Oh, to have been born loving broccoli instead of chocolate! Truth is, your DNA alone doesn’t dictate what you like (and don’t like).

I’ve been thrilled by my husband’s eating evolution, but I had never really stopped to consider how a man who had eaten one way for over 30 years successfully pulled off a dietary one-eighty. Then, a few months ago at a nutrition conference, I attended a lecture on taste preferences by Julie Mennella, Ph.D., a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “What we like to eat is shaped by both biology and experience,” Dr. Mennella explained. Jack’s diet transformation was starting to make sense.

Born to be wild about vegetables?

There are five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, which means “savory” in Japanese and is associated with meats and cheeses. When we eat, chemicals in our food are sensed by the thousands of taste buds on the bumpy projections (fungiform papillae) of our tongues. The chemicals attach to receptors in the buds, sending signals to the brain, which registers taste perceptions. Receptors also respond to the temperature of foods and chemicals that create physical sensations (think of chili with fiery jalapeños). Smell plays into one’s flavor experiences, too: foods release chemicals that travel up the nose to olfactory receptors, triggering a chain reaction of signals that amplify taste perceptions. (Prove this to yourself by holding your nose and sampling a jelly bean: you’ll taste sweet, but won’t get a burst of “flavor”—the term used to refer to taste plus smell—until you unplug your nose.

Next: Hard-Wired Taste Preferences? »

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