Are tastes really subjective? Obviously people have different food preferences. Two people can eat the same food—one will love it, another detest it. According to conventional wisdom, there is no right or wrong on the matter, just blameless disagreement.
Moreover, the science on taste and aroma shows that individuals differ in their ability to detect flavor compounds in food. “Supertasters” are more sensitive to bitter compounds than the general population, some people require fewer sugar molecules in solution to detect sweetness than others, and about 15% of the population thinks cilantro is vile, probably because they can’t detect the molecules responsible for cilantro’s fresh, floral aroma. Thus, even scientists are claiming that we live in different “taste worlds” and that each person has a unique palate shared by no one else.
But this idea of different “taste worlds” is misleading, and differences in preferences should not lead us to conclude that taste is thoroughly subjective.
The idea of different “taste worlds” suggests that the qualities of another person’s taste experiences are utterly inaccessible to me. But the fact we have different thresholds for tasting substances like sugar or other compounds doesn’t entail that taste is thoroughly subjective. If I detect sucrose in a 1 part in 200 solution and you detect it in a 1 part in 198 solution, there will be a substantial difference in our “taste worlds” only for foods with sugar content that falls within that very narrow range. Chocolate ice cream will taste sweet to both of us. Unless someone suffers from a pathology or has a genetic incapacity to detect a particular substance, small differences in detection thresholds will matter only on the margins. In other words, there will be a large overlap in our ability to taste sweetness. That does not create different worlds even when aggregated for the vast number of compounds human beings can taste and smell. Rather, we live in a shared world of tastes about which we have a slightly different perspective in a small number of cases. It isn’t as if lots of people are baffled by the phrase “sweet as honey.”
Taste preferences of course are another matter. We differ in what we like and have vastly different histories of taste experience. But “different worlds” is still not the right way to characterize those differences. Our tastes are continually changing. We outgrow the milkshakes and candy of youth and replace them with kale and quinoa. We know from experience that we can learn to like new foods and new flavors; and in some cases we can learn to overcome aversions and disgust if we work at it. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that our tastes are influenced by the place setting on which our food sits, the physical, social, and musical environment in which we eat it, the beliefs we have about it, and the opinions others offer about it. Our tastes are subject to influence in very surprising ways. The faddishness of our foodways makes that obvious.
Thus, our taste preferences do not create independent worlds but instead form a complex, overlapping manifold of continually shifting, malleable connections. Yes, we disagree about taste but that disagreement is not stable, and neither your perspective nor my perspective is inaccessible to mutual influence and the possibility of inter-subjective agreement.
Granted our tastes are internal. I cannot have your experience nor you mine. And I can never know with certainty and precision what your taste experiences are like. But that does not mean there is no common world of flavor that we are striving to grasp or that disputes about taste are meaningless, futile and not subject to norms and standards.
So let’s stop talking about different taste worlds. Celebrate our differences but with the recognition that they are fleeting, partial, and subject to influence.