Changing Tastes

This picture makes more sense if you listen to the commentary.

This picture makes more sense if you listen to the commentary.

We’re born with certain taste preferences. Some of these reflect individual variability (reaction to bitter for example), others are general human traits (children seek out sweets). Much has been made of the connection between our evolutionary interest in sweet, as well as fat and to some extent salt, and the current obesity trends in America.

The very short version is: any internal off switch for calories and fat that we might have doesn’t match our modern lifestyles of relatively little movement and no periods of scarcity (in the sense that our ancestors experienced scarcity, we still have food access issues but that’s whole different blog post). Furthermore, food manufacturers exploit this weakness by bumping up sugar, salt, and fat contents of their foods to unseemly levels. Journalist Michael Moss (Sugar, Salt, Fat) describes this as “weaponizing” junk food – making it irresistible.

Our interest in the tastes we’re born with is starting to overshadow the other side of that equation: the tastes we develop. Specifically, how our immediate food culture influences those tastes and creates an unhealthy feedback loop. As super-sugary drinks get popular, they seem normal, people who want a “sweet” tasting drink need to go sweeter, and our collective sugar content rises. It wasn’t pre-ordained that children shall drink Mountain Dew, even if we do have an inherited sweet tooth. A few hundred years ago, super tart alcoholic cider was the standard drink, consumed throughout the day, including by children.

The attitudes we have towards foods affects our experience of their taste, almost like the sum of past encounters affects our impression of other people.

We can sense this intuitively and counter-intuitively.

Intuitively: If I moved to India and ate Indian food day in and day out, I’d develop a taste for that food which, if I ate it this moment, would taste strange and probably waaaay too spicy. I’m a Vermonter, I insist on real maple syrup, the fake stuff tastes disgusting to me. . .if I’d been born in Texas I might feel differently. And so on.

Counterintuitively: Food historian Bea Wilson reports that as late as the 1960’s some British groceries displayed signs reading “Fresh Pears, As Good as Tinned!” – they were encouraging customers to re-acclimate to a non-wartime diet after World War II

It’s the counterintuitive half that I’m interested in because it tells me that it’s not as obvious as it seems that we’ll always love the obesity-inducing foods with the intensity we crave them today, that in fact our collective tastes shift wildly and in ways that go deeper than food trends (remember when sophisticated gelatin molds were high fashion? My 1950’s cookbooks do). Granted, it would require a heroic effort, but we’ve made those before.

And hence: a commentary

Changing Tastes (Aired, Vermont Public Radio, 1/27/15)

References: I note two USDA studies in this commentary. The one on birth year linked to vegetable preferences is found here and the one on vegetables prepared (in their words) “American style” contributing to weight gain is here. This question of whether “eat more vegetables” works as dietary advice has also appeared in The Paradox of Obesity and Produce from The Atlantic (June 2014).

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