The Science of How Your Taste Buds Mature

And how even you can start drinking black coffee like a real adult.

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Mar 22 2017, 2:00pm

Nick Karvounis/Unsplash

Most people hate coffee the first time they drink it—it's bitter as hell, but it's also omnipresent in adult life, so we feel pressured to like it. There are coffee meetings at work and coffee dates with friends. And when you say you don't like coffee? People joke that you must be some sort of sociopath.

Luckily, even if you hate coffee, most chains serve exactly the drinks you need to make the experience less painful. Start ordering Frappuccinos as a teen and you'll likely be mainlining espresso by middle age. There's a chance that's by design: According to a 2013 paper in Current Biology, sugar and fat seem to be two of the flavors infants come out of the womb liking, probaby because they're both calorie-dense. Coincidentally, sugar and fat (and a touch of coffee) are what go into a Frappuccino.

In the short term, that means you may be able to move from a salted caramel mocha to a vanilla latte in a matter of days or weeks thanks to a principal called "habituation." The slight bitterness of the coffee—once a turn-off—gradually becomes more and more bearable. "Our brains are constantly taking in info on the things that are all around us," says Christy Spackman, a food studies scientist at Harvey Mudd College in California. "The things that are constant, though, it may stop paying attention to." 

This frees up space so your brain can think about other stimuli. Take your home, for example. You may not notice the stinky dog funk because your brain sees the smell as normal and ignores it. When you come back from vacation, however, your first thought upon opening the front door might be, "Wow, Fido really needs a bath." The same thing happens with foods, especially foods that are highly consistent—which is exactly why we flock to chains like Starbucks. 

To be clear, though, there's still a lot we don't know about our sense of taste, Spackman says. One thing we do know is that food preferences are highly malleable. From the moment we're born—and possibly even before—a complex set of cultural, emotional, biological and even genetic factors are working to make some of us think, say, hoppy IPAs are delicious, but tarantula kabobs are not.

That means some poor souls will never like coffee—even with cream, sugar and a hefty dose of social pressure. Taste, for most of us, is a three-equation variable, Spackman says. The first variable is your physiological makeup, which is part genetics. A 2006 study found that identical twins (which come from the same egg) had more similar tastes between siblings than fraternal twin pairs (two eggs). How many taste buds you have and their sensitivity to certain chemical compounds also varies from person to person. Life choices, like smoking, can alter your sense of taste, too. And even non-smokers can expect to have certain flavors dull as they age (especially, it turns out, if you're a man). 

The next variable is where you grew up. From the moment you slide into this cruel world, what you're fed matters. A 2002 study found that the type of formula you're fed as an infant (soy versus dairy versus hydrolysate) helps determine which flavors of juice you'll gravitate towards years after you take your last sip. As the decades go by, cultural baggage piles on: "Humans around the world have really strong cultural taboos around food," Spackman says, which is why Americans go gaga for curdled, aged milk (cheese) but won't even think about eating most organ meats.

Finally, there's the emotional connections we form with foods. Remember that time you got food poisoning, and now whatever you ate before you started hurling is ruined for you? That's your emotional associations kicking in, Spackman says. This can work the other way, too. "Sometimes things taste better when shared with friends," she adds. Even freeze-dried chili, which you'd never eat at home, tastes downright gourmet when eaten next to a campfire.

Which brings us back to coffee. Sure, you probably (hopefully) didn't get engaged in your local coffee shop, and it probably doesn't hold a single specific wonderful memory. But it's a warm spot on a rainy day, and a blast of cool air conditioning in the heat of summer. It's where you've met up with friends a million times, and slunk to on workdays when your boss was being a jerk. And so, even though you may have hated coffee once upon a time, you now find yourself returning again and again, smiling at the barista and saying, "The usual, please."