Children are born to seek sweet nourishment and reject bitterness -it’s a part of human survival. But by the time they are adults, they’ve learned to enjoy things like salsa, seafood, pickles, and salad. Or most do. Your diet would be pretty bland if you only ate what babies want, and it wouldn’t be good for you, either.
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Acquired tastes are part of practically every culture’s cuisine and some of the world’s most beloved dishes. Without expanding beyond innate preferences in their diet, humans wouldn’t be able to get the nutrients they need to survive. But there’s a good reason people aren’t born with a taste for bitter vegetables and fermented foods. Without knowing any better, seeking out these flavors could be deadly.
Humans have an innate aversion to decay because that odor and flavor signals that a food has gone bad, and may therefore carry dangerous pathogens. But many fermented foods (which are technically decayed) are totally safe to eat and even contain beneficial bacteria. People have no natural instinct for telling “good” decay and “bad” decay apart, so they rely on the process of acquiring taste to learn what’s good to eat. This also applies to bitter flavors, which are present in toxic plants as well as nutritious vegetables.
It’s not a matter of taste buds “maturing,” even though that what I told my kids and they bought it. It turns out to be a matter of learning. Science says that there are three components to acquiring a taste for foods we wouldn’t naturally eat: influence, familiarity, and conditioning. Mental Floss explains these components, and has some tips for those who want to learn to like a certain food. And considering the quote here, let’s have a moment for those adventurous individuals in our distant past who determined, say, which mushrooms are okay to eat and how to safely ferment food.