We don’t all have the same preferences when it comes to food. I know this to be true because if everyone had the same likes and dislikes as me, the cauliflower industry would have gone belly up a long time ago.
What’s more mysterious, though, is where these preferences come from. Studies looking at this question have found several possible influences on food preferences, including:
- Genes: A study of 2865 twins in late adolescence found that genetics played a significant role in food preferences for six food groups: vegetables, fruit, starchy foods, meat/fish, dairy and snacks. Vegetable preferences were the most genetically determined, starchy food preferences the least, but for all groups genes had a substantial influence on what foods people liked.
- Antisocial traits: Research published in January suggests that if you like bitter foods, you’re probably a bad person. Well, OK, that’s a little bit of a simplification, but the study did find a correlation between antisocial personality traits and enjoying bitter foods. Sadism and psychopathy especially predicted a predilection for bitter tastes.
- Dopamine functioning: According to a study published in June, how your brain processes the neurotransmitter dopamine helps determine how much of a sweet tooth you have. Specifically, the study found that certain aspects of dopamine functioning explained about half of non-obese people’s sugar preferences. One possible link between dopamine and sweets is that sweet tastes are a kind of reward, and dopamine is involved in reward processing.
- Empathy: Recent research published in Forschende Komplementärmedizin (try saying that three times fast) found that vegans tend to be more empathetic than vegetarians and tend to rate both food taste and humanitarian concerns as more important factors in their dietary choices. Of course, it’s not surprising that vegans are more empathetic on average, but it goes to show that food preferences are influenced not just by what we taste but also what we think.
So where is all this research headed? Well, call me a dreamer, but my personal view is that it would be nice if researchers could find a way to modify people’s food preferences. I want to like cauliflower. I just need a little help from science to make it happen.
In the meantime, though, we are what we eat, and we eat what we are (in a metaphorical/psychological sense, that is – unless you’re making some very dubious dietary choices). And our food preferences are a messy blend of our values (see: vegans), our brain chemistry (see: dopamine functioning), and some unknown combination of other factors.