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How do genetics, culture, memory and early feeding experiences contribute to our food preferences? That is what food writer Bee Wilson explores in her new book First Bite. “The subtitle – How We Learn to Eat – came to me very late. It was like a revelation to me, because I didn’t believe at first that eating was something we learn. I felt as if I was carrying around this wonderful secret: that we can adjust our desires, even late in the game. To me, this changes everything” says Bee.
Seniors can learn to appreciate brand new exotic flavours, and there are tricks, as the “Tiny Tastes” technique, that can prompt young ones to eat healthy food with childish pleasure: these are some of the discoveries Bee made during her writing journey. Let's hear more.
How and when does a child's palate get formed and evolves?
The single biggest way that a child learns about flavor is through memory. The trouble is, most of the memories happen so early on, we don’t realize we have them. We become emotionally attached – almost imprinted – with foods from our mother’s diet. Even before a child is born, he or she has tastebuds and our first sips of amniotic fluid leave memories. We know that if women eat a lot of garlic, for example, amniotic fluid will actually taste garlicky. In one amazing experiment, babies whose mothers drank a lot of carrot juice in the last trimester of pregnancy preferred carrot-flavoured cereal when they took their first bites of solid food.
Why do we love some foods and disregard or even abhor others?
This is one of the great human mysteries. There’s definitely a biological component. All babies are born loving sweetness and feeling wary of bitterness (this makes sense, because milk is a very sweet substance). But there is nothing in your physiology that says you are destined to grow up and love chocolate and hate broccoli. The world of flavor is a different place for different people. For example, some people have genes that make cilantro taste soapy and gross, whereas for others it tastes herbal and fresh. Other people are ‘supertasters’, so that bitter flavours taste stronger to them. But the strongest force in forming our food desires is definitely environment. From childhood onwards, we pick up so many signals from our culture about which foods are treats (desserts) and which are duties (vegetables). Our tastes also become a strong part of identity, a way we distinguish ourselves from our siblings or friends. We say ‘I’m a carnivore’ or ‘I can’t stand liquorice’ and it becomes self-reinforcing. It’s hard to change your own likes and dislikes without a sense of loss. But it is possible.
What should parents do to raise healthy, feisty food explorers&lovers?
I have three children and now see that I made so many mistakes in the way I fed them. The single biggest thing parents can do is to make meals playful and fun. Ease up. The end goal of feeding is not to force a child to consume a plate of nourishing food that they hate, but to help them become a person who will choose good food of their own accord when they grow up, because they prefer it. I came across a wonderful new technique, pioneered over the last decade, called Tiny Tastes. It has transformed mealtimes for my fussiest eater, who now happily eats aubergines, red peppers, cabbage, almost any vegetable. The idea is that if you make the size of the new food as small as a pea or even a grain of rice, it’s possible for the child to put it in his or her mouth. You praise them, even if they lick it and spit it out. I know it sounds too simple to be true, but the odds are that if you can repeat this every day for 10 days, dislike will turn to like.
Is there any way we can change our food tastes that came together during childhood?
Yes, we can change, but it’s a question of psychology as much as nutrition. The biggest obstacle for adults changing is that we lack motivation. We don’t believe we could ever become the kind of person who enjoys different foods. We are so much more set in our ways than children. But the great news is that it’s possible to change your diet at any age, when the motivation is there. Research shows that even supertasters can learn to love bitter puntarelle and radicchio if they try them often enough in a positive way. The key is to approach it through pleasure. Instead of forcing ourselves to go ‘on a diet’ and eat foods that we do not like, the key to long term change is to change our preferences, until you reach the point where (give or take the odd plate of French fries) you actively prefer eating in a way that is good for you. I came across a study in Sweden, a ‘taste school for the elderly’ involving people with an average age of 75. With intensive cooking courses, this group started to enjoy new flavours such as fennel and sweet potato and rediscovered the joy of good meals.
How can the food professionals contribute to these processes - both shaping children's palates and reshaping adults' ones?
The problem at the moment is that the big manufacturers in the food industry are shaping children’s palates in exactly the wrong way. They push children’s products high in sugar and fat and salt, which trains children to expect all food to taste this way. But chefs and food writers have a huge power to help us to change. By reminding us of the joys of real food, they may help encourage people to new tastes. The science shows that our tastes are influenced by social conditioning. If we see someone we admire eating something we don’t like, we are more likely to try it. When we see chefs celebrating real, wholesome food, it makes us more likely to overcome our resistance and try it in our own kitchens.
Could you share some little story among your favourites about “bites&memories”?
This is just a tiny example of how emotional we all are about eating. Scientists at Purdue University gave a group of people apple juice. They found that when apple juice was heated up and presented as apple soup in a bowl, it left them much fuller than when they drank it cold, in a glass. The calories were the same but the psychology was different. I like this example because it shows how irrational our eating is, and how it happens in our brains as much as our stomachs. We think of soup as a food that will sate our hunger, and so it does, even when it’s really apple juice.