Taste Buds Rule — Our Evolving Food Preferences



People change their mind all the time. For instance, I used to sport the bleached blond hair/multiple ear piercings look. (Note: this was pre-Guy Fieri. Hell, it was pre-Food Network.) I once bought a Cinderella cassette (Long Cold Winter, perhaps the best hair-metal concept record ever). And I used to absolutely hate — hate! — bananas, Dr. Pepper and cinnamon.

But, as most thinking people are apt to discover, your tastes and preferences (and maybe even your prejudices) tend to change as the years go by. I now drive a sensible sedan. My hair is back to its natural color, and I've grown a beard. I've learned that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Oh, and I now love Dr. Pepper, have a begrudging respect for 'nanners and go absolutely gaga over cinnamon.

To quote Jerry Seinfeld, cinnamon "should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, 'Oh, this is so good. What's in it?,' the answer invariably comes back, 'Cinnamon.' Cinnamon! Again and again!"

Which got me to thinking. Why do I like cinnamon so much now, when not but a few years ago I'd have sooner eaten my Sauconys? After doing extensive research (OK, so I poked around the Internet for an hour or so), I'm pleased to report I have the answer.

It turns out I'm just getting old.

Here's how it works: Most of us have between 50 and 150 taste receptors on our tongues, which are clustered in our taste buds. Depending on how many taste receptors you have, you may prefer salty or spicy foods (as yours truly), or you may end up preferring more bitter foods, sugar substitutes and things like dry red wine.

People who have a higher number of taste receptors on their tongues are known as super-tasters and often get categorized as "picky eaters." These folks tend to love some foods and despise others (they may also use more salt than others, to mask the taste of bitter foods). People with fewer receptors are categorized as non-tasters, meaning they'll eat most anything you shove down their throats. Some call these people red-state voters. (Rimshot!) But I digress.

If you're curious to find out which type of taster you are, suck on a blue snow cone or piece of candy, or use a drop or two of blue food coloring. The blue dye will enable you to see the small bumps, or papillae, that contain your taste receptors. Take a piece of notebook paper, and tear off a corner containing a binder hole. Place it over your tongue, and count the number of little dots that you see inside the hole. Super-tasters will, on average, have 35 or more. Average tasters have between 15 and 35, and non-tasters have less than 15.

According to commonly accepted studies, some 25 percent of Americans are "super-tasters," and another 25 percent are "non-tasters." Most Americans, the remaining 50 percent, are located somewhere in the middle.One's sense of smell also figures strongly in this trigonometry of taste. Try drinking coffee or eating chocolate while holding your nose. You'll be able to taste the bittersweetness of both, but the real experience will come across as rather half-baked. (Speaking of which, smokers of any variety stand to lose much of their sense of taste with regular toking.)

Ever see chefs huffing and puffing while tasting their food? Ever make fun of all the swishing and gasping and whooshing that goes on at a wine tasting? Why, they're just cleansing the ol' palate. (OK, so maybe they're showing off just a bit, too.)

In fact, taste and smell cells are the only cells in the nervous system that are regularly replaced. And this, more so than anything else, determines the kinds of foods we like. New taste receptors are replaced continually, sometimes as often as every 10 days. This is why a kid may decide he hates crowder peas when he's a teen but later attack them with farm-to-table fervor.

Of course, as with everything else, things tend to diminish as one ages. Some taste receptors will cease to grow back after one hits middle age, which we may well have to thank for older suburbanites fetishizing wood-smoke barbecuing, dry red wine and boutique hot sauces.

So take it easy on your young'uns the next time they refuse to eat their vegetables — it's not all their fault. (Research also points to presentation playing a part, so try not to serve meals consisting of five or six shades of green or brown.)

That said, you gotta stay on 'em. Who knows? Perhaps one day, they'll become a gourmry, a Michelin three-star chef or an organic, heirloom-variety farmer. Then again, maybe they'll continue to eat Beefaroni and drink Mountain Dew Code Red till the end of their days.

As the old saying goes, there's no accounting for taste.

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