Being A Picky Eater Is All In Your Head

Hate Brussels sprouts? Can't stomach mushrooms? Think cilantro tastes like soap? It's (pretty much) all in your head.

When studies linking the world's most polarizing herb, cilantro, to genetics made the rounds in 2010, cilantro haters everywhere felt validated. Hating cilantro wasn't their fault, cilantrophobes explained. It was a characteristic they were born with, like hair color or height.

But while these studies carry scientific backing, they don't present the full story, which is that we have all evolved to have an innate distaste for bitter and unfamiliar vegetables and herbs. Plants produce bitter, sometimes toxic chemicals to ward off predators, and humans evolved with an innate dislike for bitter flavors as a protection mechanism. There's even evidence that women are more sensitive to strong-tasting vegetables during pregnancy.

So what separates picky eaters from the kale enthusiasts among us? A willingness to try new things, for one. Becoming a better dinner guest could be as easy as trying your blacklisted foods over and over again, a phenomenon called "mere exposure."

The theory of mere exposure isn't revolutionary -- generations of parents have cajoled their picky toddlers into repeatedly trying "just one bite" of broccoli -- but the idea that there aren't foods we don't like, just foods we haven't given a fair chance, as Frank Bruni posited in the New York Times recently, is certainly novel.

As Bruni wrote:

No cauliflower for him. No broccoli for her. This Mary won't have even a little lamb. That Larry won't touch skate. All of them assume that their predilections are as rooted as redwoods, as fixed as eye color. And all of them are wrong, because appetite isn't just or even mainly physiological. It's psychological. Emotional. It's a function of expectation, emulation, adaptation.

Take, for example, a small but oft-cited study among food scientists about the human preference for chili peppers, conducted by Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller back in 1980.

"Exposure to gradually increasing levels of chili in food seems to be a sufficient condition for preference development. Chili likers are not insensitive to the irritation that it produces," Rozin and Schiller wrote. "They come to like the same burning sensation that deters animals and humans that dislike chili; there is a clear hedonic shift."

In a sense, it's a battle of cognition. By eating small amounts of unfamiliar foods without negative effects, we enter a state of learned safety, where we no longer fear the new food and can even learn to like it.

Oysters are a perfect example, according to Armand V. Cardello, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. "You're in a crowd of people, there's peer pressure. You try them for the first time. Well, all of a sudden you've overcome your neophobia to them."

According to Cardello, you are cognitively overcoming your predisposition for disliking oysters, and repeated consumption will only increase your preference for slurping down mollusks.

But what about those foods you've hated ever since childhood? Proper preparation goes a long way. John E. Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Pennsylvania State University, despised the Birds Eye Brussels sprouts his parents boiled in a saucepan and served him for dinner as a kid.

"They had this rubbery, slimy texture and this strong sulfur smell to them, and they were really just gross," he said. Today Brussels sprouts are among his favorite vegetables. What changed? "I buy the fresh ones. I peel them. I roast them in the oven until they are crispy," he said. "So instead of having that rotten egg, boiled cabbage stench in the house, you have this sweet, slightly nutty scent. How much of our changing tastes are really that we've gotten more sophisticated in terms of how we prepare our foods?"

Perhaps we could all benefit from taking a second look at our will-not-eat lists and exercising some free will -- or at least superior cooking skills: "You can do things like cook them differently -- something as simple as putting a tiny pinch of sugar on your vegetables helps block the bitterness," Hayes explained.

We could also stop giving picky eaters a free pass at the dinner table. "I get really frustrated when people misinterpret my work and say, 'Oh, it's all in my genes. It's not my fault,'" Hayes said. "Well guess what? You learned to like beer. You could learn to like vegetables if you really wanted to."