Can you learn to like the foods you loathe?

Having once sampled barbecued chicken feet in China, I like to think of myself as quite adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. I’m not saying I’m keen for witchetty grubs on toast for breakfast, but I’m always open to trying new flavours. The big problem a lot of us face isn’t trying new foods, but giving them a second chance after an initial dislike. Far too many of us adopt the ‘try it, hate it, never eat it again’ policy. We become stuck with our very particular eating habits and fail to give our taste buds the chance to adapt to acquired tastes.

Examples of foods thought to be acquired tastes are: caviar, coffee, goats’ cheese, haggis, sushi, olives and oysters. How many of these have you tried only once and hated? I can definitely confess to a few. An ‘acquired taste’ refers to food or drink that is likely to be unpleasant at first taste, and can only be appreciated after being experienced several times. I guess you could think of it as a taste that is developed through habit rather than something you instantly love. Some foods are thought to take up to ten tastings before you start to appreciate them – that’s a long game of self-deception in order to convert loathing into loving. Is it really worth the perpetual display of ‘bulldog chewing a wasp’ at the dinner table simply for the cultivation of taste buds? More to the point, can you really train your taste buds to change their taste? This was something I was keen to test out…

I’ve never been a picky eater, but there are certain foods I’ve tried in the past and now avoid. These are: goats’ cheese, olives, liver, prunes and Marmite. I’m not sure why I hate them, but my taste buds can instantly detect them in any dish. Adults have around 10,000 taste buds and can distinguish between four basic tastes: bitter, sour, salty and sweet. The bitter taste buds are at the back of the tongue, the sour taste buds are at the side of your tongue, and the salty/sweet taste buds are at the front of your tongue.

I wasn’t quite ready to face the horror of a goats’ cheese platter but after reading an article on the health benefits of olives, I was keen to give them a try. In case you’re wondering, they are high in natural antioxidants, they can reduce and stabilise blood pressure, improve our gastrointestinal health, improve eyesight and can help keep wrinkles at bay. So how was I going to make make myself olive-friendly? Well, research suggests that regularly sampling tiny pieces of the food you dislike over thirty days can help you become accustomed to the taste. Repeated exposure ensures the body no longer has the fright/dislike response each time you try it, so you can train yourself to get used to it. As well as this, there’s a chance my taste buds might have naturally adapted to olives over time anyway. Taste buds constantly change as we get older. The reason that babies are extremely sensitive to foods is because they have taste buds on the sides and roof of their mouths as well as their tongue. The taste buds on the sides and roof of the mouth disappear with age (making us less sensitive), so we are therefore more likely to eat foods that we thought were too strong for us to eat as a child. I am convinced that my taste has changed over the years. As an adult, I now eat the things that repulsed me as a child – for example brussel sprouts. On top of this I’m also (thankfully) no longer interested in just eating sweets!

So, to carry out my olive experiment, I started with tiny pieces and gradually worked my way up. After a month of slowly introducing them into my diet, I’m pleased to say I’m now an olive fan – who would have thought it? I’ve gone from completely avoiding them to going to an Italian restaurant and eating them as a starter then having an olive based pasta sauce. Similarly, I never used to be a red wine fan, and now, after years of avoidance, I’ve started drinking it.

I think it’s true that our tastes can be changed, but at the same time, I think there are certain foods that we despise so much that we’ll never be able to face experimenting with them. My worst nightmare is Marmite. A lot of people have been successful in converting their taste buds, but before we praise those who can stomach the unusual, we also have to remember there are many people whose cultivated tastes are simply faked preferences in order to gain affiliation with a particular group. Some never truly enjoy what they are eating, but the desire to be an actor in a pretentious display of culture is higher than the need to genuinely please the palate. Following a food trend is a lot like fashion victims who blindly follow the latest trends without any consideration for whether the style suits them. Many simply thrive on being part of a cultural trend. A good example of this is the sushi trend – do the majority truly love the slippery sensation of the raw eel or are they confusing true preferences with pleasure in performing?

So my advice to you is this – if you don’t enjoy the food, don’t eat to perform, but for those of you who have strict lists of ‘food hates’ – be open to revise the list and revisit the foods that you think you hate. As you mature, so do your taste buds, and you’d be surprised at the foods that your palate will begin to enjoy.

Good luck with your food adventures and I’d be interested to hear about any success stories in converting your taste buds…