Factors Affecting Taste Perception: Fun Facts and Findings on Flavor

Distrust Your Tongue


If there’s one thing I learned from stuffing myself silly with studies on the science of taste, it’s that our sense of taste is easily influenced and extremely unreliable. We shouldn’t blindly trust it. Or at least we don’t need to.

And that’s a valuable thing to keep in mind. Because if we increase our awareness of factors that affect our perception of taste, we can use them to our advantage. We can learn to like foods we think we don’t like, enjoy the ones we do even more, and help others do the same. It makes for an extra delicious life.

Genetics

Genes are the Presidents of the perceived palate. They get most of the credit (or blame) in the outcome but in reality they only play a small part—maybe 20%, reports Bob Holmes in his book, Flavor.

Here are a couple of the ways our genetics affect our perception of taste:

Close up of taste buds on tongue
Definitely not the tongue of a supertaster.

Number of Taste Buds

Like how we roughly classify ourselves as either short, tall, or average height, we can categorize ourselves based on our number of taste buds. We’re either bumpy-tongued “supertasters” (around 25 to 30 percent of the population), “average tasters” (45 to 50 percent), or relatively flat-tongued “non-tasters” (25 to 30).

As you could guess, the more taste buds you have, the more sensitive you are to particular tastes. Supertasters tend to appreciate subtle flavors more, avoid strong sensations like hot sauce, and dull bitterness with can with sugar, salt, and fat. And non-tasters tend to do the reverse.

Tend to. That’s the catch. Some supertasters love spicy food and super-bitter cocktails. And some non-tasters are super sommeliers who can’t stand black coffee and Brussels sprouts. The following factors that affect taste perception can completely level-out the number of bumps on your tongue you’re born with.

Sensitivity to Specific Smells

The genetic lottery deals each of us scratch ‘n’ sniff cards with about 350 “odor receptors.” Yours only has about half of them in common with the person next to you. The other half are odors you can pick up and they can’t, and vice versa. So we’re all living in unique smell worlds.

For example, people who dislike cilantro miss out on the pleasant citrusy, herbal scent that the rest do. They only get the soapy smell, as they’ll inevitably complain to you if you have the misfortune of going for Mexican food with them.

A couple other examples of genetically-related smell differences:

  • Up to 30 percent of the population can’t pick up on one of the key aromas that make truffles such a luxury.
  • As many as 3 out of every 5 Americans can’t smell the funky odor in urine that others can after eating asparagus.

What’s extra noteworthy is that there’s evidence that our brains can learn to add new smells to their scratch cards with extended exposure. So if you eat enough asparagus and keep sniffing your pee, you may eventually understand what others are talking about.

Upbringing

“People like what they eat, rather than eat what they like,” as anthropologist Kurt Lewin puts it in Mary Roach’s book, Gulp. And what you eat mostly depends on where you’re from and who raised you.

Smell Culture

Our perception of what smells “good” and “bad” is 100 percent cultural. To a baby, a $100 eau de toilette smells no better or worse than an outhouse. And real-life Mowglis who grew up in the wild without human contact do not show any overt signs of disgust.

Because of this, when the U.S. military tried to make a universal stink bomb, they failed. Any scent that made some people gag was inoffensive or even appealing to others.

Take lavender for example. In one French study, those who could identify the flower’s smell strongly liked it. Those unfamiliar with it did not.

Baby eating rice for first time
“This is my first time eating rice… but why does it seem so familiar? I like it!”

Extra Early Exposure

Traces of whatever moms eat gets into their amniotic fluid and breast milk, which gets into their babies, which acquaint and endear them to those tastes.

For instance, babies whose mothers were randomized to drink carrot juice during their third trimester and first two months of lactation were found to be unusually big fans of corn-flavored cereal later on.

Anything can start to taste good if you have enough positive memories of being fed it by a parent,” Bee Wilson writes in her book, First Bite. She shares a study that found that babies fed a nasty sour-tasting formula ended up preferring it over the standard recipe and continued having strong preferences for sour tastes at age 4 and 5.

Past Puking

Our brains are conditioned to throw the baby out with the bathwater and condemn any food that happens to be present when we puke. For example, a nasty bout of food poisoning from Hawaiian pizza can make pineapple unpalatable forevermore, even if rotten ham was responsible.

Speaking of throwing and babies, if you threw up a lot as a baby, this might explain why you have so many food aversions. Flavors your mom was feeding you that happened to coincide with a nasty bout of nausea are on your brain’s hit list. You certainly can’t recall those events, but your subconscious brain does. And it doesn’t give second chances.

Drinking milkshakes
Reward a kid for eating veggies with a milkshake and they’ll love milkshakes more and veggies less.

Prizes and Punishment

Force-feeding veggies to helpless children leaves a lasting nasty taste for that food. It’s akin to PTSD for food. As Wilson puts it, “think of how offensive it must feel to have a large, powerful person bearing down, cramming a hard spoon between your teeth.”

Bribery with sweets backfires, too. It only teaches kids (and adults also) to value those veggies less because anything you need a reward to swallow must really suck.

What works are non-food rewards. Give someone a sticker for bravely biting those Brussels sprouts, and they may eventually acquire a taste preference for them.

Physical Factors

Give the same olive to 5-year old you, 20-year-old you, and 70-year-old you and all three will report wildly different taste perceptions. As food developer Barb Stuckey writes in her book Taste, “Our individual food preferences change over time continuously from the time we are born to the time we die.”

Here are a few factors that cause this to happen.

Medical History

Part of the reason taste perception changes with age is that infection, accidents (especially head injuries), incidental nerve damage caused by dental procedures, smoking addiction, and diseases like Parkinson’s can all put permanent dents in our taste perception packages.

Saliva

French kiss the person beside you and you’ll observe that saliva has taste. You just don’t taste your own spit because your taste-perception system has calibrated itself to neutralize it. This is why water has a “flavor.”

Our saliva alters taste, too. Proteins in our spit interact with our food to break it down, release aromas, and neutralize certain astringent and bitter molecules. So the more you drool over a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon, the less you will perceive the tannins that put off others.

The quantity and composition of our saliva also change based on factors like age, body weight, genetics, and how often we French kiss strangers.

Kim buying chocolate at Babylonstoren in South Africa
Is it Kim that wants her to buy some chocolate fudge, or her gut bacteria?

Gut Bacteria

The more you eat a food, the more likely you’ll form a fan club of bacteria associated with that food in your stomach that will clamor for it and cheer when you send it down. These bacteria alter your perception of taste and your hormonal urges so you give them more encores.

Some examples:

This can partly explain the common wisdom that if you eat anything enough, you’ll start to like it.

Oral Bacteria

The bacteria in our mouths play a similar role as those in our guts. They especially like to huddle around our taste buds so, since supertasters have more of them, they accommodate more bacteria. This may be part of the reason why they’re more sensitive to tastes.

Mouth bacteria also convert odorless compounds into taste-full aromas that create a long-lasting flavor effect.

Menstrual Cycle

Women’s peak ability to smell is at mid-cycle, and the nadir is during their period. Apparently, this is to turn on their awareness to men’s musk, and thus turn them on. Since smell is a major component of our perception of taste, as a side-effect it can turn on women’s appreciation of, and desire for, donuts and other delicacies, too.

Other People

Eating salad and fish with our hands with friends on a boat in Kenya
Taste preferences are extra contagious when sharing finger food with friends.

Peer Pressure

We tend to live by the saying, “You are what you eat,” by eating like the people we aspire to be like and the groups we want to affiliate with. Fake fondness for a food long enough and eventually it becomes real.

We also enjoy the taste of food more when we eat with other people. This is true even when those “other people” are ourselves, i.e., we eat in front of a mirror.

Other People’s Bacteria

Food scientists hypothesize that taste preference may be more than socially contagious but also truly contagious. That’s because close contact with others can lead to the transmission of taste preference-influencing bacteria.

Mental Manipulation

Language

Language is our tongues’ second-most important role in affecting our perception of taste. The better we’re able to describe a flavor, the higher our appreciation of it. This may explain why cultures whose languages do a better job at describing foods, like Farsi, Lao, and Cantonese, have more sophisticated cuisines than those who don’t.

Holding an insect I'm eating at a Bangkok restaurant
Mang mun (flying ants) in Bangkok. They’re objectively good… until the brain objects.

Identification

It’s one thing to know the word and it’s another to match that word with the smell or taste you’re experiencing. Your perception can depend enormously on the word you settle on.

In an experiment Bianca Bosker shares in her book, Cork Dork, scientists subjected their participants to a synthetic smell of dirty feet and vomit. When they told their test subjects it was parmesan, they rated as highly as they rated fresh cucumber. But when they were asked to smell it again and revealed what it really was, they were repulsed and cut their score by half.

Expectations

As Brian Wansink writes in his book, Mindless Eating, “Basically, if you expect a food to taste good, it will. At the very least, it will taste better than if you had thought it would only be so-so.”

Your brain even creates flavors that don’t exist based on expectations. In one experiment, trusting tasters stuck their tongues into a box (not that type of box), and looked through a lens. They thought they were looking at their tongues but were actually seeing someone else’s. When they watched lemon juice be dropped onto it, they tasted the sourness, even though nothing touched their tongues.

Appetizing apple pie from Namibia
Believe it or not, drooling at this apple pie photo will diminish your appetite and enjoyment of it.

Exposure

The first bite is always better than the fourth or fifth because, like spoiled brats, our brains quickly get accustomed to the special foods we spoil them with. You already know this from experience.

What you might not know is that even looking at photos of a food or smelling it before eating it can bring about the same effect.

Marketing

It won’t surprise you when I tell you that packaging, price, and naming affect our perception of taste. But you’re inevitably swayed by these factors anyway. That’s why we’re huge fans of doing blind taste tests to look beyond the marketing and find our true favorites.

Next time you host a dinner party, try this experiment to use marketing to your advantage: Serve a cheap wine out of label-less bottle or carafe and tell your guests it’s from an expensive, exotic producer. People generally prefer the taste of cheap wine, but are positively influenced by exotic names and high prices, so it’s a win-win (…until they discover your deception).

Presentation

Crockery

The weight of your plate or bowl can affect your perceived appreciation of taste. For example, people found yogurt to taste significantly better when they ate it from heavier, but visually identical bowls.

Crockery’s color matters, too. Strawberry mousse served on a white plate has been found to have a significantly more intense and sweet flavor than if served on a black one.

Plating's effect on perception of flavor
People would pay twice as much for B. and found it 18% tastier. (Study)

Plating

Participants in one experiment were prepared to pay twice as much for a salad plated to resemble an abstract painting than one presented normally. And they found it to be 18% tastier even though the ingredients were exactly the same.

Food Color

In one of my favorite experiments I read about, dinner party guests were treated to a seemingly ordinary meal of steak, peas, and chips in an unusually dimly lit room. Halfway through, the lights were turned up and the guests realized the steak was artificially colored blue, the peas red, and the chips green. This apparently sent a few guests to the toilet with nausea.

Color “creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge,” said a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. It “is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life.” Or maybe rather than “taking the pleasure out of life,” banning food dyes would tilt the odds in favor of genuinely colorful foods like fruit and vegetables?

Context

Interior Decor

Our physical surroundings play a part in our perception of taste.

When 441 people drank the same whiskey in three different rooms with dramatically different decor, their taste ratings varied by 10 to 20 percent. Their perceived attributes of the whiskey varied, too. In the room decorated with exposed wood, clocks, and the sound of a fireplace, tasters perceived the whiskey to have a more woody taste.

Eating oysters
Oysters taste better and saltier when accompanied by sounds of the sea.

Sound

Oysters taste better and saltier when our slurping is accompanied by a soundtrack of sea sounds like seagulls and waves rather than barnyard noises like clucking chickens and mooing cattle. And bacon and egg flavored ice cream tastes more like bacon if we hear the sound off sizzling strips while eating it, and more like eggs with chickens clucking in the background.

The sound of the food itself matters, too. When Pringle’s eaters were told to pop until researchers told them to stop while wearing headphones that enhanced or dulled the crunch sound, the heavy crunch munchers reported their chips to taste 15 percent fresher.

Timing

Taste preferences change depending on the time of day. As the guru of food psychology, Paul Rozin, puts it, “To say one likes lobster does not mean that one likes it for breakfast or smothered in whipped cream.” But then again, if you’re starving after a multi-day fast, it may taste fantastic.

When taste testing two beers, the taste of one significantly alters that of the other.

Contrast

Wine will taste blander if it follows a robust, fruity wine than if the previous one was subtle. This contrast effect is so strong that it obliterates any real differences in quality. And it obliterates the reputation of expert wine judges, who are wildly inconsistent when trying, and failing, to consistently rate dozens of different wines at competitions.

Eating Technique

Breathing

Most of the smell that makes up our perception of taste doesn’t come up through our nostrils but via the back of our mouths. Breathing heavily and unevenly as we scarf down food hampers that flow. So breathe evenly and easily to push more aroma up and enhance flavor.

Chewing

Hopefully you’ve heard the news by now (it came out in 1974, after all): the “Tongue Map” is less accurate than early explorers’ maps of North America. All parts of our tongues can detect all types of taste. Plenty of other body parts, like our stomachs, lungs, and intestines, have taste receptors too.

The mouth is where most of the magic happens, so the more we chew and move that food around the mouth, the more taste we will perceive. It also gives more chances for your saliva and the bacteria in their mouth to process and release more flavor.

Eating salad with my hand
May we suggest dropping the cutlery and eating with your hands?

Cutlery

A food, like yogurt, will be perceived as richer and more expensive if the cutlery you use is lighter than you think. And the contrast between the color of your cutlery and that of your food color will also have a small effect.

Here at The Unconventional Route, we’re proponents of cutting out the cutlery middle man and eating with your hands.

Enjoying a spoonful
Your perception of taste is in your hands.

Take Control of Your Taste

The short lesson from this long list of factors that affect our perception of taste is this:

Taste is whatever you make of it.

You can either love or hate the food in front of you without making any change to it. Tinker with all of these factors and train your brain to appreciate taste the way you want. Make every bite in life a little more delicious.

Still Hungry for More?

Here are some fact-filled sources of more info on factors that affect perception of taste:

  • Taste, by Barb Stucky. A professional food developer walks you through the practical science behind taste and exercises to try to get more out of it.
  • First Bite, by Bee Wilson. The science behind what causes our food preferences and how to change them. Especially helpful for parents hoping to raise their kids to be true omnivores.
  • The Perfect Meal, by Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman. Pretty much an extended version of this post. For some reason, it’s super expensive on Amazon, so maybe start with their free extended article, A Touch of Gastronomy.

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris are exploring better ways to do... everything. Think, travel, exercise, work, relate, you name it. Every week-ish, we share a new idea in our newsletter, "Consider This."