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3 Facts About How Genetics Influences Food Preferences

April 12, 2016

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When you go to a buffet or sit down at a family dinner, have you ever wondered why you pile your plate high with some foods, while you pass over others?

Maybe you weren’t exposed to the offending food enough as a child, or perhaps you have a family member who refused to eat it.

Humans are programmed to like certain sets of tastes (sweet or salty, for example), but there is much more that goes into a person’s food preferences. So the next time you turn up your nose at brussels sprouts or enthusiastically grab that piece of fish, remember these interesting facts.

Food preference is in our genes: Believe it or not, some of our food preferences come from what our mothers ate while we were in the womb. And if you were breastfed, you had even more exposure to your mother’s diet.

Research from Gary Beauchamp, emeritus director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, shows that babies whose mothers drank carrot juice late in their pregnancies and who drank carrot juice while breastfeeding, showed a higher preference for carrot-flavored cereal than babies whose mothers did not drink the juice.

There’s a reason toddlers are so picky: Anyone who has tried to feed a toddler knows it can be impossible. One minute she will eat nothing but one type of food, and the next minute she will be wolfing down plates of adult-sized food portions.

According to Beauchamp, when we turn 2, we start to become wary of new foods. This isn’t to annoy parents, but to keep us safe. In the wilderness, a child would break away from its mother and start to feed itself at about the age of 2, Beauchamp says. To survive, the child develops a skepticism of new foods that taste sour or bitter. The sour or bitter flavor profiles—while shared with a variety of healthy foods—mean something is likely poisonous or rotten.

If you weren’t eating a certain food at age 2, it’s unlikely you’ll find that food on your plate now as an adult, Beauchamp says.

You can learn to like it: Just because you didn’t eat something as a toddler doesn’t mean you can’t begin to like it as an adult. Try the same exposure tactic you would use with a toddler to let yourself become familiar with a new food, and remember to be patient—experts say it can take two to four months to become accustomed to a new food.

If you’re branching out to try more bitter vegetables, try adding a pinch of sugar, salt or cheese to make them more palatable. The trick is to add only enough of extra condiments to mask some of the bitterness. Experts note that you still want to be able to taste the vegetable.

Whether you’re trying a new food as an adult or introducing a picky toddler to a new nosh, exposure—and patience—is key. If you’ve tried a new food several times and have attempted to flavor it and it’s still not to your liking, perhaps you can chalk it up to genetics.

Ideas for a week's worth of healthy meals.