Why Are Picky Eaters So Picky?

Fresh Green Kale on plate. Healthy eating concept

Did you ever wonder why a food one person adores may be a dish another abhors — and why some people seem to be born adventurers when it comes to what’s on their plates, whereas others are super-picky eaters?

Jane Kauer, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania whose work focuses on issues related to food, eating, body and culture, recently discussed the science of picky eating with NPR.

Among her insights:

People are turned off by different things. Some people don’t like certain textures; others are put off by specific flavors or colors. And in some cases turnoffs go beyond the strictly sensory: Some people can’t stand foods that have come into contact with other foods on their plates or foods that have particular (especially unexpected) ingredients in them — for instance, people who are totally turned off when they find raisins in their muffins or puddings. And here’s an interesting one: Some people are repulsed by foods that have been handled by someone else in any way. (Here’s an interesting story on the foods people hate most.)

Many of us start from the same place. Although specific food tastes have a lot to do with our cultural influences and individual experiences, most infants are born with a preference for sweetness and an aversion to bitterness. “We all come in with that, so we’re not a total blank slate,” Kauer says. We are also very slightly predisposed to like “slightly salty things” and vaguely and moderately sour things, Kauer notes.

Our experience shapes our tastes. If a specific food has made us sick, we may forever associate it with that unpleasant response and avoid it. The “neurobiological” association may be so strong when it comes to foods that make us feel nauseous that it can be difficult to overcome — not impossible, but definitely “not easy,” Kauer says.

Eating should be a no-pressure zone. Picky eaters may be invited to try foods, but shouldn’t be pressured to eat a disliked food. However, if they want to try to expand their tastes, that option is totally on the table. “Usually the method that is effective … is start small, and start with something you have some desire to want to like. It’s just like you imagine doing with a kid … ‘I took one sip, that’s it,’ Kauer tells NPR. “If you do that serially, and not too spread out in time, then you will increase liking. To be clear, it doesn’t mean that person will like it; it just means their disliking may be decreased.”

For more on picky eaters, check out this great NOVA video on the subject and, of course, the Picky Eaters Project, which features picky-eater-approved recipes and resources to help you with the picky eaters in your life.

Photo courtesy of iStock

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