Selective Eating: Nurture or Nature?


Like most families, mine has a mixture of vegetable lovers and haters. It is no surprise that I am on the vegetable loving side.  My brother…..well not so much! His vegetable intake is limited to iceburg lettuce, corn, and potatoes.  Part of the difference in our eating is likely due to genetics – we were each born with preferences for different tastes. Todd definitely wasn’t born with a taste for bitter foods. Not only does he avoid most vegetables, but he also drinks only pilsner-style American “light” beers. I try not to tease him about too much about the latter, because I suspect that he is a supertaster, a person who experiences the sense of taste much more intensely than the average person.

Just like some people have better vision than others, supertasters have a heightened sense of taste. The reason for this isn’t fully known, although the fact that they have more taste buds than average is believed to be a primary cause.  Taste buds (funigiform papillae) are receptors that send messages to your brain about flavors. If you have more receptors, you send more messages to the brain, which is translated as more intense flavor.  To borrow from the cult classic This is Spinal Tap, supertaster tongues are set at 11!

In addition to the number of taste buds, supertasters can be identified by their perception of two chemicals, PROP (6-n-proplythiouracil) and PTC (phenythioucarbamide). These chemicals will taste strongly bitter to supertasters  and mildly bitter to medium tasters. About 25% of us don’t have the genes to taste them at all!

While it is tempting to attribute selective (i.e. picky) eating to being a supertasters  not all supertasters are selective eaters and vice versa (Sorry big brother!) Genes only explain a small part of why we eat what we do. Nurture is stronger than nature, when it comes to eating. This is exciting news, because it means we can learn to eat and enjoy new foods! Our eating habits are not held back by our genetics. The key to cultivating a fondness for eating healthful foods, particularly vegetables, is the environment that they are offered and the habits we develop over time. 

Want to know if you (or your child) are a supertaster? Try this experiment from Scientific American. It is easy and fun experiment to do as a family.