What is Conditioned Taste Aversion?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 01, 2021
3 min read

Conditioned taste aversion (CTA) occurs when you associate the taste of certain foods with symptoms of an illness. Taste aversions are relatively common in humans. They are an adaptive trait that goes a long way in protecting you against eating illness-inducing things like bacteria and fungi

In children, the discovery and acceptance of tastes starts as early as three to six months. Their reaction to different tastes also evolves with age. That’s why infants are more likely to reject new foods if it results in a negative experience such as an upset stomach or diarrhea. You may notice that your child avoids that specific food in the future.

Generally, CTA arises when food consumption is followed by symptoms of sickness like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. However, a taste aversion can also arise from an illness unrelated to the food you ate. One example of a conditioned taste aversion is getting nausea or vomiting after drinking milk and then avoiding it after the incident. 

Rather than being caused by the milk, your nausea and other symptoms could have been caused by other conditions, including:

  • Pregnancy: During pregnancy, feelings of nausea or morning sickness are common. Any food aversions you develop during pregnancy can often be accompanied by appetite changes and cravings for ice or other non-foods.
  • Ear infection: Ear infections have been linked to people’s preferences for sweet and greasy foods. Studies show that 62% of people with middle ear infections are overweight. This study suggests that infections in the middle ear can partially damage your sense of taste, thus increasing the risk of obesity.
  • BulimiaPeople with bulimia often experience episodes of self-induced vomiting after eating large amounts of food. Vomit damages the fungiform papillae causing a decrease in taste sensitivity.
  • AnorexiaPeople with anorexia may have a hard time recognizing tastes or experiencing the pleasure that comes with eating food, leading to appetite loss. Individuals with anorexia also equate sweetness with weight gain and tend to avoid food.
  • Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu): Viral gastroenteritis, often called stomach flu, is characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes fever.
  • Liver failure: Individuals with liver failure may have taste impairment and experience symptoms like loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Chemotherapy: Studies show that patients receiving chemotherapy treatment form aversion towards familiar foods and beverages in their usual diet. These aversions are presumed to develop after chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Other causes of conditioned taste aversions include:

  • Motion sickness
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Rotavirus

Some of the ways you can deal with a conditioned taste aversion include:

  • Using different cooking methods: If you got sick from eating a salad, try putting your leafy greens in a fruit smoothie to avoid associating salad with an illness.
  • Repeated exposure: To avoid making negative assumptions about certain foods, try to increase your exposure to the taste.
  • Making new associations: Retrain your brain to break the association between illness and a certain food or drink. 

When Is Conditioned Taste Aversion a Problem?

While CTA is your body’s survival mechanism, it can also be a sign of a more serious condition, such as anorexia, bulimia, stomach flu, or liver failure. Consult your doctor if taste aversions affect your ability to eat a balanced diet.