When It Comes To Taste, The Child Is Father To The Man

The nostalgia for favorite foods from our childhood drives most of us either to occasionally indulge in, or consistently purchase, those that gave us pleasure in forms that extend well beyond the mere flavors of, say, a Milky Way bar, a Hostess Twinkie, a hot dog at a summer amusement park or a bowl of farina. Such favorite foods connect us with the people, places and things of a time when all coalesced in happiness and contentment—the most salient example being Marcel Proust’s tasting his mother’s madeleine cookies and lime tea, which caused him to go off and write seven volumes of  

In Search of Lost Time (also called Remembrance of Things Past).  

Yet, so often, when, after many years, we decide to treat ourselves to one of our childhood favorite foods, we are disheartened to find they don’t taste the same as they once did. The assumption is that our taste buds have changed and that we really don’t remember clearly those tastes of our childhood. The reality is, in so many cases of processed, canned and packaged foods, the formula of ingredients has been changed over decades, especially after a conglomerate took over a small food company that had no control over the cuts in ingredients to be made in the future, usually as a cost-saving measure.

Some years ago I interviewed a marketing person from Campbell Soup Company who, when I complained that when I’d recently had a hankering for its tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich I found the flavor of the soup like nothing I remember, admitted that the formula had been changed, because to use the original ingredients would have meant an increase in price that Americans had gotten so used to that they’d balk at paying just a few pennies more. The back of the can now reads that the contents are (in order of the percentage of ingredients) water, tomato paste, glucose and fructose, wheat flour, salt, soybean or canola oil, citric acid, “flavour” and spice extracts. 

 I found wholly distasteful my first spoonful in decades of My*T*Fine chocolate pudding, which is now made from sugar, corn starch, cocoa (processed with alkali), modified food starch, and “less than 2%” natural and artificial flavors. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?

As a textbook lesson in how to truly screw up something every fan of Coca-Cola loved, the company released New Coke in 1985 with a different, sweeter formula that people hated. Its flop caused the brains in the marketing department to change its name to Coke II in 1990, before getting rid of the bomb entirely. Did they really think no one would notice the  change? The original formula returned as Coke Classic, once called “The Real Thing” every kid in America knew well. 

 It should come as no real surprise to realize that the tastes of childhood are both intense and indelible, especially since children tend to eat so many of the same foods day after day, year after year. That flavor is imbedded in the memory forever, as much as the aroma of a mother’s perfume or the color of a doll’s dress. But there is an even deeper reason that children develop the tastes they do, and it is largely biological. Both children and adults have about the same number of taste buds—50,000—and since adults’ degenerate over time, children get to know flavors early on for reasons of natural development. 

According to “The Sweetness and Bitterness of Childhood: Insights from Basic Research on Taste Preferences” by Julie A. Mennella and Nuala K. Bobowski in the National Library of Medicine (May 20, 2015), “Children are born preferring sweet tastes, which attract them to mother’s milk and even act as an analgesic. They prefer higher levels of sweet than do adults, with preferences declining to adult levels during middle to late adolescence, which coincides with the cessation of physical growth. . . . In contrast to sweet taste, children dislike and reject bitter taste, which protects them from ingesting poisons. This heightened bitter sensitivity is also evident in the taste of the foods (green vegetables) or medicines (liquid formulations of drugs) they dislike and reject. Children’s heightened preference for sweet and dislike of bitter, though often detrimental in the modern food environment, reflects their basic biology.”

A study conducted by the University of Western Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, comparing young male subjects between the ages of eight and 10 with adult males found that the adolescents had a higher anterior papillae density than the adults, making them more sensitive to sucrose or sweet flavors. In fact, after forty, we may lose half of them as we age, so that foods may taste less flavorful. That might explain why, as we age, we find some foods sweeter or saltier than we did in the past, but that’s different from finding a flavor has changed from what we remember.

While most people’s tastes greatly expand as we get older—as 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift observed, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”— there are certain flavors people may never find to their liking if they hated them as a child, which may or may not be the result of childhood allergies. I was never allergic to peanuts or tuna fish as a child, but to this day I cannot eat peanut butter or canned tuna without gagging. Oddly enough, I eat peanuts and love Asian peanut sauces as well as fresh tuna, both as sushi and cooked. I suspect my distaste had to do with my having gotten sick from my first peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich or tuna salad sandwich, and I never got over it. I recall living in fear a friend’s mother might invite me to stay for such a lunch. But there it is. Such food experiences stay with a person, and it’s impossible to forget the flavor of something you once loved and craved. But, with all the different foods and flavors out there to try, I can’t say I feel deprived.

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