It’s a cliché to point out that taste is subjective, not only because people have different preferences but because our ability to taste various substances in food and drink differs from person to person. But the crucial question is to what degree these abilities are trainable. Can we learn to taste better and thus potentially overcome these subjective differences?
Science has discovered that some of the variance in our sensitivity to bitter compounds is genetic, and that suggests that some of these taste thresholds may be fixed—we can’t do much to change them. But that would be too hasty a conclusion according to some new research. A team of scientists headed by Danielle Reed an the Monel Chemical Senses Center recently did a study of the perception of sweetness in twins compared to non-twin siblings and unpaired twins and found that about 30% of the variance could be explained by genetic factors:
The researchers gave the twins and the other subjects two natural sugars (glucose and fructose) and two artificial sweeteners (aspartame and NHDC) and then asked them to rate the perceived intensity of the solution.
They found that genetic factors account for about 30 percent of the variance in sweet taste perception between people for both the natural and artificial sugars.
This suggests that 70% of the variance is not genetically hard-wired leaving some significant room for other factors such as history and culture to influence taste.
The finding doesn’t mean that the people who have a weaker ability to taste sweet necessarily dislike sugar. And just because you don’t get a big high from a little sugar doesn’t mean you eat more of it. “How you perceive [sweet] may influence what you like in the extreme, but it’s more like shades of gray,” she says. “And we still need to see whether this has any implications for people’s food behavior.
If taste is largely a matter of enculturation and personal history, then at least in theory, tastes are up to a point educable and can be changed, suggesting that disagreements about taste are not always intractable. (Which is not to say the process of educating taste is easy)
The slogan de gustibus non est disputandum itself may be subject to dispute.