Why do I like buffalo wings and not broccoli? – Joe, 10, New York City, NY
You’re not alone—cats don’t like broccoli much either. As a carnivore, I think a nice, meaty buffalo wing sounds great.
But humans are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. They’ve developed a taste for all kinds of things growing and living all over the world. So where do individual people’s preferences come from?
To find out, I visited Carolyn Ross, a professor of Food Science at Washington State University. Like you, she is very curious about why people like the foods they like.
You probably got part of your preferences from your human ancestors. Humans tend to seek the taste of fat, sugar, and salt. These ingredients are more scarce in nature, but abundant in foods we cook today. (That’s why it can be hard to stop at just one buffalo wing.)
Your individual experiences shape your tastes in a big way. If you’re familiar with a food and have good memories of it, you’re more likely to keep eating it.
But your genes also have an impact. Genes are like instructions written inside the body, which you get from your parents. They affect all kinds of things about you, including the way some foods taste. That’s why some people think cilantro makes a great addition to tacos, and some think it tastes like soap.
Your genes might even make you a “supertaster”—someone very sensitive to bitter tastes.
Your tongue is covered in little bumps called tastebuds. Tastebuds help you sense the flavor of what you’re eating. Humans’ tastebuds can detect five basic flavors: sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami (a savory, meaty taste.)
Supertasters have more tastebuds than most, making them more sensitive to different tastes. About 25% of people in the U.S. and Canada have a supertasting tongue. It’s possible you’re one of them.
Supertasting might seem like a superpower. “But being a supertaster is a gift and a curse because you’re very sensitive,” Ross said. Sweet things taste sweeter, but bitter things taste much more bitter.
Broccoli is one of the foods supertasters tend to dislike. “Supertasters find broccoli to be more bitter than people who are not supertasters and may eat less of it, at least when they’re younger. They also find cheddar or aged cheese to be exceptionally bitter. Their food choices are somewhat based on that,” Ross said.
If you’re a supertaster, you might always find broccoli to be too bitter. Even regular tasters find there are some foods they never love. To this day, Ross doesn’t like raw broccoli.
But your tastes might also change over time. It takes about six tries before your like or dislike for a food becomes a stable preference. So give it a few more tries. Check in with your tastes now and then. You might find a food you once hated eventually becomes enjoyable.
As a cat, though, my taste buds can’t sense sweet things. I’ll never know what you humans like so much about donuts.