If you’ve ever been picky about the foods you like—or you know someone who is—you’re not alone. In fact, many children go through a phase where they’ll only accept chicken nuggets and fries as acceptable cuisine, for example; thus, many parents can attest that with enough time and exposure to new foods, their offspring will outgrow this “picky eater” phase. But not everyone does. You probably know at least one adult who turns their nose up at various well-liked foods. Is this the result of snobbiness or a low tolerance for certain tastes? Let’s look into the science behind picky eaters.
Oh, Grow Up
As previously mentioned, it’s extremely common for children to be picky eaters at some point during their childhood. This pickiness can arise for a variety of reasons. First, some kids are really more sensitive to textures and smells than others, which can make new foods seem unappealing. Second, they are also less tolerant of bitter and sour flavors than adults, which makes their typical aversion to vegetables understandable.
To help kids break out of normal picky-eating habits, parents can try a few different techniques. One of these is to offer a variety of foods in order to get them used to different flavors and textures—and don’t be afraid to try certain ingredients again if one dish isn’t quite cutting it. However, while bribing children to eat is inevitable at some point, you should avoid it as much as possible so they don’t come to expect, say, a scoop of ice cream after every green bean.
The Range of a “Normal” Eater
Even when a child outgrows picky-eating habits (usually as a teenager or upon entering adulthood), they will still have their own ideas about what tastes good and what doesn’t. For instance, some people could eat platefuls of steamed broccoli all day long but couldn’t stomach a mouthful of peanut butter, while others might love to travel the world in search of exotic foods but won’t go anywhere near a tomato. Indeed, even famous chefs known for their incredible palates have a food or two they can’t deal with. (Giada De Laurentiis, for example, hates green peppers.)
So, why do our tastes vary so much? Well, while exposure to foods and experiences related to them (getting food poisoning after a bad batch of Thai food might turn you off that type of cuisine for a while, for example) is certainly a factor, it mostly boils down to your taste buds.
Papillae, the little bumps that decorate our tongues, house our taste buds. These are responsible for not only our ability to perceive taste but also our taste sensitivity. It just so happens that our taste buds have nerve endings that send signals to the brain when they detect certain molecules in our food, which is how we identify the five main tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami (savory). The combination of the number of the papillae on the tongue and the sensitivity of the nerve endings within the taste buds is what determines someone’s overall sense of taste.
People who have many papillae and very sensitive nerve endings are the most “picky” eaters because many foods are simply too overwhelming for their taste buds—which send negative signals to their brains upon coming into contact with unfamiliar foods. These folks are also better at identifying very specific flavors in foods (which is why some people can’t enjoy a pizza after removing the unwanted olives or onions from it because they can still clearly taste the leftover residue).
People with fewer papillae and less sensitive nerve endings aren’t so picky. However, they probably can’t distinguish flavors as well as their “picky” neighbors. The sweet spot for foodies is likely somewhere right in the middle.