Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Matter of Taste

Image of tongue

While food preferences vary quite substantially in different cultures, hedonic responses to pure tastes in isolation are relatively independent of culture or diet in adults.

By John Prescott

Newborn babies will smile when they first taste sucrose and wrinkle their noses at the bitter taste of quinine. What is the adaptive significance of such innate responses to taste?

John Prescott is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Newcastle.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Almost two centuries ago, the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin noted in his meditations on foods and eating, The Physiology of Taste, that taste can be reduced “in the last analysis, in the two expressions, agreeable or disagreeable”. Neither our everyday experiences nor more recent scientific explorations of taste preferences have contradicted Brillat-Savarin’s conclusion that the dimension underlying taste is pleasure.

Think for a moment about your favourite foods. Not the ones you eat every day, as these are often selected on criteria like healthiness, wholesomeness and convenience, which have little to do with likes and dislikes. Instead, think about the foods you would eat every day if you had no concerns about weight gain, heart attacks or the need for balance in the diet, or perhaps the ones you reserve as a special treat.

For most people, their favourite foods are described in terms of qualities such as sweet, salty, creamy, rich, savoury, smooth or tangy. These qualities are, to a large extent, anchored in basic tastes such as sweetness, saltiness, the savoury quality known as umami, and fat, which is increasingly being recognised as a taste quality (AS, May 2010, p.6).

On the other hand, the foods we tend to dislike are often characterised by bitterness or, to a lesser degree, high levels of sourness. Bitterness is the reason, for example...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.