It’s not easy to re-educate our sense of taste. Britain is learning that the hard way:
Two years ago, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver expressed horror at the Turkey Twizzlers being served in Britain’s school cafeterias and equated many school lunches with a four-letter word for the ultimate byproduct of all meals. He vowed to help lead students down the road to healthful eating.
The Pied Piper, it turns out, he was not. In the wake of an Oliver-inspired national program to provide more nutritious food, students have gravitated away from the cafeteria in a majority of the schools surveyed, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The findings back up earlier reports that more than 400,000 children had stopped eating school lunches since the program debuted in September 2006.
That said, it’s not impossible to change the tongue. As I note in the Escoffier chapter of my book, our sense of taste is extremely plastic. The best documented example of this “peripheral plasticity” concerns the chemical androstenone, a steroid that occurs in urine and sweat and has been proposed as a human pheromone. When it comes to smelling androstenone, humans fall into three separate categories. The first group simply can’t smell it. Those who can smell androstenone are either: (1) very sensitive smellers, who can detect less than 10 parts per trillion and find the odor extremely unpleasant (it smells like urine); and (2) smellers who are not only less sensitive but perceive the odor in oddly pleasant ways, such as ‘sweet’, ‘musky’ or ‘perfume-like’. What makes these differences in sensory experience even more interesting is that experience modulates sensitivity. Subjects repeatedly exposed to androstenone become more sensitive to it, thanks to feedback from the brain. This feedback causes the stem cells in our nasal passages to create more androstenone sensitive odor receptors. The new abundance of cells alters the sensory experience. What was once a perfume becomes piss.
My advice to the British schools is to be patient. Kids can learn to appreciate a good vegetable. The olfactory cortex is full of new neurons and malleable connections. But changing the brain takes time. I’ve also experienced first hand the way British academic cafeterias cook vegetables. (Let’s just that I didn’t know that green cabbage could be gray.) I’m pretty sure that no amount of plasticity could get me to appreciate that.