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Disgust? It’s All a Matter of Taste. Interview with Professor Paul Rozin
Photo James Schnepf / GETTY IMAGES

Disgust? It’s All a Matter of Taste. Interview with Professor Paul Rozin

If you try it, you’ll eat it, guarantees the Psychology professor, Paul Rozin. The science of taste hovers between disgust and distaste, nature and culture

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«Some people are sensitive to bitter tastes, like radices or coffee. Others don't like eggs or vegetables. Some people have a lot of categories of food they dislike, like meat and vegetables, but we really don't know why.»
This is the opinion of professor Paul Rozin, who teaches psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and is the leading expert of human reaction to food. Fine Dining Lovers interviewed him to understand where our food "taboos" come from: why we might have a physical rejection of a certain ingredient, or even to the idea of a food, without ever having tasted it.

Beyond religious dietary constrictions, which are many and varied throughout the world, and besides the personal choice of being vegetarian or vegan, personal aversions to a precise food is difficult to define scientifically or even genetically. Rozin himself, in his analyses, makes a distinction between disgust and distaste: the first is a sense, an idea that begins mentally in the moment that we discover that the apple we’re about to bite into has a worm inside.

Our disgust is not linked to the taste, but to the sense of nausea at the idea of eating it. Distate, on the other hand, is the mechanism that makes us reject a food whose taste is not aligned to our personal preferences, a sense of repulsion that is expressed by typical facial expressions of displeasure. In both cases, taste education that professor Rozin discusses works, especially when it comes to forgotten foods, or foods that have been eliminated following an intolerance after an illness. After a few tastes, usually the rejected food becomes enjoyable once again.

A way to overcome foods that we don’t like or don’t know, is to expose ourselves to them. Marketing (of an ingredient, a kind of cuisine or even a very particular chef) can help to “educate” our tastes, as Rozin explains to FDL. «Exposure leads to liking, people are going to accept more and more food, and if they have just a mild aversion –not a strong one— they might try it. So globalization is going to increase the amount of food acceptable to people. Even marketing, as long as it makes you try a food, is important in increasing the range of food people eat.»

Despite what we may think, the concept of disgust is often more cultural than scientific. As Rozin said in an article written for the University journal, Penn Arts & Sciences: «It's hard to imagine civilization and culture without disgust, the sense of what's inappropriate. If you could imagine a person who is free of disgust, it's sort of hard to imagine how they would be distinctly human. It's got to do with the modern sensibility; it is the sign of civilization.» 

Regardless of our global visions and marketing campaigns, it’s still hard to imagine not being horrified when faced with foods that we consider “inedible”: innards and offal, insects, but also intensely-flavoured herbs and strong spices can seem off-putting, as might roots or unfamiliar vegetables. Sometimes we can’t imagine eating a certain food during a certain time of day – like the tradition of eating herrings for breakfast, as people of Nordic countries do.

In cultural terms, the “health” factor (intended primarily as the desire to reduce our calorie intake) is one of the most important criteria that comes into play when we choose what to eat. But Ronzin emphasizes that these choices have little to do with disgust: «Especially the middle-upper classes of developed countries are concerned about health and food. This might affect whether they eat a food or not, but not the like or dislike. If you like a food you are going to like it anyway, it’s independent from the fact that you think it's healthy or not.» The most recent study that Ronzin is conducting alongside his team of University researchers focuses on why we tend to prefer the more natural version of a food over the industrialized version, and what this means morally and culturally.

And, whether healthy or not, even a professor has his preferences and aversions. Rozin (who created a Disgust Scale test to self diagnose our own propensity) admits to FDL that he had to educate himself to like the taste of beer despite its bitterness, but he loves pretty much all foods, «except for eggs and milk, two very common foods I don't like too much.»

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