Food preferences may be caused by taste buds, not your mind

It may be futile to nag your children to eat their broccoli or cajole your spouse to shun the salt.

Taste preferences may be more a matter of the tongue than the mind. The rich and the nouveau riche may prefer their caviar more because of their blue tongue than their blue blood.

At least, a blue tongue is one means to assess the tongue's proclivities, according to Angela Staples, who recently completed the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center dietetic internship program.

Staples hosted a luncheon program toward the conclusion of her OSF internship. She presented recent research about taste and helped guests dye their tongues blue to determine their level of taste awareness.

Staples said taste preferences are linked to the number of taste receptors on the tongue. People often don't like foods as children but grow to like them as adults because new taste receptors develop on their tongues.

People may prefer spicier foods or saltier foods because of the number of taste receptors.

To some extent, taste preferences are influenced even before birth. Flavors from the mother's diet are passed through the amniotic fluid. After birth, flavors are passed into breast milk, Staples said.

Most people have between 50 and 150 taste receptors on their tongues. Since receptors are replaced about every 10 days, taste preferences can change either subtly or dramatically.

"So keep asking your children to taste new foods," Staples said. "If children don't like broccoli, don't give up. How many times have you heard 'I don't like broccoli. I tasted it once'?"

She does not advocate making an issue and demanding children eat a portion of a hated food, but rather to keep tasting it periodically. Staples also said visual appeal of food affects how people perceive taste.

One challenge hospital dieticians face is altered taste preferences among patients because of illness or medication.

People with more taste receptors on their tongues are "super tasters." People with few receptors are categorized as non-tasters.

"I'm a super taster. I'm a picky eater," Staples said. "I don't like onions and will pick them out of food. For years, I did not like bananas and yogurt. Now I like both."

Staples asked those in attendance at her taste luncheon to suck on a blue Starburst candy, making a point to swish the candy over the tongue. The blue coloring acted as a highlighter on the tongue. People then used mirrors to count small bumps called papillae.

People with the fewest papillae are non-tasters. They tend to like bitter foods, sugar substitutes and dry red wine. They are not fussy eaters.

People with the most papillae are picky eaters. They tend to love certain foods and strongly dislike certain foods. They tend to dislike sugar substitutes and bitter foods.

According to Staples, 25% of Americans are super tasters, 50% are in the medium range and 25% are non-tasters.

Golda Ewalt, director of the dietetic internship program, said when people complain that food is tasteless, they typically add salt or sugar. Other options are salt-free Mrs. Dash seasonings or MSG.

"People are not allergic to MSG," she said. "People might be sensitive to it, but it's not dangerous. It's approved as safe by the government."

Ewalt counted papillae on her tongue and confirmed she's a non- taster.

"I like dry red wine and really strong coffee," she said.

As a non-taster, she's also not too particular about disliking certain foods. "I will not eat liver, and that's it," Ewalt said.

In concluding her presentation, Staples said everyone deserves the right to healthy, flavor-filled meals. To achieve that, work with visual presentation, smell and seasonings.

"Eating is a wonderful pleasure," Ewalt said. "We need to slow down and relish new foods, recipes and taste sensations. Visual appearance adds pleasure to eating."

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