‘Yucks’ And ‘Yums’: Food Preferences And Why It Changes

Child licking lips
Nicole See

When asked about our favourite childhood snacks, many of us associate our childhood with a type of sweet. A chocolate bar, cake, dessert, or a form of candy – the cause of every child’s sugar rush episode and every parent’s worst nightmare. I remember eating spoonfuls of Nutella straight from the jar with my brother, and somehow it never felt cloying. It just kept us wanting more, which I think is quite a universal experience for anyone under the age of 10.

But if someone were to ask you to eat five whopping spoonfuls of Nutella in one go right now, you’d likely be less keen about it than when you were a child, probably dreading the nausea that would follow. My brother, who now prefers savoury food over sweets would agree. However, if you have the exception of a massive/notorious sweet tooth and a body that runs on sugar like I do, you still might.

It’s only natural that our tastes change as we grow older, but the reason behind it is not quite as straightforward as simply outgrowing certain foods

So why is it that we would go crazy over sugary drinks or snacks as kids but not as adults? Why is it that even as siblings who were born from the same womb and grew up being fed the same meals at home, we still have different food preferences? It’s only natural that our tastes change as we grow older, but the reason behind it is not quite as straightforward as simply outgrowing certain foods. Just as we graduate from school or university, our tastebuds also go through a form of ‘graduation’ at different stages of life.

During childhood, our senses, particularly in terms of taste, are heightened and are more sensitive compared to adults. Children are also known to have a stronger preference for sweetness and saltiness and an aversion to bitterness, which explains why they can sometimes be picky with food. Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center states that growing children usually prefer a more intense sweetness than the average adult, and this preference for sweetness generally lingers until late adolescence. This is because growing children need to accumulate as much energy as possible to grow into adulthood, and their palates are naturally adapted towards highly energy-efficient foods, also known as sugars. However, the secret to why children can maintain their physique while inhaling tons of sugar lies in the discovery that growing bones secrete hormones that influence metabolism such as leptin and insulin that
affect cravings, appetites, and sweet preferences.

As we transition from childhood into adolescence then to adulthood, we tend to become less picky with food because we become more adventurous eaters, and our taste experiences are widened. We are exposed to foods of different cultures that vary in taste, smell, and texture, and start to link our tastes to familiarity and memories instead of the body’s natural reactions to them. In this sense, our likes and dislikes can be shaped and altered by cultural upbringing,
diets and exposure to certain types of food, echoing Marcia Pelchat’s claim that tastes change based on exposure, motivation, and interest. For example, we can ‘train’ ourselves to consume bitter foods such as bitter gourd despite our bodies’ natural aversion to bitterness by familiarizing ourselves with its taste through a consistent intake.

Our enjoyment of food is heavily reliant on our individual perception of taste, which is why some people enjoy certain foods while others don’t

Taste in itself is quite a peculiar thing. It is not experienced through a single sense, but through a joint effort by the senses, mainly sight, smell, taste, and touch. In other words, no two people in the world experience taste the exact same way because the way each individual experiences the combination of ingredients, texture, and temperature of food is unique to themselves. Our enjoyment of food is heavily reliant on our individual perception of taste, which is why some people enjoy certain foods while others don’t. Thankfully, as youths with around 10,000 actively regenerating tastebuds (20,000 if you’re blessed!), we are still relatively sensitive to tastes and possess the ability to tell if food is generally good or bad – so if your flatmates diss your cooking skills, maybe don’t blame it on their tastebuds.

Unfortunately, this super-powered sense of taste and smell doesn’t last forever and dulls as we age, reducing our enjoyment of food. Around the age of 40, a smaller number of our tastebuds regenerate as they die, causing food to taste blander than it actually is. Studies have found that at 60, most people start to experience an increase in sensory losses such as taste and smell impairments, with its degree worsening at the age of 70. Metabolic rate aside, this is also a contributing factor to why elderly people tend to eat less than the average youth or adult.

However, these losses in sensitivity are not uniform for all the elderly but vary from person to person. For example, one of your grandparents might not be able to smell the scent of your freshly baked cookies. The other might, but might not be able to sniff out your lavender-scented air freshener. This makes cooking for the elderly a tricky affair, because adding more flavour in a certain dish might fit one person’s palate but might be too overwhelming for the other. Nevertheless, it is almost always a good idea to add that bit of salt, pepper or spices to an elderly person’s meal, as studies show that enhancing the flavour of foods for the elderly not only improves their appetite and immunity, but also their functional status and overall quality of life!

So, the next time someone yucks your yum, don’t take it to heart just yet – wait a few years, then ask them again!

Nicole See

Featured image coutesy of blue_jean via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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