Get Me Out of Hyper Flavor Land!

Posted on January 27, 2012


I love the taste of fruit. I almost like the taste of vegetables. So why am I ga-ga over certain chips, candies, breads and cheesy-ooey-gooey foods?

This 2008 Today’s Dietitian article explains part of it. Written by Juliann Schaeffer, it explains how palates work and offers tips on how to retrain our palates.

I’m in! (And so is my palate).

How does the palate work?

First, taste profile is usually set at birth with most people liking sweet and disliking bitter. A preference for salt kicks in when we are a few months old. Apparently this has its roots in evolution where sweet signaled that fruit was ready to eat while bitter warned that potential toxins were ahead. (I’m not sure where salt factors into this from an evolutionary standpoint. Maybe it was a reminder to drink water and find good oceanfront property.)

Our palates are enhanced by our environment. Flavor results from a number of senses with the two most prominent being taste and smell. While taste is set at birth, aroma preferences are learned.

According to the article, smell is perhaps a bigger indicator of preference than taste. (That explains my love affair with chocolate chip cookies.)

Oh No. Hyper Flavor.

Processed foods and/or fast foods have flavor added to them. It’s why a meal at a McDonald’s in New York City tastes the same as it does in Los Angeles. A certain brand of corn chips tastes the same no matter where you purchase the bag. The flavor has been engineered and then sprayed on.

People who eat a diet rich in processed foods develop hyper-flavor preferences. Their palates have a difficult time being satisfied with the natural sugar in fruit because it is not on par with the hyper-sweet of processed foods. Also, most fruit found in grocery stores  is picked before it’s ripe ( it’s not as sweet), so it can be a double-whammy for the hyper-flavor lover.

Boy, do I get this!

I love fruit. I eat fruit. I can taste the natural sugar and be satisfied. (Okay, I do have a love affair with chocolate chips and sometimes that overtakes all my senses.) When it comes to vegetables though, my senses are underwhelmed. My palate usually says, “blech” unless the vegetables are covered in salt, butter, flour or cheese. I think I understand now why that is. I spent many years eating vegetables from a can. That means added salt. When I acknowledged that fresh and frozen vegetables were more nutritious, I probably missed the salty flavor. So then I bought frozen vegetables that were pre-seasoned or I added a sauce to my fresh ones. Or, I made sure my entree had lots of good flavor to overwhelm the tasteless vegetables. My go-to vegetable? Salad with ranch dressing. Yay!  Hyper-flavor!

In spite of making an effort to eat more fresh vegetables, my palate is still lost in hyper-flavor-land. I eat vegetables but find them unsatisfying. Herbs don’t help. In large part, it’s the salt and fat that I’m missing. Interesting.

It’s time for Palate Strength Training.

The good news is that I can train my palate to appreciate less salt (and hence the more natural flavor of vegetables). The article discusses a study by Dr. Gary Beauchamp that demonstrated how a low-salt diet can change a palate preference for salt within a month. But the study also showed that it only takes a short time to reverse the trend.

Okay, that’s bad news. So it takes a month to prefer less salt but about six seconds to run back to hyper-flavor-land.

That goes for sweet stuff too. We might be able to change our palates to get used to a more natural sweet from fruit but the second the tempting hyper-flavor walks back in, it’s over.  Our palates prefer it that way.

The bottom line is our palates can be changed but they are always looking for greener hyper-flavor pastures.

While that’s a bummer, here are some tips to tip your palate in the right direction.

  • Eat foods when they are in season. That way you consume them at their flavor peak.
  • Keep healthy whole foods within easy reach.
  • Fake it until you make it. Keep introducing healthy whole foods and remain patient.
  • Put undesired foods with desired foods. (I don’t think this means Doritos with broccoli, though.)
  • “Simplify and harmonize” flavors. Some believe that too much flavor variety leads people to eat more. If you keep meal flavor profiles simple, you’ll likely eat less.

That last one got me. I usually try to have a couple of different flavors going on in my meals. If I have something particularly salty or savory then I’ll pair it with something sweet.  If something is spicy, then a little citrus will go in somewhere else.  I suppose it’s time to rework meals…

How about you? Are you living in hyper-flavor-land too? How do you escape?