Here’s Looking at You, JP: Most hated foods

Gustaf Berger sampling a vast array of food.
Courtesy Photo by Amika Kemmler-Ernst

By Gustaf Berger / Special to the Gazette

There are two kinds of taste in this world. Mine – and none. A woman who fancied herself a gourmet taught me that. What do you think?

I conducted a survey of 315 adults, asking, “Are there any foods you refuse to eat because you don’t like the taste? Ignore allergies and preferences. Name up to three.”

1) Which of these do you think was selected the most? Beets. Blue Cheese. Octopus. Peppers.

2) None of the above was number one. What food beat all?

3) Which got no votes? Corn. Ice Cream. Sweetbreads. Watermelon.

The most interesting surveys obliterate assumptions, teach, and open the door to further inquiry. How else to learn? This survey blew me away.

I limited the choices to three, so people could home in on the most hated. For me, a dozen detestable foods battle for that honor. Apparently I’m an outlier. More than half couldn’t name three. And 17 percent like everything. EVERYTHING! (I have my doubts here.)

Markets carry thousands of different foods. The average respondent disliked fewer than two yet, in total, named 160 different foods, picking 75 of these only once. You could supply a banquet. How could these dislikes be so divergent among people who overwhelmingly share similar tastes with others?

I found studies about cultural influences on food preferences and articles on the chemistry of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.) Food researchers and psychologists point to varied factors affecting food distastes: Genetics. We’re born with a positive response to sweet and a negative response to bitter tastes. We perceive flavors in utero. We learn from others. Children aren’t born liking hot peppers, but follow the lead of parents and older children. Odor, texture, appearance, and ideation affect taste and desire. It’s complex and individual.

Many respondents had strong opinions: “Tofu tastes like boiled Styrofoam.” That would stop me. Texture swayed some: “Can’t stand slimy okra.” Aroma is an element of taste. Durian is a fruit that supposedly tastes wonderful. I can’t get past the smell. One respondent wrote: “Lamb tastes the way greasy hair smells.” Pass the Woolite. Appearance put some off, especially organ meats: “Sweetbreads: a cruel name.” Creatures from the sea prompted unsavory similes: “Anchovies are devil spawn.” Genetics plays a role for some foods: “Cilantro tastes like soap.” And finally: “Worst of the worst – lima beans.” With feelings this passionate, it’s no wonder vegetables led people’s lists of most reviled foods.

In my case, I avoided mushrooms and creamed soups for two decades after witnessing my older sister getting sick from eating cream of mushroom soup. I love both now. Also, as I pointed out in my last article, being forced to eat something can ruin one’s taste for that food.

Survey results of 262 people who named foods they hated

The winners: Liver (52), Hot peppers (26), Brussels sprouts (22), Okra (20), Lima beans (17), Mushrooms (14), Cilantro (12).

Forty different vegetables (with 178 total mentions) accounted for 33 percent of all items. It was hard to think of any generally available vegetable that wasn’t named. (Corn and potatoes escaped people’s wrath.) Organ meats including liver accounted for 19 percent, Seafood 16 percent, Condiments/spices 15 percent, Dairy 5 percent, Meat 5 percent, Fruit 3 percent (Beverages + grains + desserts + nuts = 4 percent.)

Male and female tastes (distastes) were similar, except eight women and no men named desserts. Too small a number to draw any conclusions – or is it?

Answers to questions above: 1) Peppers 2) Liver 3) Corn and ice cream.

(I’ll be happy to send you the spreadsheet with complete results. Please e-mail me at [email protected])*

            Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”

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