Taste Buds Are a Part of Who We Are — And Who We Might Become
We all know picky eaters. The child who refuses cooked carrots at tonight's dinner but happily ate them just two days before. The adult with such an aversion to spicy foods that dining at the new Thai restaurant is out of the question.
While these are just examples of picky eaters, the reasons why we choose certain foods over others come down to taste.
“Research has shown taste to be one of the most influential factors concerning the food choices of individuals,” says Bethany Downing, a dietetic intern at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. “A practical application to these research findings is to promote nutritious foods as being tasty and enjoyable to eat, rather than just healthy. Promotion can include recipe development with healthy ingredients that appeal to our senses of sight, smell and taste, as well as advertising the delicious quality of many overlooked nutritious foods.”
The UTHealth School of Public Health's Dietetic Internship Program enrolls up to nine interns per year from around the nation to train them toward becoming registered dietitians.
“The interns are enrolled in a master's or doctoral degree in public health concurrently while completing 1,200 hours of supervised practice at various health care facilities around the greater Houston area,” says assistant director Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, LD. “The interns are trained to practice dietetics using evidence-based strategies, which are grounded in research. Interns are exposed to and trained in critical thinking skills and reviewing the scientific literature to guide their practice, which is important to ensure treatment success.”
In honor of March’s National Nutrition Month, Downing and other interns enrolled in the university's Dietetic Internship Program have been tasked with promoting healthy living. Downing is interested in the connection between taste and food behavior outcomes and began exploring taste bud research as a result. She says taste and taste buds are areas she would like to continue studying in the future as a registered dietitian.
What are taste buds?
According to Downing, taste buds and taste papillae are groups of neuroepithelial cells that are responsible for the ability of gustation or taste. We can't see our taste buds. The bumps we feel and see on the surface of our tongue are actually taste papillae and not taste buds, contrary to what most of us may think.
“Taste papillae are visible with the naked eye, while taste buds are collections of cells on the filiform, fungiform, foliate and circumvallate papillae,” Downing explains. “Taste buds work by creating neural signals that convey messages to the brain via cranial nerves.”
When brains receive the message from the tongue, it's translated into a taste. There are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (a meaty taste sensation).
Downing says many people confuse taste with flavor. “Flavor is the combination of taste, aroma, temperature, appearance, texture and mouthfeel,” she says. “There is a special type of smelling that occurs only while eating called retronasal olfactory sensation. While eating, the odor is forced behind the palate and into the nose.”
“Tasters” and food preferences
By nature, humans use taste to determine if something is edible (i.e., sweet or salty) from poisonous (i.e., bitter or sour). This is why humans have a natural inclination to prefer sweet foods to bitter foods, Downing says.
However, another reason we like certain foods or tastes more than others has to do with the number of taste buds we have, which can vary from person to person. If you're an incredibly picky eater and sensitive to taste, you might be a “supertaster” and thus have lots of taste buds.
“It has been said that those with the highest number of taste buds, or supertasters, are more sensitive to tastes such as bitter and therefore tend to not like the bitter component found in many vegetables and sometimes foods with high concentrations of fat because they can taste some bitterness in fat,” Downing explains.
Non-tasters have the least amount of taste buds, while those who fall somewhere in the middle are normal tasters.
Genetics also plays a role in food preferences. “The other reason why some foods taste good to us more than others is whether or not we have a genetic precursor that identifies bitter more profoundly than others,” Downing says. “Many of the beneficial phytochemicals found in vegetables contain bitter compounds, and supertasters have been known to eat fewer vegetables.”
A maternal influence?
It's so important for mothers-to-be to eat healthy foods while pregnant. After all, they are growing a baby. However, what women might not realize is that their food choices may also contribute to their developing baby's taste.
“Babies [may] begin developing a taste profile within the womb by exposure to the mother’s food choices through the amniotic fluid,” Downing says. She adds that a couple of studies have shown that a mother's food choices during pregnancy can influence the food her child accepts or refuses. “Children whose mothers consume a varied diet with bitter foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, during pregnancy may be more likely to be accepting of those foods later on in life,” she says.
Breastfeeding mothers should think about what they're eating, too. They just might have an adventurous eater one day. “The diet of the mother can change the flavor composition of breast milk, further exposing babies to new flavors,” Downing says.
Getting picky kids to try new foods
How many parents out there have a child who will only eat plain pasta or pasta with butter? Getting a child to eat pasta with marinara sauce or any new food takes practice and patience. “Children 5 to 10 years of age may require five to 10 exposures of a particular food prior to acceptance and children ages 3 to 4 years may require as many as 15 times,” Downing says. “Many parents miss out during this critical time of development of taste preferences by concluding that their child doesn’t like the food after three or fewer exposures.”
Parents should not give up on reintroducing new foods; keep trying. “My advice to parents would be to prepare small servings of the new food item and have the mindset that refusal is normal at first,” she says. “With each exposure, the barriers to acceptance will come down.”
Culture and taste
We are what we eat. Culture and the foods that are part of it play a pivotal role in our taste and food preferences. “It is our cultural environment that teaches us what foods and therefore tastes are acceptable or edible,” Downing says. “Many studies have shown that we are most likely to eat what others around us eat.”
Take for example hot peppers and spicy foods. “If hot peppers are introduced in the diet in the form of salsas, sauces or curries at a young age, they are more easily adapted to because of familiarity and cultural norms,” Downing says, adding that Mexico and regions in India are cultures that enjoy eating spicy foods. “Even many Texans have become accustomed to and even enjoy the hot sensation from eating a freshly grilled jalapeno.”
On the other end of the cultural food spectrum, if the foods eaten are loaded with fat, salt and sugar, Downing says our taste buds become desensitized to these taste sensations and leave us wanting more than what is nutritionally recommended. “This is why the typical strawberry yogurt in the United States has considerably more sugar than a strawberry yogurt in some other countries,” she adds.
Resetting our taste buds
Our taste buds come with a sort of “reset” feature: It's possible to alter our diet and preferences for salt, sugar and fat.
“I find the fact that we can reset our taste buds to be satisfied with less salt, sugar and fat to be the most interesting component of taste research,” Downing says. “For example, somebody who is used to drinking skim milk will find the whole milk to be overly creamy just as the whole milk drinker will find skim milk to taste like water at first.”
Downing advises a gradual change to foods with less salt, sugar and fat to give our taste buds time to become accustomed to less. For the milk drinker who wants less saturated fat, she suggests starting with 2% milk, then 1% milk and finally skim milk.
“Your taste buds will adjust over time,” she says.
Dietetic Specialist Laura Moore, RD, LD, from the UTHealth School of Public Health contributed to this story.