Disgusting or Just Unpleasant?

disgustFood culture writer Sara Davis asks an intriguing series of questions (i.e. intriguing if you like thinking about the pleasures of food)

Is there such a thing as a middle zone for taste? Is it possible to taste something that is not enjoyable without feeling something like disgust? When food is lacking in flavor or has a homogenous texture, the words we use to describe those sensations–bland, mealy, tepid, etc.–have negative associations; do those negative sensations define a disgusting experience, or is there some middle space between pleasant and unpleasant tastes?

My intuitive, initial response was of course. I don’t enjoy pasta with no sauce, butter, oil, or seasoning. It’s the very definition of bland. But I wouldn’t say it’s disgusting, and in fact I’m always sampling plain pasta when I cook to see if it’s done without experiencing disgust.

After thinking about it, I think the question involves a conceptual confusion. Disgust is not just a negative taste sensation, a bit of unpleasantness. Disgust is an emotion that consists, in part, of involuntary recoil and at least the beginning stages of nausea. Certainly a taste experience can be unpleasant without inducing the more powerful emotion of disgust. I know we sometimes say of food we don’t enjoy that it’s disgusting but that’s often a bit of hyperbole.

At any rate Sara’s inquisitive nature is commendable, surely beyond the call of duty:

Prison Food Weekend at Eastern State Penitentiary last summer offered an opportunity to explore these questions in an entirely unscientific and anecdotal way: I tasted a few samples of punishment loaf and observed others going through the same process.

Nutraloaf or punishment loaf is a food product used in some U.S. prisons as severe punishment, particularly for inmates who are in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. Punishment loaf is not standard cafeteria fare, it’s the modern-day replacement for bread-and-water rations in which most of the major food groups (proteins, starches, veggies) are blended together to meet daily nutritional requirements. The loaf is often served without utensils or a tray, so it must be eaten with the hands or out of a bag.

She describes the experience with the attention to detail of a NY Times food critic. So if you’re curious about what a loaf of nutrients stripped of flavor and context tastes like check out her post.

To be honest I find the fact someone finds it acceptable to deprive prisoners of the simple pleasure of a meal disgusting, and that’s not hyperbole.

But I do agree with her ultimate conclusion.

I don’t have an answer to my question–or if I do, it’s that tolerable blandness can become intolerable with only minor shifts in circumstances.

Foods that we find merely unpleasant can become disgusting. While I don’t find a few forkfuls of plain pasta disgusting, a plateful might be a different matter.


  1. Thank you for reading, Dwight! I’m pleased that the topic interested you.

    As a point of clarification: when I write about disgust, I’m drawing mostly on Aurel Kolnai, who focuses on the phenomenology of disgust, and Carolyn Korsmeyer, who examines disgust as an aesthetic experience. Neither of them link disgust explicitly to nausea, as Paul Rozin does, and I think their approaches allow for a more nuanced spectrum of disgusting experiences which include both physical encounters and conceptual or aesthetic apprehension of objects with disgusting characteristics. That seems like an appropriate way to view the Nutraloaf tasting: while some tasters certainly had the immediate, visceral recoil and spat out their samples, others approached the tasting as more of a conceptual exercise, pondering how they would experience the samples if they were given nothing else to eat. The latter tasters were not experiencing the model of disgust as a biological warning, but the disgusting sensory qualities of the samples were an integral part of their contemplation, which led many of them to the same moral disgust you describe feeling toward Nutraloaf as a form of punishment.

  2. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for commenting. I said in my post “the beginning stages of nausea” to capture the strongly reactive, physical response that Korsmeyer emphasizes with regard to taste, without requiring full blown nausea. There are of course other uses of the word “disgust” as in the aesthetic responses Korsmeyer discusses but it seems to me they begin to lose their emotional character when they allow the kind of imaginative exploration that you describe. Phenomenologically they seem much different.

    1. I see it more as a difference of degree than of kind. But then, I also approach the topic with a background in literature, which lends itself to an exploration of those shades between visceral and conceptual responses.
      All the same, I appreciate your point of view. Thanks again for sharing.

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