Why You Like What You Like

Researchers are cooking up experiments to learn what might explain which foods we love and which foods we hate

We are adamant in our likes and perhaps even more adamant in our dislikes. But why? (Bartholomew Cooke)
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Another way to think about what food we like, and why, is to think about food that we are expected to not like.

I am talking here about military rations, which are, at the moment, arrayed in front of me in the Warfighter Café—replete with a camouflage tablecloth—inside the U.S. Army’s Soldier Systems Center, a sprawling collection of low-slung buildings in Natick, Massachusetts, that houses, among other things, the Department of Defense’s Combat Feeding Directorate. “Coming to a Theater Near You” is the trademarked slogan above a list of menu items.

The most startling thing about the spread before me—from trans-fat-free vanilla poundcake to herb focaccia bread to “caffeinated meat sticks”—is that I could return to this room in a few years and eat the same meal. The same meal.

The MRE, or Meal, Ready to Eat , “requires a minimum shelf life of three years,” explains Gerald Darsch, the program’s director. The MRE has other special constraints, he says. “Kraft doesn’t have to worry about air-dropping their food.” An incredible amount of engineering goes into ensuring the food will survive rough handling and harsh conditions. When the program was developing a new sandwich, Darsch explains, “we were sending out our sandwich prototypes to the hospital, so we could have MRIs done on them.” The point? “We could actually track and map the migration of moisture, to determine whether or not we were going to get a significant transfer of water activity.” Moisture, which promotes mold, is the enemy of shelf stability. A new technology developed by Natick researchers and others is “pressure assisted thermal sterilization,” which uses heat and pressure to kill bacterial spores without degrading the food during the process.

“We knew we could pack as many calories and nutrition into the smallest amount of space possible,” Darsch says. “That’s a good thing on paper. One tiny element of the formula we didn’t pay as much attention to was whether warfighters would find it acceptable, and would they even eat it?”

One barrier to liking is “neophobia,” fear of the new, which likely survives as an evolutionary adaptation to eating unfamiliar (and potentially poisonous) foods. Novelty is a particular problem with the military rations; as one report pointed out, “food often does not have its familiar shape, color and other sensory attributes.” So one of the biggest battles the Natick team fights is expectation, says Armand Cardello, a senior research scientist there. “Just by virtue of the fact that soldiers know that this product has been sitting in a warehouse in the desert at 120 degrees for the past three months, and now they’re pulling it open,” he says. “You taste it. At first you might think, well, considering all that abuse—but then you start thinking, crap, this must be filled with all kinds of preservatives.”

Expectations, says Cardello, are a major driver of liking. In one study, subjects ate Green Giant corn that appeared to have come from an MRE package and, in another session, from a Green Giant package. “People will like the corn significantly more when they think it’s Green Giant,” he says. The negative stereotype of military products “drives the liking down.”

The food-research program now at Natick was developed during and after World War II, in response to the impact of ration quality on troop morale. Teams of psychologists have been put to the task; many, like Moskowitz, a seminal Natick researcher, would go on to work in the food industry. “One of the first issues that came up,” says Cardello, “was how do you measure how much someone likes something?” Psychologists had tried to quantify, through “psychophysics,” our sensory response to stimuli. But no one had been able to, or much tried, to quantify liking: The widely used “nine-point hedonic scale” was born. Whatever is in your refrigerator at this moment, chances are someone, somewhere has indicated their liking of it on a scale from one to nine.

Its simplicity and value as an industry standard, says Cardello, have overshadowed the challenges of trying to put a number on liking. There’s the problem of semantics—does “like slightly” mean the same thing to one person as another? And people in general tend toward a regression to the mean in terms of liking, Cardello says. Ask them ahead of time how much they like lasagna or liver, say, and then ask them again after they have consumed it, and subjects will mark their favorite foods a bit lower and their least liked a bit higher. It is as if the bad isn’t as bad as they thought, the good not as good.

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