A Question of Taste

We often get frustrated with children’s fussiness about foods and reluctance to try new flavours, but even as adults it can take time for our taste buds to befriend new foods.

If we know a food may be good for us (or at least, not harmful), that friendship can often flourish, given time and perseverance. Take Natto for example. I tried it some years back and quickly decided that its benefits could never (ever!) outweigh the taste.  I recently revisited this food when trumpeting the wonders of probiotic foods for the “Food For Thought Group” at the Lighthouse Recovery Centre in Hove and brought some natto in for group members to try. At the first whiff (malodorous, rank, putrid…pick one) it all came rushing back to me in a not-so-sublime Proustian moment. I didn’t need to ‘re-taste’ it to recall the flavour and to remember why it hadn’t become a staple part of my diet. I was surprised that despite this, I was willing to try it again, as were many in the group. Although no one immediately succumbed to natto’s flavourful charms, there was real interest in its potential health advantages and a certain pride in having at least tasted it.

Trying natto for yourself might be a challenge too far for some, but really the best way to overcome these taste humps* (as I like to call them) is to just jump right in. It’s not so much the taste of natto – unlike anything else I know – nor the pungent bacterial pong. For me, and many others, it’s the texture that’s particulalry challenging. It’s basically mucus, and to me that categorises it as one of those foods you may have to grow up with to really accept. Even then it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing and some have argued that it’s like Marmite in that regard – or presumably Vegemite if you’re an Aussie 😉

I’m more inclined to eat natto now that I know more about gut bacteria and its relation to health, and I’d say knowing about the properties of foods is a very effective way to start getting over your own taste humps. It can be difficult to uncouple foods from the media hype and influence of food industries. On that note, I chose the link for natto’s health benefits (above) because the site is supported by Japanese food companies with an interest in promoting natto sales. My point being there’s nothing wrong with that per se – just make sure you’re aware of who’s behind the information and whether they have vested interests.

I’m now at the mid-hump stage with natto, approaching it in the same way I’d eat a sea urchin (about which another time) – in one gulp, and as quickly as possible! This, combined with some persistence, has enabled me to overcome quite a few taste humps commonly seen in childhood (at least here in the UK), including oysters, cockles and mussels, winkles, liver, Brussels Sprouts, seaweed and cod liver oil. It doesn’t mean I’ll be elbowing past someone in the fruit and veg section of Sainsburys any time soon to grab the last Brussels Sprout, and the anticipation of eating a raw oyster will probably always cause my heart to flutter. But while I may not savour these foods in the same way I do olives or goats cheese, I’m able not only to eat them without gagging, but actually do enjoy them (in small amounts). This is because the brain can adapt to taste humps, surmounting them over time if there’s enough exposure and if associations transform them into more positive taste experiences. For example, some people despise coriander and think it tastes like soap …or (apparently) bed bugs, but can change their experience of this taste even while still being able to sense the soapiness or bed bugginess. It’s especially effective if foods you’re not so keen on are combined with those you like. This seems to help the brain distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant taste associations, categorising memories accordingly and underlining the importance of context in taste perception. More about this in part 2 of this post.


* “humps” sound less negative than “aversions” and easier to overcome than “challenges”



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