The Science Behind Acquired Taste

In life, one way or the other, you have probably eaten broccoli. After all, broccoli a superfood! One cup is chock-full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

But, do you like broccoli? Do your eyes convey the same longing as Louie when viewing this cruciferous vegetable? The answer behind why you like broccoli –or force it down– is rooted in science: the science behind acquired taste!

Louie may not have the bitter gene
Louie loves broccoli

HUMAN TASTE PERCEPTION

The great range in human taste perception between people makes taste unique among the senses! Sensitivities of vision, hearing, touch, and smell vary too, though only modestly from person to person. To survive, our ancestors needed to live in basically the same sensory world as today. We’re all fragile, warm-blooded bodies, after all.

EYESIGHT
The cones of our retinas tend to detect the same color wavelengths that have always been present on our planet. Human eyes are most sensitive to the color ranges of GREEN, a highly developed wavelength of light on Earth.
More about eyes here
HEARING
The cochlea, the snail-shell shaped organ in the inner ear, picks up common levels of noise and pitch range around us.
SMELL
The olfactory epithelium in our noses discerns a similar array of incoming smells. (not all of them pleasant, but similar just the same!)
VISION, SOUND, AND SMELL ARE MORE UNIFORMLY DEPENDENT ON OUR ENVIRONMENT
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Olfaction gets a protective nod, without question. While olfaction is specialized in the detection of volatile chemicals around us, taste is restricted to the detection of contact-chemicals.

The tongue acts as one of our gatekeepers by helping us distinguish between good and noxious substances and consequently guiding our food choices. 

TASTE AND SMELL

Through the process of evolution, the perception of taste (along with smell) provides humans with a dietary advantage. Today, taste may indicate whether a particular food is corrupted and potentially harmful for consumption. 

Kevin (below) will survive to tape another episode of The Office!

This guy has bitter taste receptors
credit women.com

Smell is key and intertwined with taste, but exploring these interrelated senses would make this post WAY too long.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND ACQUIRED TASTE

Gustatory chemosensory perception’ is a mouthful! This means discerning taste stimuli. (stimuli = food and drink)

Taste chemically tests everything that enters our mouths. That’s why taste was molded by what our ancestors consumed over the eons. 

Taste doesn’t live in one sensory world!

This is especially true of the taste we call bitter.

Best science blog for kids
TASTE IS OUR WATCHDOG...LIKE LOUIE!

BITTER FLAVOR RECEPTORS

BITTER ORIGINATED AS A BIOLOGICAL WARNING SYSTEM TO KEEP TOXINS OUT OF OUR BODIES!

Sea anemones, which first appeared 500 million years ago, sense and vomit bitter substances! Fruit flies and even bacteria can detect bitter compounds.

Plants produce most of the world’s bitter substances.
The # of plant species on Earth ~ 391,000!
The number of bitter compounds is unaccountable!
The reason plants are bitter in the first place is that they don’t want to be eaten.
Our taste for bitterness is a result of this diversity.
To date, scientists have isolated 25 bitter receptor variations
Remember, we all have different combinations of this receptor, written into our DNA. This creates a lot of sensitivity and nuance in taste, as well.
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The bitter taste receptor has been found and named TAS2R38. It’s located on chromosome # 8, but not everyone has this gene!

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Do you have this gene?

Taste is not universal!

What an interesting fact! This seems intuitive, but this notion was not conclusively proven until the 1930s.

Taste is an inherited trait, proved by Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. Inherent traits range from flower colors all the way to baldness!

Flower colors are inheirited
Color is inherited
Bald genes are inheirited
If you looked like this guy, I expect you wouldn't care about being bald!

TASTERS AND NON TASTERS

Initially, there were ‘tasters’ of the bitter gene and ‘non-tasters.’ With human spread across our globe, different habitats and climates led to different food choices. Survival challenges grew the division between tasters and non-tasters.

Depending on where populations migrated to factored into how this gene evolved.

Today, studies have shown that in northeast Britain, nearly 1/3 of the population can barely taste bitterness.
Perhaps this accounts for a preference for darker beers! (I don't like dark beer, so this is a pic of a lighter variety...maybe I have the bitter gene?!) Do you like dark beer?
More on bitterness and beer here
The Inuit of Greenland are among the least bitter-sensitive, perhaps because there’s so little bitterness in their traditional diets?
(Raw fish but probably not the best representation...)
Small variations in this gene’s sequence account for vast differences in a persons’ ability to taste bitter!
25 T2R bitter receptors have been identified in humans
Click Here
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Not all bitter compounds are poison. Willow bark has a bitter compound, salicin. Salicin, the precursor of aspirin, is useful as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory agent, and antipyretic. (Lots of As!) 

Some forms of bitter insensitivity enhance survival, too!  

 

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We like As!
Salicin in willow bark
Doubtful this willow tree looked the same in the II millennium BC. It still had salicin though.

COFFEE AND CHOCOLATE!

The reason coffee is ‘an acquired taste’ is that coffee has several bitter compounds. Most notable is caffeine! (more on the science of coffee and caffeine here!)

Raw coffee beans don’t have much taste. Roasting the beans is what teases out the bitter flavors. It’s a delicate process, so finding a balance is key.

Cocoa beans are the opposite. Raw, they’re quite bitter. They have different flavor profiles, depending on where they’re grown, dried, and fermented. Hence the vast array of different chocolate flavors!

One of our ancestors stuck with it though. Maybe someone without the bitter gene!

Science Up Your Coffee
Coffee has bitter compounds. Chocolate does too!

BITTER RECEPTORS WARD OFF INFECTIONS

Bitter chemicals aren’t limited to plants.
Some are released by bacteria.
Super-tasters—people who can detect tiny amounts of bitterness—may have an edge when it comes to warding off upper respiratory tract infections.
Click Here
Bitter taste receptors (TAS2Rs) actually help people with asthma.
These receptors in the lungs induce more open airways and reduce allergen inflammatory responses. TAS2Rs are under investigation for treatment of asthma!
Click Here
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SWEET RECEPTORS

I think you’ll all agree that sweetness is a powerful motivator!

Sugars are the foundation of the earth’s food chain. Made by plants during photosynthesis, sugar molecules contain the sun’s energy. 

Plants create fuel via photosynthesis
Sugar = Fuel!

Because sugars are so useful, it’s rare to find them in concentrated forms within nature. Nature spread the wealth! Hence, most animals don’t need concentrated sugar. Including us!

(You won’t find any of the desserts below hanging from a plant!) 

OK, yes, I ate the missing cinnamon roll. 

We’re dependent on sugar for our big brains to use as fuel. Maybe this rationale is why our sweet receptors (T1R3 combined with T1R2 ) can recognize all kinds of sweet substances including natural sugars, artificial sweeteners, and D-amino acids.

sugar receptor sensitivity has backfired
I have convinced myself this cookie is healthy.

This, it turns out, has backfired.

When you take the sugar out of its natural sources (fruits, for example) you are missing out of a multitude of fibers, vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants that help to balance the sugar intake, and provide health benefits. You made a drug! Congrats!

Sugarcane, the world’s primary source of refined sugar for thousands of years, needs a warm climate to proliferate. Since it is easy to transport without spoiling, sugar traveled along with man in their great migration.

overload of refined sugar
Sugar overload much?
sugar cane production
Originated in SE Asia...a world gone mad for sweet!

WHITE GOLD

Called white gold by British colonists, sugar’s monetary value remains today. Sugarcane is the world’s third most valuable crop.

Dating over 2500 years ago there were parables about the Buddha enjoying sweet treats.

Twelfth century theologian Thomas Aquinas must have had quite a sweet tooth. He wrote that eating sugar would not break a religious fast because sugar was a medicine. 

The Science Behind Acquired Taste
He probably didn't have macarons but whatever he ingested had the same effect!

Medicine for our dopamine receptors!

SWEET RECEPTORS AND DOPAMINE

Studies have shown a link between sugar and dopamine. Dopamine is famous! Dopamine is a chemical that ferries information between neurons. 

This chemical plays a role in how we feel pleasure and happiness. Dopamine is a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan: it helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.

 

Neurotransmitters dopamine
Basic diagram of a neutrotransmitter at work

When we eat sugar, the sugar molecule locks onto the dopamine receptors. Dopamine is released, reminding us that we feel good. 

This is a perfect example of  the phrase too much of a good thing can  <whatever the end of the phrase is.>

When we eat too much sugar, the sugar affects the dopamine receptors in our brain, resulting in the brain producing huge surges of dopamine.
This is similar to the way the brain reacts after ingestion of substances like heroin and cocaine.
More info here
When our levels of Dopamine are depleted, the effects of the negative neurotransmitters are more pronounced.
With constant stimulation of the opioid receptors on the nerves, they become desensitized
Article here
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I’m not going to preach to you about the evils of excessive sugar consumption and how it wreaks havoc on our bodies, including teeth. Moving on… 

UMAMI RECEPTORS

Umami is real!

Controversy surrounded the idea of umami as a primary taste until tas1R1 + tas1R3 was shown to code for the umami receptor, proven in 2007.

Umami is the Japanese word for the savory taste of amino acids, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG).
The essential amino acid lysine triggers this receptor. Lysine is concentrated in proteins such as red meat, fish, and eggs, but can be found in plants as well
Essential amino acid (EAA)means that our bodies don't produce them. We need EAA for proper brain and body functions.
That means we need to ingest foods with lysine every day to replenish our supplies.
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In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. Our umami taste receptors are urging us to seek out these essential foods. In case you’re wondering, here’s a short list….

Lysine-Rich food options
Self explanatory!

Herbivores such as giant pandas have lost functional versions of the T1R1 gene codes for umami taste receptors. (article here). This is why you often see pandas enjoying bamboo instead of steak.

Giant Pandas don't have the umami receptor
Giant Pandas don't have the umami receptor

SALT RECEPTORS

Salt taste receptors and how they affect us is the least understood of the five taste receptors! This seems strange, considering that salt is, well, salt. NaCl.

Salt adds nuanced flavor to food
Salt adds a surprising nuanced flavor to foods

Salt receptors are divided into two types, based solely on salt concentration. Salt concentration? That’s interesting.

As late as 2016, using poor mice again, scientists discovered that salt receptors are subdivided into two separate populations, based on the size of the salt molecules we ingest.

Low concentrations of sodium, which are typically attractive, are detected by one type of receptor cell...
High concentrations of salt, which animals try to avoid, are sensed by a completely different pathway.
Click Here
Salt isn't all bad!
Without Na+, neurons and muscle cells would not be able to generate electrical impulses , the intestinal absorption of nutrients would be undermined, and the kidneys would not work properly.
Salt plays an important role in enhancing flavor in cooking and baking!
Salt contributes to overall flavor. Salt controls the fermentation rate of yeast. (for baking) Salt has a strengthening effect on the gluten protein in the dough. Salt is a preservative, too.
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The reason we have two types of salt receptors is –clearly– to keep us from eating too much.

In 2019, a study using healthy adults showed that subjects who were less sensitive to salty taste reported consuming more bakery and salty baked products, saturated-fat-rich products, and soft drinks than hypersensitive subjects. (OUCH!)

Sue Berk Koch salad nicoise
Low salt, low fat, low sugar

                  versus

Rainbow Cake
High fat, high sugar

For a more sensitive palate, eating less salt is an intuitive choice. (Not to mention the health issues!)

SOUR RECEPTORS

Sour taste detection functions as an important sensory input to warn against the ingestion of acidic food sources,(more here) meaning, unripe and spoiled.

 

It would follow that scavengers, also known as carrion eaters, don’t have this receptor! 

Eagles, hawks, crows, ravens, and vultures all eat carrion.
mammals without the sour receptor for taste
Hyenas, coyotes, opossums are a few examples of scavenger species.

THE FIVE TASTE RECEPTOR TYPES ARE NOT JUST ON THE TONGUE

The receptors for bitter, sweet, and umami are not limited to the tongue!

These receptors are also found in the intestines, stomach, pancreas, respiratory tract, and even sperm! (This can be cited in many articles but here’s one for you.)

not all our taste receptors reside on our tongues
My tongue works just fine!
Taste Receptor on tongue
Gustatory cranial nerves are VII, IX and X

Pathogens, tumors, and allergens are detected with great sensitivity and specificity by the immune system. Considered a sixth sense by some, the immune system is a means to signal and mobilize the body’s response to invasion. 

Understanding how and why the immune and nervous systems communicate in a bidirectional pathway has been fundamental to the development of the psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) field. Taste is a big part of self-regulation!

THE SCIENCE BEHIND ACQUIRED TASTE

As I’m sure you already concluded, our diet plays a big role in our taste receptors working the way they were meant to!

It is remarkable that food quality and intensity can be coded by just 5 basic tastes! And our individual coding is the backbone behind the science of acquired taste.

The science behind acquired taste is far more complex than I realized. (Which is why there are so many article links in this post!)

Friends in crowd
The Science Behind Taste is Amazing!

THE WHY BEHIND OUR FOOD CHOICES

Why do we taste?
Acquired taste starts in our DNA

Biochemists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists will continue to explore how we perceive taste. Chefs, agriculture and food technologists, and behavioral psychologists make contributions to the whys behind the flavor of foods as well.

One thing is certain; taste perception is as individual as we are!

THE SCIENCE OF TASTE IS NOT BLACK AND WHITE!

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65 thoughts on “The Science Behind Acquired Taste”

  1. Surprised to see you use the term, “superfood” as that’s just a marketing ploy to sell a new fruit or vegetable every year or so.

    A few years back I went to a beer making class with my partner and their parents. We were given a job to to chew and taste which was meant to be sweet. I was the only one that couldn’t taste any sweetness, it just tasted like flour to me. It was suggested that I lacked the enzyme that breaks down food so I’d be able to taste sweetness in foods, which would explain a lot about my eating habits if true

    Reply
    • Yes, I did succumb to the ‘superfood’ ploy, sorry! (Broccoli has a lot of benefits, though) So intriguing about your taste perceptions! Maybe you were eating a lot of sugar at that time and fatigued your receptors? Has this changed since you took the class?

      Reply
      • I have a long history of issues with food, and about 20 years of having an eating disorder, which I blog about. The one consistent thing is that a lot of dishes I try all taste the same and are all a bit bland. Also, what most people I know taste is being super sweet isn’t that sweet to me, meaning I tend to eat a tonne of sugary stuff, at least during my binge eating stage of my eating disorder

        Reply
  2. This was an excellent post. Lots of good information but made me laugh a lot especially Louis and Kevin. This doesn’t mean I’m gonna change my salt consumption but I can blame it on my parents at least. Keep up the good work. Love seeing these every couple weeks. Mike

    Reply
  3. This is very interesting and so true. I love to eat healthy and so somehow I have trained myself to see all healthy foods as delicious and unhealthy foods as disgusting. I wasn’t always like that but I had issues with my stomach for years and then when I changed my eating habits it all changed. Now I see certain foods and it is associated with a stomach ache so I no longer desire them. Thanks for the insight!

    Reply
  4. This is such an interesting post. I have always been fascinated with how one person can love the taste of something whilst the next hates it. It was really interesting to read the science behind this.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Amy. You must have a hypersensitivity to capsaicin too! (the molecule that creates the spice in spicy foods!) Since spicy is not one of the five main receptors, I didn’t cover it in this post. Interestingly, birds do not have any response to capsaicin, enabling them to transport the seeds.
      Capsaicin is nonpolar, meaning doesn’t dissolve in water. That’s why drinking water does nothing to alleviate the heat. Maybe you’re a supertaster for bitter, too!

      Reply
  5. I can’t think of a single food that I don’t like. I like cilantro, broccoli, salty, sweet, spicy. I never understood how people can be so picky. Starting to make sense now though. Great info!

    Reply
    • How intriguing! You must have balanced receptors, nothing on the higher sensitivity end? (I’m just guessing of course) The fact that genetics plays a role in taste perception makes a lot of sense.Thanks, Brooke.

      Reply
  6. Very interesting, Sue. You’re reminded me about the salt, sour, sweet and bitter tongue receptors. And that it’s possible to trick them if you place something salty on a sweet receptor, for example. Thank you for the trip down memory lane – and for such a detailed post!

    Reply
    • You’re so welcome! I did read several articles about ‘tricking’ ones’ receptors. (This post was getting so long that I had to make choices to omit some fun topics, alas!) I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks.

      Reply
  7. I always wondered why my taste in food changed overtime. I remember when I couldn’t stand the taste of lentils or tomatoes! Many years later, they have become my favorite food and snack. I didn’t have the same luck with peanut butter though. I still can’t eat it hahah

    Reply
    • Like all sprouts, lentils tend to be bitter, which may mean you have super sensitive bitter receptors. Peanuts are legumes, related to lentils and soy. So that makes sense to me! Tomato acidity that could be a factor, too? Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your preferences.

      Reply
  8. This is all super interesting to me! I remember learning about the purpose of taste and how those sensory receptors worked way back in college when I was earning my anatomy & physiology degree.

    I took an ancestry DNA test last year and the bitter sensitivity gene was one of the traits that they showed in the results. I didn’t have the bitter sensitivity, which I guess is why I love bitter things like IPA beer, black coffee, and iced unsweetened black tea – I’m not overly sensitive to them.

    Reply
    • Wow, that’s so interesting, Clarissa! They coded for bitter genes and you know you don’t have them. This is far healthier for you, not to need refined sugar for bitter drinks like coffee and black teas. I’ve fought to acquire my taste for black coffee and to stop adding sugar to my tea. I hypothesize that’s because I carry bitter receptors. We’re opposites! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with bitter sensitivity!

      Reply
  9. This was really interesting. As a foodie, I think a lot about preferences and what makes some people love what others hate. I love broccoli, and coffee. Not a huge fan of the bitterness of raw cacao though!

    Reply
  10. It’s so interesting to learn about these amazing facts Susan particularly how scavenger animals can eat rotten foods cos of the absence of sour receptors and how we’ve got taste receptors in weird places like our intestines and sperm! LoL.

    I agree with taste receptors being universal and quite different. In Nigeria, a lot of foods are spicy especially in the South West. Foreigners may try these meals and complain of hotness but locals, not so much.

    Apparently, that explains a lot. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  11. Some things my wife introduced me to like Rapini were very disgusting at first, but after 25 years of marriage, I love it. Now I understand why

    Reply
  12. The idea behind the acquired taste is interesting. For me, it just means it tastes bad until you get used to it. Totally agree though – I love sushi but a lot of people don’t seem to enjoy the taste at all.

    Nancy ✨ mdrnminimalists.com

    Reply
  13. My tastebuds have definitely changed over the years… Tomatoes and baby corn were a big no-no for me for YEARS, but then only this past year when I tried them again – that I realised I’ve missed out on so much!

    Also – your blog is super cool and unique!

    Reply
    • How interesting. Tomatoes are acidic so that could have been off-putting for you but I’m unsure about corn! Nice that you’ve eased into eating them. Tomatoes have lots of vitamin A and C! I’m excited that you like my blog! Thank you.

      Reply
  14. COVID-19 has really brought changes to taste and smell to the forefront. The diminution or elimination of tasted and smell can be a very serious complication in a person’s life, even if they don’t suffer from other serious complications of the virus.

    Reply
    • This is a sobering concern. I’d avoided the pathology taste receptors, and how covid-19 affects taste because the science behind it is in flux. The loss of taste can have devastating effect on a person’s happiness and well-being. Thank you for pointing this out!

      Reply

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Susan Berk Koch author

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