03 Nov 11 The psychology of food aversions
Got a food that made you sick once and now you can’t touch it? It’s not your fault. Blame a million years of evolution…
Is there a food you just don’t like, and you can’t explain why? Or perhaps a food that made you sick once, and now you can’t come near it? It could be the result of a million-year-old survival mechanism. It’s called taste aversion, and it’s one of the strongest conditioned reactions in humans, explains David Solot, a PhD student in organisational psychology at Walden University, with a Masters in clinical psychology, writing on Eatocracy, CNN’s food blog.
Here’s how taste aversion works: You and your buddies go out for a few drinks. You’re young and wild and love drinks with the strong coconut flavour of Malibu Rum. Things get a little out of hand, and you spend part of the night praying to the porcelain god. You recover, and next weekend go out for drinks again. The bartender passes you your favourite drink, but this time the smell of coconut immediately makes you want to vomit. You loved Malibu for years, but now, the very thought of it makes you sick.
What you’re experiencing is your brain protecting you from being poisoned. When we were primitive creatures, we weren’t sure what was safe to eat so we tested things out.
If you survived the experience, your brain had to make sure that you never ever ate that same thing again. So, if you ate something that made you feel ill, your brain decided “better safe than sorry,” and conditioned you to feel sick anytime you saw, smelled or even thought about that same food.
The next time you went foraging for food and came across a berry that made you feel sick in the past, you would get hit with an overwhelming feeling of nausea and go eat something else. The people who were good at developing taste aversions lived and had children. The ones who were bad at it – well – they largely got poisoned and died. So over the centuries, our ability to form taste aversions got stronger and stronger.
The reason your night of drinking resulted in a hatred of Malibu is due to this same survival mechanism. When you felt nauseated at 3am, your brain sensed that you had been poisoned. Your brain didn’t know for sure what caused it, but it did remember a really strong coconut flavor from earlier that night.
To protect you, your brain decided “better safe than sorry,” and assumed that the coconut flavour was to blame. To make sure you don’t poison yourself in the future, it set up a conditioned response so that the smell or taste of coconut will make you feel sick.
That’s how taste aversions work properly – you no longer want to eat the thing that made you sick. But it can get more complicated than that.
You may find that you suddenly hate coconut shavings on ice cream. A year later, you may push away a plate of coconut-battered shrimp at a restaurant, and have no idea why you find it so repulsive. Taste aversions are just that powerful, and they can last for years after only one bad experience.
To make matters more confusing, sometimes aversions form for the wrong food. Imagine that on the way to work one morning you stop off for your traditional cup of coffee. Later that day, your co-workers all go out for Indian food. You’ve never had Indian food before, but you’re up for something new. You have a delicious meal and try lots of new items. But around 3pm, you start feeling queasy. It gets worse and worse, and by the evening you’re sick to your stomach and not able to hold anything down.
Your brain senses that you’ve been poisoned. Once again, it isn’t sure what did it, but it does remember a lot of strong spices and flavours that it never tasted before. To make sure you don’t poison yourself in the future, your brain decides “better safe than sorry,” and conditions you to feel sick any time you smell, taste or even think about Indian food.
The problem is, it turns out that there was nothing wrong with the Indian food – it was the creamer in your morning coffee that had gone bad! “No way,” says your brain, “we’ve had that coffee every day for a year. We know that it’s safe. It had to be that weird new food we ate.”
Suddenly you have a strong aversion to Indian food, even though it tasted good and there was nothing wrong with it. To make matters worse, you’ll probably never know your hatred of Indian food is irrational, because you don’t know that the real cause of your illness was your coffee. You’ll likely think that Indian food makes you sick and avoid it in the future…..