I used to hate Brussels sprouts. And coffee. And dark chocolate. And kale. And a wide-range of other foods I now adore. I know I’m not alone. Ask any young adult if they currently like a food they used to detest, and they’re sure to provide at least one example. If our tastes didn’t change over time, we’d all still be eating SpaghettiOs every day (alright, maybe that was just me). But why does our palate change as we get older? And what causes the changes?
Here’s how we come to love the foods we used to loathe.
Taste buds are receptors inside the mouth that detect the taste of foods. You might think that as you grow up and mature, the number of taste buds you possess would grow larger. In reality, the opposite is true.
The average person is born with roughly 10,000 taste buds. About every two weeks, they die and are replaced by a new batch. But as you grow older, the regeneration process slows down and some dead tastebuds don’t get replaced.
That is one reason why young children don’t like strong-flavored foods. They have more taste buds during that period of their life than they will at any other time, and that can have a serious impact on how they process intense flavors. Some people don’t lose their taste buds as quickly as others, so they retain their enhanced-tasting capabilities into adulthood. These people are commonly referred to as “super tasters.” But for most people, the number of taste buds gradually declines over time. This is also why many elderly people have a tough time detecting flavor in any food.
Amazingly, researchers have been able to pinpoint the age that most people begin to enjoy intense-flavored foods. According to a U.K. study that surveyed nearly 2,000 adults, the transition occurs in most people at or around 22 years old. That sounds about right to me. I’m a 24-year old who started enjoying spinach, goat cheese, dark chocolate, coffee and avocado just a few years ago.
Also, people are born with an evolutionary bias to prefer sweet-tasting things over bitter-tasting things. Infants are attracted to natural sweetness—like the kind in most fruits—because their bodies are built to sense natural sweetness as a sign that something is safe to eat. Alternately, they’re repulsed by bitterness because their bodies are built to sense it as a sign that something is poisonous.
Physical changes have a big effect on how certain foods taste to us, but exposure is another major factor.
If you’re repeatedly exposed to a certain type of strong-flavored food at a young age, it makes sense that it will become less offensive over time. In Mexico, for example, children enjoy eating chili peppers—not because they were born that way, but because so much of their native cuisine contains them. They really have no choice but to like chili peppers. On the other hand, kids in Indiana might try a chili pepper once and immediately find it too powerful and spicy. Consequently, they avoid that food and limit their exposure for several years of their life.
Paul Rozin, a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently spoke about this phenomenon to NPR. He said, “It’s like getting to like smoking—when you first smoke, it’s terrible. But you [may] keep going because there’s social pressure. And that pressure gives you enough experience … and somehow with that experience it usually inverts. The Chinese and Southeast Asians think we’re crazy for liking cheese, but they eat rotted soy and fish in their sauces.”
In that sense, exposure to certain foods is ultimately the biggest factor in whether we enjoy them growing up. It also explains why younger children are often such picky eaters. They find what they like and they stick to it. As we grow older, not only do our taste buds change, but we also begin to try foods outside our comfort zone and increase our exposure. I never thought about eating Thai food when I was 13, but a friend introduced me to it a few years ago, and now I eat it on a regular basis.
If you’re at the stage of your life when you enjoy foods you used to hate, hopefully now you know something about the physical and psychological changes that explain your changes in taste. If you’re still avoiding foods you’ve disliked for a long time, venture out of your comfort zone and give them a try. Maybe you’re ready to start liking them, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. It’s also a major plus that many of the foods people began liking later in life are low-processed, high-nutrient choices like cruciferous vegetables. So face your fears and give that food you think you hate another shot. It might turn into a new personal favorite.