Why Do We Like To Eat Certain Foods?

Nov 22, 2016

Why do we like to eat certain foods? Why do some people like to eat spicy food and some people don't like to eat vegetables? Why does pineapple hurt your mouth when you eat too much of it? Why do we taste things and how? Why do different foods taste different? Do animals have the same taste buds as people?


In this episode of But Why we get answers to all of those questions from chef, author, and TV personality Chris Kimball, Dr. Leslie Stein of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and Boston-based chef Matthew Jennings.

"Why do we like to eat certain foods? For example, why do some people like to eat spicy food and some people not like to eat their vegetables?" — Alex, 11, Columbus, OH

Alex, left, 11, lives in Columbus, OH. Alex is known for his desserts from his 'Harry Potter' cookbook and his award-winning chili mac recipe. Isidore, 7, enjoys drawing and crafts, working with wood, and playing board games.
Credit Alex's mom, Isidore's mom / courtesy

"Studies have suggested that while you are still inside your mother, what your mother eats does have an effect on what you're going to like when you are older. A mother who likes carrots, for example, sometimes kids like to eat carrots. Or they'll like bitter things or sweet things and that will effect your taste. I do think children in general like very high energy foods, sweet sugary foods, and over time your taste buds, your palate, the way you react to foods, changes and people tend to have slightly duller tastes and therefore want bigger flavors; they tend to like spicier foods. Most of what we consider taste has nothing to do with the palate or the tongue, that's just sweet, sour, bitter, umami (which means meaty). Almost everything you perceive to be a certain taste is through the nose. Or back up through the throat through the mouth into the nasal cavity, the sensors there will pick up the different types of sweet. Flavor is mostly about smell and very little about taste. "

— Chris Kimball, Milk Street

"Why do different foods taste different?" — Kate, 9, Norwood, NJ

Kate, left, 9, lives in Norwood, NJ. Kate is in Girl Scouts and plays soccer. She also likes swimming and diving. Timothy, 7, lives in Fairfax, VT. Timothy likes Minecraft, Pokemon, building robots and doing crafts.
Credit Kate's mom/Timothy's mom / courtesy

"There are three main reasons why different foods taste different. The first is, food is made of chemicals and each food is made up of a different mix of chemicals that activate your taste system in different ways. If a food has more sugar it will activate more of your sweet taste. The second reason is that because chemicals in our food also activate our smell receptors. When you chew your food some of the chemicals go up from your mouth into your nose through a back passage way. In addition to taste other chemicals in your food activate your sense of smell. Because each food is made of different chemicals each has a different smell that combines with the taste to make each food seem different."

— Dr. Leslie Stein, Monell Chemical Senses Center

"Do animals have the same taste buds as people have?" — Ben, 6, Kent, CT

Ben is 6 and lives in Kent, CT. He loves Batman and Legos.
Credit Ben's mom / courtesy

"It turns out that animals and people do taste things differently. For example, cats cannot taste sweet things, that's because the part of their tongue that detects sweet molecules is broken. But they can taste bitter things. Other animals that can't taste sweet include sea lions, spotted hyenas and harbor seals. We also know that dolphins, which swallow their foods whole, so really don't need a sense of taste, are unable to detect sweet, bitter and umami. So just like people, animals are all different too."

—Dr. Leslie Stein, Monell Chemical Senses Center

Listen to the full episode for answers to more food and taste questions.

Read the full transcript.