You can use all 5 senses to learn to
love healthy foods!

Love edamame? Loathe broccoli?  Run screaming from salmon?  You may think that your love or hate of certain (especially healthy) foods is hard-wired in your taste buds, but it turns out a lot of our tastes for foods can learned or relearned, even as adults.  Our flavor preferences are malleable: Eating is a multi-sensory experience with many opportunities to intervene.

While there are only five tastes that we can detect: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (which means savory or meaty), there are many factors that impact flavor.  A food’s texture, how it sounds, how appetizing it looks and how it smells, all play a role in flavor perception.  For instance, aroma can play mind games with our taste buds.  Note retronasal olfaction, or how we smell food through our mouths.  When you chew, the aromas from the food get released and sucked up through your nose as you breathe.   Apparently, when the scent and taste of a food are congruent, or naturally harmonious, like vanilla and sugar, we perceive this combination as one sensation in our mouth.  Even though vanilla actually has no taste at all (it’s only a smell), we are unable to separate which information came from the mouth and which from our nose.  Instead, we think the overall sensation is in our mouth.  It’s a trick that our brain plays on us.  And because we quite literally don’t know our nose from our taste buds, we can manipulate our senses to alter our taste perception.  Here are some ways you can use mind-over- menu tricks to eat healthier.


Amp up scent. Desserts are difficult to resist.  But the task is a little easier when their scent is intense.  When we experience a strong complementary aroma (even a pleasant one) with our food, we take smaller bites (for example, a whiff of coffee in a mocha dessert).  And we don’t make up for those smaller bites with more bites or by eating more food later.  It is believed that there is some sort of feedback loop happening to our brains when a strong complementary smell is present: we reduce our food intake so we are not overwhelmed with flavor.  Next time you serve a sweet treat at a dinner party, think about lighting a vanilla-scented candle.  Or when you order a dessert at a restaurant, pair it with strong-smelling coffee.

Lessen bitter smells.  People often turn up their noses at cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or broccoli, and for good reason: with cruciferous vegetables, we often think they just taste bitter, but data suggest that the aroma is also a big part that elicits that reaction.  Cauliflower and company contain smelly sulfurous compounds, which are there, in part, to protect the plants from animals and insects.  Those same compounds deliver cancer-fighting benefits.  But ‘masking the smell’ of broccoli and other vegetables can easily change our flavor perception.  Steaming the vegetables releases the sulfurous smell.  The process liberates some of the most volatile aromas, but since those smelly compounds will then be in the air, you’ll want to eat in a different room than where your vegetables were cooked.  Another option: roasting.  This cooking process enhances any natural sugars in the plants and can counterbalance the aroma.


Turn up the tunes. Even the background noise we hear while eating influences the way our mind judges food.  While the brain mechanics are still unknown, one theory is that positive and negative attributes from music carry over to perception of the food, a process called sensation transference.  Essentially, our brain integrates the sweet sound and sweet flavor into one stimulus.  You experience a similar phenomenon if you find a pasta dish especially delicious at your favorite restaurant when traditional Italian music is playing in the background.  Be mindful of a constant, unpleasant background noise: you know how food on airplanes often tastes bland?  Part of the reason is that the low-level and intense noise of the engines has a somewhat masking effect on flavors.  The sound actually dampens your flavor perception.  To use this mind game to your advantage, play your favorite upbeat tunes during healthy meals.  If you listen to pop music that you perceive as fresh and strong, you’ll wind up ascribing those same attributes to the food you’re eating.


Mind your sweet choices.   Research shows that sugar substituted foods play games with your mind.  While consuming either fake stuff of the real deal stimulates rewards areas of the brain, sugar substitutes activate this section more.   And a greater reward leads to more cravings.  Adding to the ‘keep eating’ mindset is sugar substitutes’ amped-up sweetness.  It’s about 400-13,000 times as sweet as sugar.  And over time, your brain and taste buds become accustomed to, and prefer, intensely sweet flavors over natural sweetness.  The less-sweet taste of foods with natural sugars often simply don’t cut it anymore.  The good news is you can rehabilitate your taste buds and brain.

Add flavor training wheels.  Though sugar substitutes can be counterproductive, a little bit of sweet can actually trick your brain into liking certain foods.  We can develop a taste for sour or bitter fruits and vegetables, like grapefruit or asparagus, by first getting used to a sweetened version.  It’s like flavor training wheels to get you to start accepting a particular food in your diet.  Just a touch of sugar helps to mitigate the bitterness or sourness.  If also buys you time to get familiar with new aromas and tastes.  You can eventually eliminate the sugar because you’ve already gotten over the biggest obstacles and are more likely to accept the new food.


Play with colors.  Flavor intensity increases as the color level on our plate increases.  For example, strawberry mousse served on a white plate rates consistently higher in flavor intensity, sweetness and enjoyability than the identical mousse served on a black plate.  The theory is that if there is a high color contrast between the plate and the food, your food will appear more vibrant, which translates into believing a food tastes more intense.  If you love powerful flavors, serve bright-colored fruit and vegetables on a white plate to enhance their flavor perception.  For picky eaters or people who are trying a certain food for the first time, place the same colorful produce on a dark plate.


Tweak Texture.  Crunchy, chewy, squishy, thick, thin.  All these textures play a role in how we interpret food and how much we eat.  More viscous foods (foods that are thicker or have less fluidity) leave a coating of flavor in your mouth that prolongs a pleasurable sensation.  For instance, the sweetness of a thick smoothie will last in your mouth longer than the sweetness of a soda.  In the same vein, anything that makes foods linger in your mouth longer, like adding crunchy bits that require a lot of chewing, draws out and intensifies positive sensations.  With all this intensity going on, smaller bites yield plenty of pleasure, and we eat less.  These types of foods elicit more sensations and more oral movement than less thick or less crunchy foods.  So people unconsciously react to the intensity with smaller bite sizes.

There are so many ways to expand your palate.  They are all fantastic paths toward healthier and more diverse foods. But perhaps the most important thing is to change your mindset.  Expose yourself to different foods at every opportunity. And instead of seeing this as a challenge to learn to like foods you hate, see it as becoming a connoisseur.  Have fun!

Holly Pevzner