And now for something completely different: What makes foods disgusting?

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifTired of all the hoopla about the Blogger SAT Challenge? Do you not want to hear another word about Booker T. Washington and why he is or is not like George W. Bush? Then have I got a study for you: Yolanda Martins and Patricia Pliner have conducted a fascinating experiment about food preferences -- or, rather, what precise attributes make food disgusting.

Though disgust has long been considered to be a "basic emotion," there has been surprisingly little research on what foods evoke disgust (hopefully by now you've figured out that you probably don't want to read this post too close to a meal). The general consensus until Martins and Pliner's experiment was that the key to disgust was the "animal" elements of food. Researchers typically found that the more a food reminded people of animals, the more likely they were to be disgusted.

In some ways, it made sense: people chop meat into unrecognizable pieces, they avoid blood or offal, and they even name meats with new words: "beef" and "pork" instead of "cow" and "pig." But sometimes, the analysis didn't make much sense: theorists had to argue that people are disgusted by a slimy cucumber because it reminds them of a slimy animal.

What Martins and Pliner did in their study is figure out a new way to parse the data. They identified 12 components of disgust from the literature, ranging from bloodiness, organs, and fat to spoilage, squishiness, and insects. Then they created 24 different scenarios, two for each component. Here are a couple typical ones, for the category "viscera":

You are visiting some friends in the Southern United States and one evening you all go out to dinner. One of your friends orders chitterlings, a specialty dish in the South which is really the intestines of a hog. Your friend offers you a bite of his chitterlings. How would you feel about eating the chitterlings?

You are in a butcher's shop awaiting your turn at the counter when you notices a large pile of intestines piled on the corner of the chopping block, just barely touching the slab of beef that is currently being cut. When you are at the counter you request a piece of steak and the butcher cuts it from the slab of beef touching the pile of intestines. Later that day the steak is cooked. How would you feel about eating the steak?

The first 80 participants rated how they felt about each of these scenarios in four different ways: nausea, dislike of the idea of the food in their stomach, dislike of the food source, and general disgust. Then 69 participants rated the same scenarios along each component of disgust: bloodiness, sliminess, and so on.

By analyzing these two separate tasks in conjunction with one and other, Martins and Pliner were able to show that there are actually two different dimensions of disgust: a tactile dimension (represented by gooeyness, sliminess, mushiness, smell, and rot), and the previously identified animal dimension (animalness, contact with blood, reminder of life, bloodiness, contact with other bodily fluids, like humans, and reminder of humans).

Martins and Pliner suggest that minimizing these factors may be a key way to introduce new foods in ways that will be acceptable to lots of people. For example, insects can be a good source of protein, but are found to be disgusting by most Westerners. Preparing and/or marketing them in a manner that makes them less disgusting might be a way to increase the use of insects in Western cooking.

Martins, Y., & Pliner, P. (2006). "Ugh! That's disgusting!": Identification of the characteristics of foods underlying rejections based on disgust. Appetite, 46, 75-85.

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I feel the need to point out that the beef/cow pork/pig language is not a result of disgust, but of the way the English language evolved. We get beef and pork from the French after 1066 when they invaded and conquered England. After the Norman Conquest, the upperclass started using more French derived words as opposed to good old A-S. The French were now doing the cooking but the peasants were doing the farming. That's why you get French in the kitchen and Anglo-Saxon in the barnyard. ;)

Same with things like Attorney General, Court Martial. French conquerors brought French law.

But even in French, vache is different from boeuf, and you have cochon and porc.

In English, sometimes you hear people saying "let's eat some pig," but that's considered a little vulgar.

I'm not at all impressed by Martins and Pliner's classification, or by their means of arriving at it. The two cited examples of their questions rely on a combination of visual perception and imagined associations. Imagination and memory are also richly stimulated by olfaction. Smell is olfactory, not tactile, and in most cases people detect rot through olfaction well before they'd even try to taste something. The authors seem not to have made any distinction between peoples' reactions to descriptions and any actual experiences they have had. Without some kind of control for whether their subjects had ever actually tasted (or tried to taste) things, I think the study has lost much validity.

I, personally, have no problem with the various meat/animal associations, and my few personal dislikes in that realm are based primarily on perceived texture in the mouth, not on actual taste or smell. My reluctance to order tripe, octopus, or squid is more related to the fact that they are so often overcooked to the point of rubberiness than to any bias on the actual taste or their biological origins.

Almost all of the things that produce a feeling of disgust in me are based on textural perceptions (canned peas, tofu -- raw clams or oysters actually trigger a gag reflex in me, even though I love the flavor), and a few are olfactory/taste related, usually related to cues of spoilage, like rancid fats, sour milk, certain bacterially fermented cheeses, etc.

And I'm sure many people develop feelings of disgust about particular foods based solely on adverse associations in personal experience. I personally am completely revolted at the thought of eating Campell's tomato soup -- because I was forced to eat it in hospital very shortly after having my tonsils removed under ether anesthesia at age seven. I promptly barfed it all over the nurse who was forcing it down me, and haven't been able to eat it since.

Personal experience and perceptions of food based on previous association or imagination are far more important in engendering feelings of disgust than anything else, IMHO.

There is a certain proportion of people who absolutely cannot stand even the sight, even less to actually taste, the freshly formed cream ("skin") on the surface of the milk. My anatomy professor back in the 1980s said that this was known to be a heritable trait. Do you know anything about it?

"Preparing and/or marketing them in a manner that makes them less disgusting might be a way to increase the use of insects in Western cooking."


By PhysioProf (not verified) on 03 Oct 2006 #permalink

Actually Bob has a point. Vache is different from boeuf, but language evolution still comes into play because both vache and cow denote females, with taureau and bull for males. Boeuf has come to refer, generally, to the meat of the genus (bos or bovine), but le boeuf can also refer specifically to a castrated bull/taureau. Porc/cochon probably makes a better case for the argument of assigning different names based on reducing the disgust factor, but cochon appears in the name of a number of dishes, e.g., oreilles de cochon (pig's ear, which does sound quite disgusting to me!), cochon de lait (pig in milk or suckling pig), etc.

By Doubtful Muse (not verified) on 03 Oct 2006 #permalink

Pork is called "pig meat" in Swedish, and it's still the most popular meat in the country. And chicken is usually called, well, "chicken" in English when you refer to the meat.

I doubt there are many genetically imposed characteristics of disgustingness; I'd guess a few characteristic smells would be about it. Mostly I think this is a form of imprinting, where we pick up what constitues good and bad food from our parents during early adolescence.

Viscera as a food is popular the world over. Eating whole, small fish (with the head) is a popular kind of dish in many places. Blood soup is a traditional autumn dish in southern Sweden (yes, it's dark red and yes it's lukewarm), and blood sausage and blood pudding is an everyday meal in most of the country.

I agree with chezjake-- the situation is most likely a lot more complex than the researchers stated, and finding commonalities may be a lot more difficult than they imagined. On a lighter note, if eating insects becomes the norm in Western society, than the Orkin Man may become as lonely as the Maytag repairman.:D

By David Group (not verified) on 04 Oct 2006 #permalink

At one dinner, where the meal was the pig that was raised that summer, and which we all met, the host waited until the second course to ask the most squeemish of us to "please, pass me some more Marvin".

For my 9 year old, texture is nearly everything. He's getting to like tomatoes, if they aren't very ripe.