In a room filled with bean-bag chairs and crayon drawings at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Sciences Center, Nuala Bobowski doles out two shots of sugar water. One has the average concentration preferred by adults, the other a concentration preferred by kids. There’s a twinkle in her eye as she waits for me to taste them and guess which is which. One is so sweet that it makes me sputter and gasp. That’s the one most 5- to 15-year-olds like. It has more sugar than a can of soda.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Kids love pushing aside their bitter veggies at dinnertime and reaching for desserts instead. It’s a preference that’s biologically ingrained. In some ancient corner of the human brain, bitterness triggers warning signs of potentially poisonous plants, while sweet taste is a signal for energy and calories, says Bobowski, now an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Thousands of years ago, liking for sweet taste would have conferred an advantage for survival.”
Today, however, these biological preferences get us into trouble by encouraging diets linked to increasing rates of obesity and disease. One might think that a trick like genetically modifying bitter vegetables to taste sweeter could solve the problem, but that would only increase cravings for sweet food, the way artificial sweeteners in sodas do. Still, there may be a solution. A new field wants to change how people perceive the flavor of food itself. By rewiring our brains into thinking that broccoli tastes more delicious and chocolate cake less so, this approach, known as neurogastronomy, may have found the secret to nudging people into eating more healthily. It may even help patients who’ve lost their sense of taste or smell enjoy their food again.