In Defense of the Picky Eater

by Kathie Canning
Dairy R&D Editor
kcanning@stagnito.com

One of my 5-year-old son’s favorite books is “Gregory the Terrible Eater,” a highly entertaining tale of a young goat whose parents are dismayed by his preference for human foods. Ma goat and Pa goat seek a doctor goat’s advice for weaning
Gregory from “garbage” such as pasta and orange juice and teaching him to savor cardboard, tin cans and other typical goat fare. They are only partially successful — Gregory eventually develops a taste for certain foods from both the human and goat worlds.
Like Gregory, we humans develop our own unique taste preferences. I love steak, for example, but despise doughnuts.
Researchers have yet to pin down exactly what causes one person to crave a food while another rejects it. What can be explained, however, is why some people have much stronger food likes and dislikes than others. It all boils down to the ability to taste the chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP).
Researchers have known for some time now that the number of fungiform papillae (structures holding the taste buds onto the tongue) on an individual’s tongue is linked to PROP detection. People with very few fungiform papillae tend to be unable or barely able to taste PROP (“non-tasters”), while people with a lot of them can strongly taste PROP (“supertasters”).
Virginia Utermohlen, M.D., an associate professor in Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, says: “The intensity of the flavor signal that reaches the brain is so strong in supertasters that the flavors can easily become aversive.”
That might explain why children — who tend to have more fungiform papillae than adults — are pickier eaters. The research also underscores the importance of creating a wide variety of flavors and flavor intensities — something the dairy industry is doing quite well.
Just think: If a processor offers enough flavors, a product or two might eventually attract the attention of consumers who have shied away from a particular category. I am not particularly fond of most fruits, for example, and have long avoided the yogurt case. But when Yoplait introduced a lowfat yogurt that claimed to capture the taste of a Boston cream pie, I simply had to check it out. One taste and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve tried — and liked — yogurt renditions of apple pie and lemon mousse. Now if I could just find a fat-free, sugar-free chocolate ice cream that tastes like the real thing…