Why do we like the foods we like – and can we change our taste?

Bee Wilson's First Bite takes us back to childhood to explore how we form our feelings about food.

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If you’re reading this review to avoid washing up the juicer mouldering in the sink ­after its oh-so-brief spell in the January sun, may I suggest a fresh New Year resolution – one that might benefit your health for more than a couple of days? Read Bee Wilson’s new book.

In it, the award-winning author of the much-lauded Consider the Fork (2012) turns her attention to our tastes – how they are formed, what they mean and, crucially, how to change them. And she makes a very convincing argument that they can indeed be changed; according to Wilson, that “sweet tooth” is just the convenient lie we tell ourselves as we reach for the last of the Christmas selection pack.

In one of the most fascinating passages in a book that is never less than engaging, she describes the huge shift in Japanese eating habits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the country opened up to the world, a typical meal consisted of “some rough grains accompanied by something like shredded yam leaves and daikon radish, with miso and pickles”. Fish was a rare treat and meat was taboo. Yet now Japan is home to some of the most refined cuisine in the world – and its people among the healthiest. If an entire nation can change its habits in a few decades, she concludes, so can every last one of us.

Naturally, it would be easier, as the book points out, if we developed healthier tastes in the first place; as soon as they are weaned, children start to accumulate likes and dislikes that may well last a lifetime. “Rather alarmingly,” Wilson writes, in a sentence to strike fear into the heart of any parent, “it seems that our food habits when we were two – whether we played with our food, how picky we were, the amount of fruit we ate – are a pretty accurate gauge of how we will eat when we are twenty.” If you want proof of the significance of these early experiences in forming our long-term preferences, just ask a group of British adults about their favourite flavour of Angel Delight. As Wilson observes, it is surprising how often childhood treats pop up in grown-up conversation. “There is a communal comfort to be had in reading the names out loud together, like a liturgy . . . Spangles, Jelly Tots, Rolos, Space Dust . . . common reference points that take us back to some joyous pre-pubertal age when life was free and easy.”

The key to raising children with broader tastes, she believes, is to stop treating them as a species apart, which can only cope with food if it comes coated in breadcrumbs, or advertised by a laughing cow. She cites the case of the Hong Kong food writer who was amazed to discover, on moving to the United States, that “children weren’t supposed to like vegetables”. And she was right; why ever should broccoli be a taste we somehow acquire at the same time as a driving licence and a National Insurance number?

Instead, Wilson argues, we should be giving our children the chance to try as many different foods to see what they like, because “the secret is to make healthy food and pleasurable food one and the same”. This is a vital part of her philosophy: paying more attention to your responses to food, eating for pleasure rather than comfort or convenience – and stopping as soon as that enjoyment fades, rather than feeling you must finish everything on the plate.

And it’s never too late to make that change; Wilson cites a Swedish government programme that taught a group of malnourished pensioners, with an average age of 80, to love vegetables and to enjoy cooking them, actively, in just three months. Of all the bad food habits we acquire in our lifetime, she says, the most pernicious and the hardest to break is the conviction that we can’t do anything about them. “Eating is a skill that each of us learns”, she insists, and “we retain the capacity for learning it, no matter how old we are”.

If First Bite can be summed up in a single sentence, it is this: in order to change what you eat, you must first change what you like. Let’s be honest: it’s pretty hard to like sludgy green smoothies, which is why so many extreme New Year diets go out the door along with the poor old Christmas tree. But by expanding your diet gradually, she claims, it is “genuinely possible” to reach the point “where you desire broccoli more than fries, and wholemeal sourdough more than sliced white bread”.

In fact, my one quibble with Wilson in this eminently sensible and very readable book (aside from her suggestion that eating off side plates sounds dangerously like something Liz Hurley would do) is that I believe there is room for all foods in our diet; I would like to think you can enjoy the salty crunch of a chip and the satisfying snap of al dente broccoli. But be discriminating about the chips you eat. Be adventurous – order the broccoli sometimes instead. And, most importantly, make sure you enjoy every single mouthful. 

First Bite: How We Learn To Eat by Bee Wilson is published by Fourth Easte (432pp, £12.99)

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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