The science of why we love and hate certain flavours

Marmite Treesome by rogiro, on FlickrI struggle to understand why anyone would willingly eat a salty, dark brown sticky sludge that comes from a beer-makers’ garbage can. But lots of people do. Even the company selling the so-called spread know that the world is divided with their ‘Marmite: Love it or Hate it?’ ad campaigns.

Marmite – a yeast extract used as a spread – is not the only one, for many of us have strong opinions about certain types of foods: oysters – hate, black coffee – love, truffles – yuk, Brussels sprouts – no thank you, and olives… another bowl please! There is often no in-between – it’s either a yes or a no. And it’s all rather strange. Thankfully though, scientists have long been researching the origins of our food and the mystery surrounding the great food divide.


How we know whether something tastes good


Our tongues can sense five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury. Some now even regard ‘fat’ as a possible sixth taste. With each basic taste, our minds automatically attach different meanings: sweet equates to energy, sour means the food is not ripe and salty means that the food contains the mineral sodium (an essential requirement for functions within our body) – making it appealing. We associate bitter with caution (as many poisons are very bitter) while savoury (‘umami’) usually means there is protein present.


However, it’s not just our taste buds that get involved on eating food – our noses and brain play their part as well. Our olfactory senses (our nose) pick up thousands of airborne flavour molecules which gives food its smell. Plus there’s also what the food does chemically to the mouth, for example, chillies chemically stimulate pain and temperature nerves, giving the sensation of heat. Together, all these sensations are deciphered by the brain to distinguish its flavour. Whether we like that flavour or not is another matter…


It’s genetic: we all taste differently


So, does everybody get dealt the same tasting cards? In a word, no! Each part of our tasting machinery can be affected by our genes and the flavour we sense is interpreted based on our past experiences. From our genes alone, some scientists claim that they can predict how someone will react to bitter foods. Researchers have discovered that there are at least twenty five genes that control how our tongue senses bitter tastes. And because combinations of different types of these twenty five genes vary from person to person, everyone perceives taste differently. It isn’t just bitter either, it’s likely that other basic tastes are also sensed in very individual ways.


It gets even more complicated: some people are actually genetically programmed to despise specific flavor-producing chemicals – such as those in coriander. And in addition, it is thought that nearly everyone has at least one specific smell ‘blind spot’ (called an anosmia) – a particular odor that they are completely unable to smell!


There are also a host of other factors that may determine why you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ certain foods:


  •  Predisposition to certain foods: it is thought that you may be familiar with certain foods and flavours because of the foods your mother ate while pregnant with you. (Thanks Mum!)
  • The cultural component: the situation and culture that we live in often influences our taste and flavours. For example, Mexicans tend to eat very spicy food not because there is any biological difference in their tongues but because it is part of their culture!
  • The sexual component (a factor most relevant for women!): statistically 60% of women prefer sweet foods such as chocolate compared to just 40% of men who prefer more salty food – yuk! For women, food preferences also change throughout the menstrual cycle – sweet and starchy foods are more enticing in the week before a period.
  • The texture component – just think of those ‘lovely’, slimy oysters! It is still a mystery as to why some people simply prefer (and can tolerate) different textures but it appears to be a separate factor to all the others.


So all these factors may shed some light on the flavour divides and go some way to explain why some people love smothering their toast with yeast extract. But for the rest of us, here’s a tip: move to Denmark. For over there, you could live happy in the knowledge that you need never expose yourself to such a repulsive ‘food’ stuff again – for those Danes have taken the rather sensible step to ban it!


Answer By chloe Westley

Image Source: Marmite Treesome by rogiro, on Flickr

Article by Chloe Westley

September 16, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).

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One thought on “The science of why we love and hate certain flavours”

  1. Such a beneficial and informative artical. This was an issue for me which I\’d been curious about untill I came across your answer here. Thanks a lot!

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