Illustration by Lynn Scurfield


Good News for Picky Eaters

Understanding how you perceive flavour is the first step to expanding your palate

By Mifi Purvis, '93 BA

August 28, 2018 •

Are you a fussy eater? There's good news: taste perception is not immutable. To expand your palate, it might help to know how your sense of taste works.

Taste is about 40 per cent of how we perceive flavour, which is influenced to a greater extent by smell.

"Aroma lends character to food," says Wendy Wismer, '83 BSc(FoodSci), associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science. Our perception of flavour is also affected by colour, cooking method or even temperature. Two mugs of milk - one hot and one cold - just don't taste the same.

Understanding flavour might help master cravings for junk food, which has been engineered to trigger what Wismer calls a hedonic reward, that good feeling you get when you dive into a bag of Cheezies. The more highly processed the snack, the likelier it is to deliver a quick hit to all five of the discrete tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, sometimes called "savoury".

Wismer's research demonstrates that hormones, age, illness and medication can change flavour perception. She works with cancer patients and aims to create a tool to improve how they perceive flavour. (For example, advising what to eat or avoid if a medication leaves a metallic taste.)

Variations among individuals also affect flavour. About half of you have an average density of taste receptors on your tongues. (You all have them in your cheeks, gums and gastrointestinal tracts, too.) A quarter of you have fewer receptors, and another quarter are "supertasters," with numerous, densely packed taste receptors.

Finally, if you find yourself reaching for the same meal day after day, you could be what Wismer calls a "food neophobe," reluctant or afraid to try new dishes. She recommends you challenge your gustatory regimen - slowly.

"Make subtle changes," she says. "Try one new taste or flavour per week."

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