You’re having brunch at that new place everyone is talking about and, after perusing the extensive menu, you’ve narrowed it down to two very different choices: red velvet pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate chips and a Florentine Benedict with hash browns. Now the real dilemma begins. Your friends have all ordered. The waiter’s gaze falls onto you expectantly with his pen poised above his notepad. Wait, how did this happen? You need more time. Your heart rate speeds up. Sweat beads your upper lip. You debate whether or not it’s socially acceptable to book it out of the restaurant, but you know the real question isn’t, “Do I want pancakes or eggs Benedict?” It’s, “Do I want something sweet or savory?” Eventually, you go with your gut (or more accurately, your taste receptors) and order the…
Whichever option you choose says a lot about your general taste preferences. Being born with a major sweet tooth, I’ve always been more partial toward the saccharine side of life, choosing cookies over potato chips, chocolate over French fries and red velvet pancakes over Florentine Benedicts. Working in an ice cream shop in high school only enabled my borderline sugar addiction, and whenever someone asks if I want to get ice cream or frozen yogurt, my reaction is significantly more excited than if the same person were to ask if I wanted to get pizza or tacos. Although I, like most people, do have cravings for foods at the other end of the flavor spectrum, I’ve always wondered why humans tend to have a strong inclination to choose one over the other.
Not surprisingly, the types of flavors we prefer are largely dependent on genetics: Our unique combination of genes determines taste sensitivity and the number of taste buds we have, which is usually around 10,000. Our preferences also depend on the types of food we grew up eating and the experiences we associate with those foods. If you had pretzels in your school lunch bag every day and enjoyed buttery popcorn at the movies with your parents, you might have developed a craving for salty foods. If your favorite memories include decadent chocolate cake for all of your birthdays or milkshakes with your middle school teammates after a soccer game, you might have developed a strong sweet tooth. Could my infatuation with ice cream derive from my fond childhood memories of walking to the nearby ice cream shop to get raspberry sorbet with my dad? Makes sense to me! Additionally, the more accustomed to one flavor we become, the more we continue to want to eat it. Looks like I won’t be switching to the savory side anytime soon.
Whether you prefer the Dole Whip or fried pickles at Disneyland, an Icee or popcorn at the movies or frozen yogurt or French fries for a late-night snack, you can now understand the science behind your choices. So, what side are you on? Team Sweet or Team Savory?