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The Science Behind How We Taste

Everyone has a preference on taste, but why? Throw in a pinch of nature, a dash of nurture, and the senses of smell, sight, and sound, and that's the science behind taste.
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Sweet or Salty?

Genetics and upbringing aside, it's not surprising that everyone has at least a little bit of a sweet tooth.

"I would say that as a species, almost everyone has some degree of a sweet preference," says Bernstein. "We are born having automatic positive responses to sweetness."

When it comes to salt preference, an unlikely factor plays a role.

"Salt has a lot of variability in terms of preference, and I don't think we know too much about it," says Bernstein. "But we did do this amazing study some years ago that found one factor that contributes to salt preference is whether or not a person's mother experienced severe to moderate morning sickness."

Bernstein, who co-authored the study, which was published in Appetite, says researchers found that the loss of electrolytes and sodium during morning sickness has an impact on the offspring's salt preference.

Training Your Taste

Training yourself to like something you despise seems odd, but whether it's lower salt intake or more fruit and vegetables, sometimes a person needs to eat foods that they may not be fond of. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.

"We can't change our genes, so some food likes or dislikes may be difficult to alter drastically," says Stein. "Repeated exposure can increase relative liking for a food but may not be able to change a disliked food into one that is liked. In other words, exposure may make a disliked food less disliked."

While repeat exposure to a food can decrease dislike, it can also increase liking. For instance, research done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that people who stick to a lower-sodium diet over time eventually prefer lower levels of saltiness in their food, explains Stein.

And of course, there are acquired tastes, such as caviar.

"If you really hate something, having it over and over again may not change it," says Bernstein. "But we know people develop tastes for something -- in social settings you have to eat things you may not like but eventually, you acquire a taste for it."

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