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Matter of taste

People have different tastes in music, fashion, and literature, but could some people have a different sense of taste literally? A recent scientific study suggests that “women with anorexia have distinct differences in the insula — the specific part of the brain that is important for recognizing taste… It is possible that individuals with anorexia have difficulty recognizing taste, or responding to the pleasure associated with food. Because this region of the brain also contributes to emotional regulation, it may be that food is aversive, rather than rewarding.”

Everyone has the same data input device for taste: the tongue. However, whatever data your tongue feeds to you brain has to be processed and organized for you to make sense of it. All our perceptions of the world ultimately happen in our brain. You can have perfectly working eyes, but if your visual cortex is damaged you won’t be able to see anything. The scanner’s working, you just don’t have the drivers installed on your computer to use it. It’s interesting to think that different people might process taste input in different ways.

This study makes me wonder if the reverse might be true too, that people who overeat get a greater hit of pleasure from food than other people. Maybe I really do enjoy Ho-Ho’s more than other people! That’s all speculation on my part, but I do think it would be fascinating to live in someone else’s brain for a day. I’d love to take note of different thought patterns or differences in the way they perceive the world. What does the world look like to someone who is red-green color blind? Do they actually see different colors than us or do all the reds look like greens or all the greens look like reds? Do tone-deaf people actually perceive no difference between flat and sharp notes? When schizophrenic people say they hear voices does it really sound like someone is talking to them?

I’d be really curious to live inside the brain of someone who dislikes foods I love. I know one person who doesn’t like chocolate. Does chocolate actually taste different to her? Or does it taste the same but for some reason her brain processes the input as negative instead of rewarding? I’ve never liked the taste of coffee, but it would be fascinating to experience those ground up beans through the mind of someone who likes them.

Anyone up for a brain transplant?

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Ann-Charlotte • October 2, 2007 at 8:45 am

I read in a book (was it You – On a diet perhaps?) that some people are “supertasters”. Their tongues are a LOT more sensitive and have a lot more tastebuds than other people and so they notice flavours a lot more. That could account for some of the differences in how people feel about food.


daBaum • October 2, 2007 at 9:18 am

I don’t like chocolate either. Actually, that’s not quite true. I like chocolate okay, but I can eat one bite, once a year, and I’m fine. It’s not one of the foods that gets me excited. Grilled brussell sprouts tossed in a little olive oil and a dash of sea salt . . . now that makes me crazy! I think taste is the same whether it’s on your tongue or your preference for models of cars, clothes, music, or color. People just have different tastes! That’s what makes us wonderfully unique and fascinating.


Erin • October 2, 2007 at 10:08 am

I have a brain injury from a car accident I was in about 10.5 years ago. Ever since that accident, I can’t handle bitter or sour foods. They literally HURT when I eat them–they make my face and tongue sting and tingle, and my eyes water (one eye waters no matter what I eat, anyway, but this is like I’m crying). I’ve become a very picky eater since the accident. Between the taste differences and the texture issues (all of my senses were damaged, not just taste) there are a lot of foods I just can’t handle.

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that sweet was good! Sweet was nice, sweet was not painful, sweet was easy to eat…ugh, hello, weight gain. So now I don’t eat sugar, and eat a pretty simple diet to try to cope with what my damaged brain is telling me.

I’ll trade you my damaged brain for your intact brain. Deal? ;)

Oh, and for the chocolate thing–I broke myself of American chocolate by moving to England for a year and getting used to their chocolate. Then I travelled to Belgium and had fresh handmade chocolate walking down the streets of Brugge. Now, back here, American chocolate is too close to candles (it contains paraffin) for my liking. Maybe you need to move to Europe for a year? ;)


K • October 2, 2007 at 11:03 am

What Erin says fits in with what I’ve heard about “supertasters” – that in fact, they’re more likely to experience tastes as extra-unpleasant, not extra-nice. So if you prefer blandish, sweet food to sharp cheese or strong coffee, you might be a supertaster. Supertasters are apparently often pretty fussy eaters.

(Yeah, I did some research after hearing They Might Be Giants’ song “John Lee, Supertaster”. Apparently the hero hates coffee and beer, but loves icecream and pie.)

There are also “non-tasters” who can only taste food if it’s very strongly flavoured. So if you know someone who has a thing for very strong chilli or searingly hot curry, that might be why.

PQ – I think my brother might be a non-taster. He always puts lots of spices on foods. I wonder if you can adapt to certain tastes too. For instance, Indian food is pretty spicy. Is is because Indian people are all non-tasters or just because they are used to spicy food?


Chris • October 2, 2007 at 11:23 am

Supertaster – that’s me. My sense of bitterness is much more acute than the average person’s. I can’t stand things like beer, coffee, broccoli, or pretty much anything that has a very strong flavour.

Couple that with an overactive gag reflex and let the good times roll :)


Amy • October 2, 2007 at 11:28 am

Very interesting. You have made some very good points. It would be fun to be able to live in someone else’s brain for a day.


MB • October 2, 2007 at 11:51 am

I would love to trade brains with someone who has this whole food thing figured out. I remember when I quit smoking I was surprised at how good things tasted (smoking kills or deadens the tastebuds on your tongue) which is why many people gain weight when they quit. Maybe they will figure out a way to retrain your brain to not like those “trigger” foods but until then I’ll have to keep working on it the old fashion way.


Skinny Guy • October 2, 2007 at 12:45 pm

I’ve had suspicions along those lines for a while. There is a standing challenge at my house to find 10 foods that I don’t like. On the other hand, my wife and 2 teenagers are picky eaters, with my daughter being the pickiest. I love spicy food, my wife and daughter won’t touch the stuff, and my son is somewhere in the middle.

I’ve always wondered if I’m what you call a non-taster, or if they are supertasters to varying degrees…

Either way, it makes it very interesting when planning meals at home or finding a restaurant we can all agree on!


Jenny • October 2, 2007 at 12:49 pm

Should I be worried that I hear the pint of ice cream talking to me from the freezer?

I thought so.


Girl on a mission • October 2, 2007 at 12:52 pm

I sure wish that potato chips tasted different to me. I wish every flavor tasted like Dill Pickle…then I wouldn’t have to worry about my cravings! And, imagine if chocolate and ice cream tasted like salt! Wild! Thanks for the interesting read today. I had a confessional day for myself- to address my previous eating habits and problems.


coraspartan • October 2, 2007 at 1:13 pm

My aunt’s husband has no sense of taste–I forget why, war injury or something, I think. He is as skinny as a rail. I think I would be too if food didn’t have any flavor. In my opinion, flavor is what makes me eat so much! It would be so much easier to eat less if food didn’t taste so good. :-)


Nacho • October 2, 2007 at 1:56 pm

I got Anbesol all over my tongue in an attempt to douse a sore tooth once, and things just didn’t taste the same or at all. It’s not a brain transfer but it might let you experience what it’s like to be on the other end of the spectrum.


Reb • October 2, 2007 at 2:10 pm

Oh, I want to live in a thin persons brain – again (I miss my thin person)! I am a super-taster, unfortunately I have found lots of foods I like that are fattening.

Super-tasters are usually super-smellers too which can be really unfortunate (goes along with Chris’ gag reflex).

I have yet to quit smoking (working on it) because the couple of times I have tried, my super-smeller just got stronger and WOW! It is strong enough as a smoker, no more please!

PQ I like your blog, congratulations on your loss! Good luck on that last ten lbs.


Mia • October 2, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Is it nature or nurture?

Well, as far as coffee goes, it’s an acquired taste. My mom was an a coffee addict. When I was little I liked to mimic her, and so I wanted coffee, too. She would give me a cup of milk with a tablespoon of coffee in it. Gradually, over a period of years, the ratio of coffee to milk changed until I was drinking mostly coffee. That said, I do think there are some differences in how we experience taste: bitter, sweet and salty. I’m guessing physical differences play a minimal role in comparison to environment. For instance, culturally speaking, food varies quite a bit, even though there are variances in each individual, overall we can see general patterns emerge within regions.


RG • October 2, 2007 at 9:02 pm

Interesting! Some things I notice:

-kids are often stronger tasters than adults. That’s why veggies are better tolerated by adults.

-taste’s change! See this entry: http://crdiary.blogspot.com/2007/09/tastes-change.html

-Indian kids absolutely learn spice. The younger ones don’t handle spice well, but I’ve watched my niece even learn to enjoy bitter gourd (it is bitter!) based on her mother I assume. My Mom didn’t keep trying it on me, so I never learned to like it, but spices, salt, and the tastes of veggies were learned young.

-even though I learned to like spicy, salty… For about 30 years I didn’t like sweets at all in part because Indian sweets are as sweet as frosting, yuck. A 5 oz bar of Cadburys would turn that white color that comes from the cocoa butter separating out from sitting in the cupboard for months. I don’t remember exactly when this changed, because chocolate does = yum now, but it’s still easy for me to, say, store post-Halloween candy from one Nov 1 to the next. I can eat a piece a day or “a piece after a workout”. Whereas a bag of chips has never lasted a week around me. I’m still holding out hope that by eating a 1 oz serving of chips if ever, I will slowly learn to adjust my tastes towards that amount. My guess is that it does come down to habit.


Cshizzle • October 2, 2007 at 10:24 pm

My mind is crazy enough, I don’t think I could handle the insanity of someone else’s brain! :)

I wish I didn’t have such a strong sweet tooth. I have been able to maintain my weight by limiting sweets to rarely. It sucks but if I don’t have it for a while, I don’t crave it. The minute I have birthday cake or holiday pies, I’m hooked for the next couple of weeks until the senses forget…at least until the next time we meet :)


DW • October 2, 2007 at 10:42 pm

I think this is especially true of binge eaters. Where “normal” people eat a few bites and move on, binge eaters dream of food, and crave food, and can’t function until we have said food, and savor food, and when we finally ingest food, feel a sense of relief, joy, elation– almost a euphoric high. Sort of an ‘ahhhhhhhhhh. yeah’. I LOVE food and totally live for the taste of GOOD FOOD.

I certainly do believe you are right, that overweight people ‘taste’ food better and much like a drug, the subsequent highs are only an effort to recreate the incredible feeling that the first high brings.


Susan • October 2, 2007 at 11:43 pm

I’ve always suspected that people with “food issues” taste food more strongly than other people. Think about how they talk about food – “That chocolate cake was to die for!”, “The dessert was divine!” and so on, while “normal” people say, “Yeah, that was nice”.

On a side note about living with another person’s brain, I have a lisp so it’s difficult for me to say the letters “F” and “S”. But that also affects how I hear those letters – I can’t hear the difference between the words “flight” and “slight”, or “gross” and “growth” for example.

Weird stuff.


LisaC • October 3, 2007 at 1:03 am

I have always been interested in this -sort of as a cop out to “blame” my weight on my love of certain food.

I hate bitter things but can slowly get used to some over time (still hate coffee, beer and broccoli (but like brocollini!). They theorise that aversion to bitter is an evolutionary as a mechanism to prevent us being poisoned (as most poisons taste bitter).

I love sweet and salt (not together) and have a great sence of smell.


Marion • October 3, 2007 at 1:44 am

Pregnancy changed my taste in food every time. During the first three months, crunchy veg makes me gag. Later, I can tolerate it if it’s served with something creamy or with cheese, or hidden in tomato sauce.

Oh, and there’s that craving for sour stuff. Olives. Buttermilk. Yoghurt. When you’re pregnant, your saliva is sweeter, so you crave sour stuff to balance that out. I’m buying Turkish yoghurt by the bucketload.


karaokekitty • October 3, 2007 at 9:39 am

Wow! I swear this post was written for me! I’m a taste biologist so I love to hear people talk about the impact of our sense of taste on our lives. Yes, it is absolutely true about supertasters. They (we, I’m a supertaster too) experience the taste world very differently. Most supertasters have a love for sweets over bitter things. More recently researchers have found that there are different types of supertasters. One type has more taste buds on their tongues, enhancing the flavor of all things they eat, sweet sour bitter salty. These supertasters tend to be thin actually. They dislike a lot of things, and tend to eat a pretty bland diet. They even dislike the feel of fat in their mouths and avoid it. The other type of supertaster is one that has an enhanced sense of taste due to damage to the tongue. This is a bit more common than they previously thought. You can have damage to the nerves to your tongue by having a bunch of ear infections as a kid or having parents that smoked a lot, either way a particular nerve is damaged which, oddly enough, results in enhanced taste to certain things. The cool part, is researchers are finding that these supertasters are very often obese, preferring sweet and fatty foods above all others. They dislike veggies too because of the bitterness. With a few tests I found out I fall into the latter group, the fat supertasters. No surprise there I guess. Anyway, enough of my scientific ramblings! This work is really cool and helps us understand how food preferences come about, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to be fat. Just know that whatever type of taster you are, you are ultimately the one who controls what goes into your body.


Kyle • October 3, 2007 at 10:29 am

This is such a fascinating post! I’ve always wondered about color and why people like different colors. For instance, my mother in law LOVES neon green. I hate it and can’t imagine people liking it (no offense to anyone if that’s your favorite color :P). So I wonder, does she see the same thing as me when she looks at bright green or do her eyes actually see something that’s maybe more blueish, but she just calls it bright green? Am I making sense? Probably not. anyways, really interesting to think that same theory could work with taste buds…I’d never considered the possibility but it makes sense.

btw, I totally tried to enter that contest that you left in the comments…started writing my entry and everything when i decided it would be a good idea to read the contest rules. Nobody outside the U.S. can enter. BOOOO. Ex-pat discrimination is not cool! But thanks for the idea, it would’ve been awesome to be on a cereal box…I would’ve felt cooler than Tony the Tiger!


Joyce • October 3, 2007 at 10:41 am

Have you seen the recent research on the similarity between the brains of obese people and drug addicts? There’s substantial evidence that some people do develop a real biochemical attachment to food to stimulate the brain’s pleasure receptors and raise serotonin levels, just as in drug addicts. Interesting stuff, which I hope can lead to more productive research on what it takes to keep weight off.


b. • October 4, 2007 at 2:10 am

fyi, it’s actually the insula — not insulta (although that would be kind of awesome). they typo’d the name at the beginning of the article. ;)

your friendly neuroscientist,


PQ – Thanks! I’ll change it. It’s so nice to have neuroscientist proofreaders around here :)


Wally • October 8, 2007 at 2:08 am

Interesting view about taste. I think each food has the same taste and it’s up to us to consider the taste or not.


Yolanda • October 8, 2007 at 8:35 pm

I haven’t thought about being inside the brain of someone, but it sounds interesting. Thinking about it also made me curious about their thoughts on foods that they don’t like.


Robin • October 9, 2007 at 7:59 pm

This discussion is so interesting!

I’m not sure if my husband is a supertaster, but he abhors cilantro and he claims that’s a genetic thing. I asked him once what he tastes when he gets a mouthful of cilantro. He said it tastes like it isn’t even food – it’s more like soap to his mind. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to switch brains with him. The poor guy can never eat at Mexican restaurants because almost every dish contains the “devil weed” as he calls it, and apparently, even minute quantities are enough to ruin the whole dish.


Heather • July 17, 2008 at 12:27 am

Kitty-you make me feel so much better! I thought I was a complete freak! I am one of those supposed skinny supertasters but I could stand to drop a few. Foods that I like taste like heaven and the ones I don’t will make me gag. My parents smoked like chimneys so, hopefully, I can blame this all on them :) Here’s the thing though-it’s becoming a huge problem. Smells becomes tastes and when they are bad I run for the hills…I have broken up with people that have bad breath(sounds like something Elaine from Seinfeld would do). The gag reflex is uncontrollable. My smell ability is so intense that people notice it constantly. Changing a diaper -not an option…get my drift? I can smell if my husband snuck a cigarette at 9AM when he comes home at 6. I can also tell him exactly what he ate for lunch. He thinks I am psychic! LOL! I once had an IV put in my arm to have blood drawn and could “taste” the plastic from the tubing. Yikes-Is there any way to “fix” this? While I love the good tastes and smells I feel like the bad side gets worse all the time. Is this a symptom of some other thing? Is there something wrong with me? Who would I even begin to tell this to? My primary care MD would throw me out the door! By the way-everyone on this blog is hilarious. Thanks for the entertainment!


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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