Is food preference simply repetition?

recent Science New Post (brought to my attention by @elizabethjrowe) presents research trends in food science: the pairing of retronasal olfaction and taste reception in studying flavour and the knowledge pairing of culinary experts and scientists within a relatively new journal FlavourI am glad that food sensation (for lack of a better word to describe the complex process of perception, taste, smell, hedonic value, and preference) is getting increasing amounts of attention! From an anthropological perspective, however, the evolutionary and cultural underpinnings of these studies is still missing from the dialogue–something I hope to rectify in the coming years!

The article leans towards the idea that repetition is the driver of food preference–and it starts in the womb–and could be summed up by a quote from a taste and smell scientist: “What makes lasagna loved is that the odors have been paired to a source of calories.” I don’t buy that argument for many reasons. From personal experience, the food I ate growing up (typical British Isles meat and two boiled veg) is not at all what preferred when I started to taste foods outside the home. When my mother was home in Ireland, my father would make spicy food–chilis and burritos (not something he grew up with either). To this day, I love the heat of chilis and zing of spice–let’s just say I have been tempted to drink Sadistic Mistress PainSlut (if you are a fan of heat, hers are the only sauces I have found that have a variety of flavour and burn)! I’m not the only one–there is some truth to programming; we tend to share our mother’s food preferences but that is why kids are pushed to try new things and adults too–b/c we aren’t programmed that way. From professional and anthropological experience, there is a lot more to our evolutionary genetics when it comes to smell and preference and certainly much of that is driven by cross-cultural variation. Cross-cultural variation depends partly on the varying environmental challenges faced by our ancestors as they adapted to new places and diets.

We have identified only a few ligands that bind to odor receptors and have not yet fully explored the difference between retro- and ortho-nasal smelling let alone the complex neural signalling that communicates that complex bundle of information to the brain along with the basic five (or six) tastes. Thankfully for people like me, there’s so much more to find out and let’s hope inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral journals like Flavour are just the start of a multi-disciplinary/sector journey into what makes great food!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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