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Have you ever wondered why foods that you disliked as a child suddenly become something you really enjoy? Or why drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth drastically changes its flavor? Well there is science behind it! And when you are aware of some of the reasons why, you can use that knowledge to your advantage to “trick” your tastebuds into enjoying foods that are healthy for you!  Taste is one of the primary senses that your body relies upon. It provides comfort, nostalgia, and enjoyment! Without being able to taste our food, the act of eating would be much different for us.

What are Tastebuds?

Taste buds, also known as papillae, are placed all over your tongue, and are mainly responsible for giving you the perception of tasting sweet, sour, bitter, umami (savory), and salty. There are about 10,000 taste buds in an average person’s mouth. This is good news for us, especially when we “burn” our tongue on hot food or injure taste buds while we eat! Taste buds don’t all change at the same time, but rather regenerate on a cycle of 3-7 days, and are completely replaced within the mouth about every 2 weeks. And with other things, the rate of replacement and the amount of receptors lessen with age.  This is why food seems less enjoyable when we are over the age of 70.

Smell and taste are very closely related and contribute to our food experience. Our nasal cavities contain about 400 types of receptors and control how we perceive flavor. This is why it is difficult for us to taste foods when we have a congested nose! Flavor is different from taste; for example, we can taste sugar, but if you place pure vanilla extract on your tongue and plug your nose, you cannot taste vanilla flavor! The vanilla extract doesn’t actually have any sweetness and with our nose plugged, we taste only watery liquid.

Also, the first bite of food is always the best. Why is that? Well, at the time of the first bite, dopamine is released in the brain’s reward system. The remaining bites will not compare to the first, because the brain adjusts that dopamine release the more we eat, however sometimes we overeat hoping to recreate that “first bite” high. There are also other foods, such as chocolate, which trigger release of seratonin in the brain, which is the “feel good” hormone. We can use this to our advantage to “trick” our tastebuds as well!

And what we eat also affects the way we taste food as well. When we eat mainly processed foods, our taste buds essentially forget how real food tastes and this makes people believe that whole foods do not taste as good. By consciously cutting down on high-sodium foods and added sugars, we will slowly retrain our taste buds to appreciate the taste of whole foods again.

Tasting Experiment from 1972

In 1972, Linda Bartoshuk authored a paper on the phenomenon of taste by evaluating an artichoke. Try the experiment yourself! Eat a bite of an artichoke and then drink a glass of water . You may come to the same conclusion that others in the study did:  that the liquid tastes strangely sweet.  The key is a substance in the artichoke itself called cynarin. When you eat an artichoke, the cynarin quietly latches onto your sweet receptors without actually activating them. The cynarin stays on those receptors until you wash it away with the drink of water, releasing the receptors. It’s this sudden release that triggers a message to the brain, generating the sensation of sweetness. And though it’s just a phantom taste, it feels just as distinct and real as a sensation from direct stimulation of the receptor by a sweet fruit.

Ok…so how do I use that information?

If our taste buds change every 14 days, and different foods and chemical alter the way we perceive taste, how can we “trick” our tastebuds into eating healthier foods? Well, we have put together a list of ideas to help you!

  • Attractive combinations

Have you ever tried to introduce a new vegetable to kids? A sure way to have a pile of leftovers and a table of complaining children is to serve them lightly blanched brussels sprouts with just a touch of salt, in a bowl all by itself.  I don’t know that many of the adult men in my life would even eat that! But take those same brussels sprouts, toss them in a pan with a little cream, salt, and pepper topped with crispy bacon and VIOLA! You may just find them asking for seconds!

Combine your favorite foods with the healthier ones that you don’t like. For example, add grilled veggies as pizza toppings, or kale and spinach with your pasta dish and favorite sauce. Experts use this conditioning strategy—called “flavor-flavor” learning—to help kids eat vegetables. Start small and make healthy substitutions in rations rather than all at once. For example, mix 1 part brown rice with 2 parts white rice and slowly increase the brown rice amount until the white rice is completely replaced! Or add just a few leaves of spinach or kale to your fruit smoothie and slowly increase the amount over time. What you are doing is retraining your brain to accept these new flavors as they are paired with flavors you already love. That way, as that new flavor profile is increased slowly over time, it is accepted and becomes something you enjoy, even when that original pairing is not present!

  • Sense of smell

For some people it is the smell of vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, rather than the taste, that drives them away. So, try and tone down smell while cooking by pairing with other spices, such as garlic. By using flavor combinations to change the smells, you look forward to the meal.  Also, your sense of smell is significantly lower in the evenings, so use this to your advantage!  You can do food prep ahead of time and try new foods in the evenings.

 

 

  • Method of cooking

Mix and match different varieties and styles of cooking. If you are not so fond of boiled veggies, try roasting them. If you don’t like the taste of raw fruits, blend it into a smoothie with your favorite yogurt or protein powder. Understand what works for you and use this trick to style your meals accordingly with both healthy and tasty food.

  • Decorate your plate

Make your meal as appealing as you can! You have heard the saying “we eat first with our eyes” which is true!  Even just using a nice plate and silverware set to eat “take-out” changes the experience.  Investing a little  time in making your meal attractive and pairing it with vibrant colors will increase your enjoyment of the meal, even if it contains foods you don’t normally enjoy eating.

 

  • Limit choices

Having too many choices at one time can stimulate your appetite and cause you to overeat. This is why average Americans consume 3,000 calories on Thanksgiving day!  It’s called sensory-specific satiety. By limiting the options, and filling up on 1-3 flavor profiles, you feel satiated more quickly and are less likely to overeat!

  • Music

Studies have shown that the music you listen to while eating has a profound influence on your taste buds at that given moment. Soothing music lets you relax a bit and savor your food. On the other hand, hard rock music causes you to practically gulp down your food without allowing yourself to feel the taste. This knowledge can be particularly helpful if you are an emotional eater! While you are preparing your food, put on some music to decompress from the day, then change the selection to a more mellow tune while you enjoy your meal!

 

  • Eat with Friends who have the Flavor profile you are looking to develop

This is, perhaps, the most underrated trick when it comes to training your taste buds. If you are trying hard to develop a taste for food items you aren’t very fond of, your chances increase if you have a meal with someone else who eats the same way! You can learn about flavor profiles, introduce yourself to new foods, and even catch up with your friends! All which work together to make the experience more enjoyable which makes it likely that you will do it again.

  • Time and Exposure

The phenomenon of training your taste buds is a real thing. Which some foods are said to have an ‘acquired taste.’ You are more likely to succeed if you make small changes over time and slowly cut out foods that are less healthy.  The longer we eat healthier foods, the better they taste because our tastebuds have turned over and are used to the flavors.  You will find that over time, going back to foods you once enjoyed brings out tastes that may actually turn you off by being too salty or sugary!

 

  • Contrast flavor

When you have finished your meal and your brain is “demanding sugar”  or craving something sweet, tamp it down by eating a food with a contrasting flavor, like half a grapefruit or a sour or bitter orange. Or switch to a palate-cleansing flavor, like mint. This signals your brain that the meal has ended and will fight off that craving.  You can also sip a drink, like hot tea, until your meal settles and you feel full. This is a nice way to prevent overeating before you go to sleep as well! You don’t need to completely deprive yourself, but you can enjoy a piece of chocolate and then switch the flavor profile to a palate cleanse to prevent eating too much!

  • Evaluate the “why”

This information will help you adjust your exposure to fit the problem. If it’s the appearance you don’t like, fiddle around with the plating; if it’s the smell, focus on stronger spice pairings, if it’s the texture, look for recipes or ways to prepare the food that can change it (such as cooking it in an air fryer).

Summing it up

True that many healthy fruits, vegetables, and dishes are not as tasty as less healthy alternatives. However, by using the tricks and knowledge outlined above, you can change the way you taste food. By being patient, trying new foods slowly over time, and changing the way you taste, you can develop a healthy palate that will benefit your Self Care Pursuit for years to come. Let me know any tips that have worked for you!

“My doctor told me I had to stop throwing intimate dinners for four unless there are three other people.” -Orson Welles

Sarah
Hello! My name is Sarah and I am a Wellness Coach and Healthcare Provider with 15 years of experience. I am passionate about intentional, balanced living and created this blog to help others live a mindful life focussed on Self Care! Here you will find resources covering topics from health, finance, self-discovery, psychology, to balance, mindfulness, and intentional living. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions.

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