I haven’t eaten Miracle Whip in decades.
For those who aren’t familiar with Miracle Whip, it’s a dressing that looks like mayonnaise and is used in hundreds of food dishes such as deviled eggs, sandwiches, and potato and pasta salads. I remember that I did eat it as a child, but at some point would not touch it.
I traced my aversion back to playing with a childhood friend, Alice. I was at Alice’s house on a Saturday when her mom called us to eat lunch. She served grilled cheese sandwiches and told us that she opened up the sandwiches and spread some Miracle Whip inside. Alice and I ate our lunch and continued playing, and then I went home. In the middle of the night, I got up with all the symptoms of the flu. I mean all the symptoms. I got over it in a couple days, and life went on.
A few months later, my mom dished some potato salad onto my plate, and I refused to eat it. I could not eat any of it. Just the smell of the Miracle Whip in the dish repulsed me. Trying to understand why I would not eat her potato salad, Mom made comments like, “You used to love potato salad” and “When did you stop eating potato salad?” and the typical parental query, “what is wrong with you?”
If I had known it back then, I would have told her, “The last time I ate Miracle Whip I got the flu. Now I am repulsed by the smell and idea of Miracle Whip!” To this day, I only eat and purchase mayonnaise.
My high school biology teacher told us that all food tastes are psychological. I started to think about this and called my childhood friend, Diane M. Kaszuba, RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist), to find out if there is any truth to this.
Diane shared her own story: “When I was a kid, I ate too much pineapple cream pie at a family dinner. That night, I got nauseous and was throwing up! Disgusting! Maybe I had the flu too, but to this day, I can’t eat anything creamy with pineapple!” She added that pineapple is great fresh or canned but not in a cake, with cheese, or with whipped cream or cream cheese.
People avoid certain foods for a number of reasons. Both our food stories might be considered taste aversions. People might avoid certain foods, of course, because of food allergies or sensitivities that cause a rash, diarrhea, or other discomfort. If a person has acid reflux, they might not even want to look at a big bowl of marinara sauce or Mexican food. Some people with rosacea avoid red wines, different sauces, or chocolate. Basically, if it makes us sick or gives us discomfort of any kind, we will probably avoid that food.
I do not have any known food allergies, and I believe I have a strong aversion to Miracle Whip because of my childhood experience. I have learned that my high school biology teacher was right. There is such thing as a psychological taste aversion.
A psychological taste aversion is a tendency to avoid or make negative associations with a food that you ate just before getting sick. Many people have taste aversions, and they’re often the subject of conversations about food. When someone asks, “What food do you dislike?” many people can come up with a story about a run-in with a food that they now refuse to eat.
Both my friend Diane and I are classic examples of a conditioned taste aversion—we got the flu after eating a specific food, and then, long past the incident, avoided the food that we ate prior to getting sick. This can happen even though the food didn’t cause the illness since it isn’t spread this way. This is called a conditioned taste aversion because you’ve trained yourself to avoid the food even though it wasn’t related to your illness. It’s also considered a single-trial conditioning since it only took one time for you to be conditioned to avoid the food.
Besides a taste-aversion experience, there is lots of research about factors that cause us to eat or not eat foods. According to Robin Dando, associate professor of food science at Cornell University, our emotions can have a great effect on what we choose to eat. When people are in a positive mood, they are more sensitive to the taste of sweetness. However, experiencing negative emotions tends to heighten the sensitivity to sour tastes.
Taste aversions can occur both unconsciously and consciously. Sometimes, you can unconsciously avoid a food without realizing why. The strength of conditioned taste aversion usually depends on how much of the food you consumed and how sick you were. Your mood at the time you were eating the dish has a large impact on how you perceive taste. Scientists are predicting that this is due to the increase in the chemical serotonin released in the brain when people are experiencing positive emotions, but more research is needed to support this idea.
Dando also shares that color has an effect on our tastes. The flavor that is being perceived is strongly related to the color that you see. In many studies, the color of a drink strongly influenced the participant’s guess as to what flavor the drink was.
According to studies by other food researchers (Ndom, Elegbeleye, and Ademoroti), even though there was no association to the actual flavor of the drink, the color of the drink was what highly influenced participant guesses. For example, a green-flavored drink was associated with a citrus lime flavor whereas a red drink was associated more with a sweet strawberry flavor.
The researchers add a “Fun Fact”: Colorless, caffeine-free Crystal Pepsi and Heinz’s Colored Ketchup did not succeed because people said that they tasted different even though the perceived flavors were not in fact on the ingredients list.
Restaurants are beginning to implement sound and music as a way to enhance the taste of the dishes being served. One of the most famous examples of this comes from The Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, England. The owner had a special menu called Sounds of the Sea, where they served seafood accompanied by an iPod playing ocean sounds. According to many customers, this added to the taste and experience of the dish.
Furthermore, researcher Amy Fleming has discovered a correlation between high-pitched sounds and sweetness as well as low-pitched sounds and bitterness when eating bitter-sweet flavors such as dark chocolate or toffee. This phenomenon is called modulating taste and is not fully understood by scientists, but research is being done to further develop the reasoning behind this correlation.
Some food researchers found that round, white plates lead to a 20-percent increase in people rating the food as sweeter and a 30-percent increase in the intensity of the flavors in the meal. Certain theories suggest that the reason behind this phenomenon is that the colors of the food served on a white plate are more vibrant, leading to a perception of more intense flavor.
In the end, our brain is doing a lot more than just enjoying that piece of cake. Everything from our emotions in response to the color of the food and the sounds around us plays an important part in how much we enjoy the food we are tasting. So next time you are out in a restaurant, have a bite of your delicious meal and enjoy the taste of all your senses coming together.
So, be mindful of your next meals.