Healthy Food: Why do people think “it doesn’t taste good”?

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

When asking people why kids and teens don’t eat regularly eat healthy foods, you’ll receive a variety of answers. Some will say it is because their parents haven’t taught them to appreciate good food, others will blame a lack of healthy food in school cafeterias or peer pressure. Ask kids themselves, especially younger kids who aren’t as aware of how their environment and the people in it affect them, however and you will likely be told that kids and teens don’t like eating healthy food because ”it doesn’t taste good”.


This is an interesting statement, although obviously flawed. It shouldn’t be possible to associate healthy foods with any taste in particular, especially since there is no concrete definition of a healthy food; you’ve probably noticed yourself how much the definition of a healthy food varies from person to person. That said, having spent the past week learning the basics of taste and olfaction (smelling) for a physiology midterm, I thought taste as it pertains to ”healthy food” would be an appropriate topic for this week’s column.


So, what is taste? We normally think of taste as something that we perceive when we put food in our mouths, but really, when we perceive taste, we’re perceiving it through olfactory sensorial cells (in the nose) as well as taste buds. Olfactory cells are varied and each respond to only a few specific molecules from foods that diffuse into the air and enter the nose, while taste buds can each respond to most of the main flavours, although each bud may have an inclination to one flavour in particular.


The five main flavours are sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, and umami.


By the way, if you’re thinking, ”what on earth is umami?”, don’t feel bad. You haven’t been living under a culinary rock–umami is a recently discovered flavour that has its own way of being sensed by tastebuds; umami, meaning delicious in Japan, is a savoury flavour that can be tasted when eating Asian dishes, particularly those that contain the infamous MSG or monosodium glutamate responsible for the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (yes, such a thing exists. Go google it.). Researchers speculate that umami probably won’t be the last addition to the list of flavours–there are other potential flavours that are being investigated.


Let’s return to the topic at hand. Why would ”healthy food” taste less appealing than ”junk food”? Perhaps because it tends to be less concentrated in sugar (a source of empty calories) or in salt (which we in Canada tend to intake too much of). Humans are programmed to seek out sugary foods since these help build of fat stores when there is the prospect of a lack of food later on.  Salt is also essential for humans (although we tend to see it in a negative light here in Canada since we intake so much of it that we suffer from the consequences of over consuming it), thus it is also a taste that appeals to us.


Acidic foods and bitter foods (often associated with toxicity) on the other hand are foods that we are programmed to avoid. The fruits. vegetables and other healthy plant foods that are available to us aren’t for the most part particularly acidic or bitter, but in comparison to unnatural salt or sugar laden processed junk foods, they may seem that way.  Consequentially, people who are accustomed to sugary and salty foods might find mellower, healthy foods repulsive. If you fall into this category, don’t despair just yet though.


Processed food manufacturers have a clever way of reducing the levels of sugar and sodium in their food products without changing their flavours that you can experiment with yourself. They reduce sugar and sodium by no more than 30%. Why? Taste buds aren’t particularly precise sensory receptors. They can only detect changes in concentration over 30%.


For this article, kudos goes to Luc Martin who teaches the physiology course I’m taking this semester as well as to the brick of a textbook, better known as the Vander, that I’ve been lugging around this semester.




Originally published in the Times & Transcript on November 19th, 2011.


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