Food preferences

The main reason why people eat what they eat is simple: Because it's there. The reverse is also true: You cannot eat what isn’t there. But behind the supply of food available to any given individual, hides a mix of biological, psychological, social, cultural and historical influences. While a Christmas dinner or the complex seasonings in an Indian dish are unnecessary (perhaps even harmful) from a nutritional standpoint, the socio-cultural aspects of sharing, togetherness and refinement contribute to determine our choices, belonging and status in society.

Food plays a very important role in people’s lives.  At least 50 percent of income is spent on food in underdeveloped countries, while rich countries spend less than a quarter. After sleeping and working, however, food-related activities take up most of the majority of people’s time throughout the world. What we eat is determined by our personal preferences as well as availability and geographical and economic conditions – the choice is naturally more limited in less developed countries than in the industrialised world.

Some of our preferences are rational: Sometimes we consciously choose a healthy salad instead of a tempting ice cream. While choosing certain foods for reasons of health or cost is understandable, taste preferences tend to be a much more decisive factor. This process is studied by psychologists as we still do not know exactly why people like certain things or not. It is a complex choice process which is closely related to context. Something we enjoy for breakfast may have little or no attraction for us later in the day. Steak and cream are both in the category of highly valued foods without being enjoyed simultaneously by most people.

The idea that reward or punishment strongly changes our food preferences is questionable


Some of our taste preferences are innate and help us choose from a selection of thousands of potential nutrients and toxins. Sweet is positively associated with fruit, for instance, while bitter flavours are (initially) avoided as they may indicate the presence of toxins. The aversion to very strong flavours – including bitter and sour – also seems innate. Our olfactory sense appears to be programmed differently: The nose learns and develops mainly after birth.

According to the evolutionary school, human behaviour focuses on selecting the best possible food by finding out what is and is not edible, and which combinations are good and which are not. Anthropologists in particular also believe that traditional food preparation methods can have an influence on useful nutritional value.  For instance, using spices may inhibit bacterial growth (i.e., decay) and traditional caustic processes remove toxic cyanide from cassava.

The correlation between parental influence and ultimate food preferences is surprisingly low
The correlation between parental influence and ultimate food preferences is surprisingly low


Our food choices are largely determined by supply and cultural traditions, why do tastes vary so widely across cultures? When looking for logical influences in the psyche of a child, the parents, who provide the first life experience, are a natural candidate. But the correlation between parental influence and ultimate food preferences is surprisingly low. The same applies to other obvious influences (relatives). Food preferences are set early in life, sometimes before birth. Many of them are fixed by the age of two to three years, and remain the same in adulthood. This does not mean, however, that preferences cannot change. How our preferences are formed has not been studied at length. It has, however, been established that exposure to use is influential.

The greater the exposure, the more we tend to appreciate something. There are indications that this is also true for food. Another factor that plays a role is conditioning.  A flavour and a biological meaningful outcome can be linked through a positive or negative Pavlovian reaction. For instance, if someone feels nauseous the first time they taste a new flavour, this can permanently reduce appreciation of that flavour. In the group of Kees de Graaf, professor of sensory science and eating, a great deal of attention is paid to such learned preferences for the taste of vegetables. Social influences are an unclear but important factor in the development of taste preferences.

The experience of enjoying a certain type of food together increases the chance that we will develop positive preferences for its flavour, or flavours similar to it. The idea that rewards or punishment strongly changes our food preferences is questionable, however. While social punishment can ensure that we eat less of the relevant food, it may not necessarily result in a decline of sensory liking.


Sociological differences in food choices have a strongly demographic character. There are visible differences based on age and gender within cultures, for instance. Meat avoiders in the Western world are usually women, and women often prefer light products as they are more concerned with their weight. A preference for low-calorie raw food or (part-time) vegetarianism may also be a fad, which is a quintessential form of social organisation.

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Anthropology (culture)

You are what you eat, the cliché says. Anthropologists who wish to know what kind of food people will choose will ask about their culture. Culture largely determines how people look at food and eating patterns. While it is easy to define the characteristics of Chinese or Mexican cuisine, there is more to culinary culture than a series of typical dishes – the same way a meal is more than a plate of food with a given degree of variety and nutrients.

A food culture is a social organisation  of meals, composed of table manners and rituals.  Food has meaning in the interaction between people.  If you compare French and American food culture,  it is clear that the French assign a far more important role in their lives to food and eating together. They are also less busy with the health aspects of food than Americans, who, strangely enough, often consume much larger portions.

Cross links

“Text, formerly titled ‘what is eating us’, is based on Rozin P. The integration of biological, social, cultural;and psychological influences on food choice.; In Sheperd and Raats (eds), The psychology of food choice.
CABI 2006; 19-39”