The Frontal Cortex

Training the Tongue

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.


  1. #1 Steve Silberman
    October 4, 2007

    Very interesting.

    I am a very sensitive taster and smeller, and I had to train myself not to be repelled by cilantro. When I first moved to California, I was unfamiliar with the herb (believe me, they didn’t have it in white New Jersey in the 70s), and I swore that I could taste it in parts-per-million. It tasted precisely like someone had dissolved a bar of Ivory into the chili or salsa. But living in SF, every wonderful cuisine seemed to make use of it, from the brined chicken at Ton Kiang to the pescado frito at our favorite Salvadoran joint. I just forced myself to eat it, over and over, and within a month or so I absolutely loved it. Now, eating little pieces of cheese with cilantro seems wonderful. I’m glad I retrained my sensorium.

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    October 4, 2007

    Cilantro? A fine salad green. Puts a little pop into the bunnygrub.

  3. #3 chezjake
    October 4, 2007

    I suspect that the “cilantro tastes like soap” sensations are genetic. My daughter and I both have the same experience. We’ve found that using ground coriander seed (same plant as cilantro) provides flavor that pleases cilantro lovers but doesn’t give us the soapy taste.

  4. #4 Steve Silberman
    October 5, 2007

    > I suspect that the “cilantro tastes like soap” sensations are genetic

    I suspected that too; like being able to smell S-methyl thioesters in post-asparagus pee. That’s why I was happily surprised when I started loving cilantro. The soapy taste simply vanished at some point.

  5. #5 Dangerous Dan
    October 5, 2007

    A friend of mine compares the taste of Cilantro to “dirty dishwater.” Nasty it may be, but Pico de Gallo isn’t quite right without it. Coriander is an even more important ingredient.
    “Prepared Mustard,” a perennial favorite of everyone else in my family, is something I’ll probably never get used to. Anything that tastes that unpleasant from as much as thirty feet away is just too much work to adjust to.

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