it up in a smoothie bowl instead. And do you find the smell of blanched Brussel sprouts overwhelming? Try popping it under the grill with strong-smelling garlic.
- Find new ways to cook or use that loathed veggie. Still haunted by visions of the bland, watery cabbage dished up way back in boarding school? Play around with completely different ways to cook and serve it up. Sites like Pinterest contain a wealth of tried-and-tested recipes – just type in a keyword and off you go.
A long-term project
So if you’re not a supertaster, take heart. It is indeed possible to, over time, change your taste preferences for the better. Just know that it won’t happen overnight. Just like running, which rewards the patient and consistent, an attempt at changing one’s palate is certainly not a short-term project. Good luck!
- Turn Foods You Hate Into Foods You Love With This 5-Step Palate-Hacking Plan, Online publication, May 22, 2015 ,
- Healthy food: can you train yourself to like it?, Online publication, Feb 26, 2013 ,
- 10 Health benefits of kale, Online publication, Jun 29, 2018 ,
- Taste the difference: How our genes, gender and even hormones affect the way we eat, Online publication, Nov 11, 2010 ,
- Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants, Scientific journal, Jun 01, 2001 ,
- Shifting human salty taste preference: Potential opportunities and challenges in reducing dietary salt intake of Americans, Scientific journal, Sep 01, 2015 ,
- Multi-Level Interventions To Improve Vegetable Consumption in Children, Study presentation, Feb 15, 2013 ,