Choosing what you want to like – advice for coffee-haters

The amount of people who brew and serve coffee but don’t actually drink it doesn’t go unnoticed. It appalls some, frustrates others and was the driving force for this article.

Let’s begin with your preferences for food and drink. Why do you like the things you like and why do you dislike the things that turn your stomach? It is all down to the relationship between your mouth and your brain. Your brain uses your mouth as a little laboratory as part of its armory in the war between the eater and the eaten. As omnivores just about everything is a potential food source, which is a problem because there isn’t much apart from fruit that sees any benefits in being eaten. Most other plants don’t spread seeds this way so many don’t want you to eat them 1.

As an omnivore the endless bounty is something of a problem, because we often can’t tell whether something is good to eat until it is in our mouths, or unfortunately our stomachs and most of the time we depend more on culturally inherited knowledge than the taste itself.

Our innate programming is fairly simple. We like sweet – it shows the whatever we are eating is a source of energy, and we dislike bitter as most bitter tasting foodstuffs have something bad in there that is likely to harm us. 2 So starting with this very simple set of rules how then do people have such strong and varied food and drink preferences?

One of your body’s methods for learning and keeping you alive is to attach strong negative feelings towards foodstuffs that have strong negative physical or emotional reactions – this often combines when people go a little over the top on one spirit (let’s say tequila) and from then on the smell is almost nauseating.

I started working in coffee long before I actually liked drinking it. Up until that point my coffee experiences had involved a couple of mouthfuls of instant coffee that had been spat out on the floor. I didn’t mean to get into coffee, I just had a part time job selling domestic machines in a large department store but something about coffee grabbed me and I began to learn more and more about it. However, I still didn’t like coffee. I tried but found it to be disgusting, though I still persisted and eventually one day something changed. I had an espresso and it didn’t taste as bad as all the others, not long afterwards a cappuccino that was pretty good. From there I found I could enjoy it more and more.

I began to read up on flavor preferences and discovered that research had showed that a person could overcome a dislike of a foodstuff by tasting it around 8 times in a positive light. If you want to like something then you can. Something about this seemed absurd – if I could like anything then why didn’t I like everything? I decided to put it to the test: I would learn to drink tea 3. (I hated tea more than I had hated coffee)

Much to my surprise I began to find tea quite enjoyable within only a handful of attempts, and continue to. What came with it was an odd feeling of control over my body and brain. I decided that if I were to be in control then I should like everything. Since then I have conquered a number of foodstuffs about which I was either unethusiastic or just plan squeemish. It makes ordering in restuarants much more difficult as everything looks good.

Coffee is a little different to most foodstuffs though. Your body is quite right to flag up coffee as a potentially dangerous thing to ingest. We have evolved in such a way that our tongues flag some chemicals that could harm us as being bitter – the group of compounds called alkaloids, of which caffeine is one, are a typical example.

What I find interesting is that we continue to drink coffee, almost against our body’s wishes. This I attribute to the payoff from caffeine. We can quickly overcome taste objections to foodstuffs if we feel that it is sufficiently rewarding – the first time many people taste beer it seems a mystery how people can choose to drink this and seem to enjoy it, but soon enough you crave that first cold beer after a long day 4.

I suppose it seems cynical to diminish our relationship with coffee as simply pharmaceutical, though for me that has always explained how people have drunk so much terrible coffee for so long. Coffee’s rise to popularity was based on how good it can taste because for hundreds of years there were simply too many hurdles – be it the old techniques of growing, roasting or preparation – preventing it from tasting pleasant. Many early text’s often refer to how appalling it is, though they do see the perceived benefits.

So in summary I offer the challenge to anyone who has made it this far down the page. Pick something you don’t like, but sort of wish you did – be it coffee, tea, sprouts, broccoli, marzipan, tequila or pineapple (sorry for the very random list). Over the course of the next couple of weeks then prepare it well and consume it, but make sure when you sit down you actually want to like it. I’d be interested to hear from anyone wiling to give this a try in the comments below.

  1. I cannot recommend Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” highly enough – a great insight into this relationship and food in general  ↩︎
  2. For a full explanation on flavour preferences then “Tasting and Smelling” by Bartoshuk and Beauchamp is a great place to start, concise though a little pricey I consider it essential  ↩︎
  3. This had a second benefit – finally I could order hot drinks just about anywhere I went as most places are capable of serving pretty acceptable tea!  ↩︎
  4. For anyone familiar with PROP – the bitter tasting compound that a portion of the population are unable to taste – may find this paper suggesting a link between PROP tasting and alcoholism interesting  ↩︎

3 Comments

  1. Michael Pollan’s book is definitely an excellent read. I figure that any book that gets me enthralled with a subject I had no prior interest in must be pretty good.

    Curiously enough, I saw Pollan interview Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, at a UC Berkeley presentation earlier this year. Instead of the “food fight” some had hoped for, it turned out to be more of a disappointing quasi-investor relations conference for Whole Foods.

    I suppose the lesson is that good books don’t always lead to good theater.

  2. As always inspiring to read, and I love the way you turn completely commercial from time to time – I too am intrigued by the effect taste has on every human. Keep it down, show them how they’re senses react on things; that’s all the explanation they need usually regarding really great tasting stuff – it being coffee. wine or “food stuff”.

  3. Well, it worked for me and my friend with lagers. Before I couldn’t stand Heineken’s bitter taste, neither could he. Now we enjoy drinking a pint or two for entertainment purposes.

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