I spent the first 20 years of my life hating the taste of olives. They were simply too bitter and salty for me. Even “sweet” Cerignola olives were impossible to choke down. I’d take a small bite, chew a tiny morsel until my tongue was ladened with its flavor and spit that shit right out.
I wanted, though, to like olives. I’d watch other people enjoy them and think, “I want what they have.” So I kept on trying olives — black, purple and green — until, one day, I put an olive into my mouth and didn’t spit it out. Today, if there are olives on the menu, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be ordering them. And if someone’s serving olives on an hors d’oeuvre tray, I’ll be standing around that tray accumulating olive pits in my hand.
I always assumed what happened was that my taste buds changed. But as it turns out, by forcing olives onto my taste buds, I may have changed them myself.
First, some basic facts about taste buds: We have about 10,000 of them, and each has tiny organs with 50 to 100 receptor cells. That’s how you taste salty, sweet, bitter, sour and savory. More importantly, these receptors are largely responsible for our health since they dictate which food we choose to eat. “A lot of our modern lives is geared toward issues related to food, but what we ultimately care about is how food tastes,” Robin Dando, an associate professor of food science at Cornell University, explained to Cornell Research.
Dando is particularly interested in how obesity and other aspects of metabolism can influence the way we perceive foods. His research on mouse models has led him to believe that there’s a link between obesity and damaged taste buds. In other words, one reason some people are more attracted to foods that cause weight gain is that their taste buds have been altered. As such, they turn to meals with more salt and more sugar just so they’re able to taste them.
By that same measure, though, it is possible to retrain your taste buds. In fact, on Reddit, plenty of people are actively trying to do this. Case in point: One person claims that their significant other helped wean them off sugar slowly and over time. “He knows I wanted to cut the sugar but was struggling, so he incrementally reduced the amount of sugar in my tea over those few months,” they write. “I just never noticed.”
This story might be anecdotal, but in 2019, Ann-Marie Torregrossa, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo and the associate director of the university’s Center for Ingestive Behavior Research, found that trying more bitter foods — particularly those found in a plant-based diet — changes proteins in saliva that affect how we perceive taste. The takeaway here: The way our taste buds interact with flavor isn’t genetically set in stone.
Along those lines, Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells me that our brain has a way of associating certain experiences with certain foods. As someone who works a lot with trauma to the brain, Segil cites conditioned taste aversion — a learned association between the taste of a particular food and illness — as an example of how it would be possible to do the opposite and retrain your brain toward certain foods. “This is why when people are undergoing chemo, we tell them not to eat their favorite foods,” says Segil. Otherwise, they’ll end up ruining it for themselves.
As for how to retrain your own taste buds, Segil suggests trying escalation. Or as he puts it, “Start small and go large,” an approach not dissimilar from the one the significant other of the redditor above took.
Of course, you could also try my spin on exposure therapy, and stuff yourself with whatever you’re trying to develop a taste for until your taste buds simply surrender. It certainly didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.