Food Preferences

People tend to have different food preferences, whether this may be having a preference towards spicy or bland food or a preference for meat or vegetarian-based diets. Psychologists have proposed theories to explain why these food preferences exist. 

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Table of contents

    Food preferences, Sensitive topic warning, StudySmarter

    • First, we will define food preferences.
    • Next, we will discuss the link between genetics and food preferences and go over some other influences.
    • Then, we will talk about food preferences in children and different countries.
    • Finally, we will look at examples of food preferences.

    Food Preferences: Definition

    Food preferences are where people take an evaluative approach to their food choices, establishing a personal liking or disliking of a particular food or food group. Meiselman and Bell (2003) highlight how quantitative and nonquantitative approaches to food evaluation occurred throughout history; the US army created a menu based on food preference measurements (quantitative).

    Photograph of two bowls of fruit. StudySmarterFig. 1. Studies say that fruit has a 50% hereditability component. Pixabay.com.

    Parents also commonly ask their children about food preferences (nonquantitative). Food preferences are commonly thought to result from biological mechanisms such as taste buds. However, psychologists have shown that cultural, learning behaviours and evolutionary processes influence food preferences.

    An example of a food preference is someone liking sweet food but disliking bitter food or having a preference for spicy food over bland food.

    Genetics and Food Preferences

    Is there a link between genetics and food preferences? Biological and evolutionary psychologists would argue so. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, humans evolved from apes. The diets of apes consist primarily of fruits and nuts. However, the evolution of humans through ‘successfulgenes has led humans to have a more complex diet, e.g. including carbohydrates and proteins.

    The more complex diet provides more nutrition and gives us more energy, thus increasing humans’ chances for survival.

    Genetics do play a role in our food preferences, but they are not the only factor.

    • Some studies say that our genetics are responsible for how strongly we can taste certain flavours, such as bitter, sweet, and savoury.

    There is a wide variation in research on the hereditability of food preferences. Some studies report that genes are only responsible for 20% of our preferences for foods like desserts, while others say that genes can make up 70% of our preferences for food proteins. These results tell us that the genetic component of food preferences varies depending on the type of food.

    There are two other main theories for food preferences -- evolution and behaviour.

    Food Preferences: Evolutionary Mechanisms

    The evolutionary theory is a form of a biological approach: it explains people’s food preferences rely on the diets of their ancestors. The evolutionary theory argues food preferences are innate, and its purpose is to increase the likelihood of survival and reproducing offspring with these same ‘successful’ food preferences.

    The evolution perspective of food preferences forefronts the importance of taste. Taste receptors increase the chance of survival because humans can tell if food is sour or bitter and if the food might have gone bad. Evolutionary psychologists argue this to be an evolutionary mechanism to stop people from getting sick and improve their chances of survival.

    Evolutionary psychologists also argue that taste aversion is an evolutionary mechanism.

    Taste aversion refers to avoiding particular food after having a negative experience. According to the theory, this mechanism is ‘hardwired’ into humans, and its purpose is to help animals/humans avoid harmful foods.

    Evolutionary psychologists also proposed that people do not eat or find it difficult to eat new or unusual foods because of an evolutionary mechanism called neophobia. It decreases the chances of people/animals with varied diets eating something harmful.

    The strength of the evolutionary explanations for food preferences is that they can explain why pregnant women may have morning sickness (remove things in their body that may potentially harm their child) or heave when they smell certain things.

    The weaknesses of the evolutionary approach to food preferences are as follows:

    • It is reductionist because it ignores the impact of cultural influences on food preferences. There are apparent differences between western and eastern diets; however, the evolutionary approach does not explain why this happens.

    • This approach is very simplistic as it assumes the purpose of all human actions and processes is to ensure survival.

    Food Preferences: Behavioural Explanation

    The behavioural approach argues that our environment, experiences, parents, peers, and role models influence our food preferences.

    Some example theories that behavioural psychologists have proposed to explain food preferences are:

    According to the classical conditioning theory, people may avoid the food they dislike because they negatively associate it. When individuals eat something (unconditional stimuli), they have a natural, negative response, such as gagging (unconditional response).

    If an individual eats something they do not like, they associate the food (unconditional stimuli) with the unconditional response (gagging). Consequently, they will avoid it in the future.

    The theory of operant conditioning proposes that food preferences are learned through reinforcement. Say a parent positively reinforces their child (e.g., praises their child for eating healthy food); the child is more likely to eat it again. Whereas negative reinforcement, removing something negative, can also influence food preferences.

    An example is eating an anti-acid medicine before eating something spicy or brushing your teeth after eating chocolate.

    According to the social learning theory, another aspect of the behavioural approach, the individual may imitate their peers’ reaction to a particular food, preventing or increasing the likelihood of eating that particular food.

    An example is eating a spicy burger and enjoying the taste with peers, which may increase the likelihood of trying it again.

    The strengths of the behavioural explanations for food preferences are as follows:

    • This approach may be better than the evolutionary theory to understand why people may suddenly stop liking a particular food.

    • Plenty of evidence shows that the views of close ones or role models easily influence humans. Research by Kotler, Schiffman & Hanson (2012) found that children are more likely to try healthy food if it is encouraged by a cartoon character they like than a character they do not know.

    The weaknesses of the behavioural approach for food preferences are as follows:

    • Biological psychologists would disagree that how we are nurtured influences our food preferences. Instead, they consider that humans’ genetic makeup (nature) influences our food preferences.

    For instance, certain receptors respond to a particular food. E.g., glucose has a specific receptor that responds when someone eats something sweet, which may explain why humans eat sweet food.

    Receptors are cells that respond to external stimuli and then transmit a signal to the sensory nerve, which sends information to the brain.

    This approach is reductionist, as this account only considers experiences; instead, the biopsychosocial model may provide a better explanation. This explanation combines the major approaches in psychology and takes a more holistic approach to understanding the psychology of humans, such as food preferences.

    Food Preferences: Neural and Hormonal Mechanisms

    As noted, humans have preferences towards certain foods; however, these need to be regulated to maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. Researchers have identified that neural and hormonal mechanisms work together to regulate eating behaviours in certain brain regions.

    These mechanisms aim to prevent people from under-eating/overeating food that may cause diet-related health issues, such as anorexia nervosa or obesity.

    Food Preferences: The Hypothalamus and Regulating Eating

    Certain conditions must be constantly maintained in the body to work optimally; this is known as homeostasis. In terms of diet, the body has mechanisms that regulate what we eat so that it has plenty of nutrients and energy to function.

    Important energy that needs to be regulated is glucose, which the hypothalamus regulates. There are sensory nerves in the hypothalamus that respond to changes in glucose. These send signals to the brain that encourage people to eat or stop eating.

    The changes in glucose levels affect different parts of the hypothalamus. For example, the lateral hypothalamus (LH) activates when there are low glucose levels.

    As a result, the region sends signals to the brain that the individual is hungry. The ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) responds to high glucose levels and causes satiety (feeling full).

    Food Preferences: Controlling Eating Behaviours

    Research has also linked changes in the hormones leptin and ghrelin with the activation of the LH and VMH. The activation of the LH has been linked to high levels of ghrelin (which increases appetite) and the VMH to high levels of leptin (which suppresses appetite).

    The changes in the hormones activate specific neural networks to control eating behaviours. For instance, when someone has low levels of glucose and ghrelin, the LH is activated. This signals to the brain that they are hungry, and the individual is likely to eat. Whilst the individual is eating, their glucose levels will gradually rise, and leptin will increase. This activates the VMH, which signals to the brain they are full, and the individual will stop eating.

    Food Preferences in Children

    Kotler, Schiffman & Hanson (2012) found that children are more willing to try healthy food when a character they like prompts them to do so rather than a character they do not like. This finding shows the views of close ones or role models easily influence people. These results also support the behavioural approach to food preferences.

    In addition, supporting research shows the influence of parents on children’s food preferences. Benton’s (2004) research suggests that parental parenting affects children’s food preferences and that children are more likely to eat in an emotionally positive environment.

    The study also found that parents and siblings are typically considered role models for children during their childhood. Their role is to encourage the child to try new foods. Through repeated consumption of these foods, children’s preferences can develop.

    The research highlights that the behavioural approach can be a valid explanation for understanding the development of food preferences in children.

    Black and white photograph of a father and son sitting in a hammock. StudySmarterFig. 2. Children model their parents. Pixabay.com.

    Food Preferences in Different Countries

    People from different cultural backgrounds tend to eat different foods and have different attitudes toward food. Therefore, food preferences in different countries and cultures are likely to differ due to the following:

    • Religious beliefs – religious beliefs can influence eating habits. For example, religious Indians are less likely to eat beef.

    • Food availability – certain countries may only have certain foods available. Therefore, these individuals may prefer local ingredients that are available to them.

    • Differences in attitudes and eating styles - Some cultures have certain food preferences. For example, cultures, where food is eaten communally, may influence people’s food preferences. People may prefer to eat lots of easily shared dishes in this instance.

    It is important to note that learning plays a key role in developing food preferences. As we can see through food preferences in children and different countries, what we are exposed to greatly impacts our choices.

    Through experiences and exposure, we learn about types of food and what we enjoy eating. Sometimes, we learn about foods we love, and other times we learn about healthier foods.

    Food Preferences Examples

    After learning about food preferences, can you think of any examples? Here is a list of examples of food preferences.

    • Liking the same types of food as your parents.
    • Disliking broccoli because your friends do not like it.
    • Sticking to a kosher diet because you are Jewish.
    • Avoiding bitter foods.
    • Someone gets food poisoning from eating spinach and never eats it again.
    • Liking foods you were exposed to as a child.

    Food Preferences - Key takeaways

    • Food preferences are when individuals express a personal liking or dislike for a particular food or food group.
    • The evolutionary approach is that people’s food preferences stem from the diets of their ancestors. These are innate, and their purpose is to increase the likelihood of survival and reproducing offspring with these same ‘successful’ food preferences.
    • The behavioural approach argues that our environment, experiences, parents, peers, and role models influence our food preferences.
    • Various cultural aspects influence human food preferences, such as religion, availability, and differences in attitudes toward food.
    • There is a genetic component to food preferences, but it varies depending on the type of food.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Food Preferences

    Are food preferences genetic?

    Biological psychologists argue that humans’ genetic makeup (nature) causes food preferences.


    For instance, specific receptors respond to a particular food; e.g., glucose has a specific receptor that responds when someone eats something sweet, which may explain why humans eat sweet food.

    What is a food preference?

    Food preferences are when someone has a personal liking or disliking of a particular food or food group. 

    Why do we have food preferences?

    According to evolutionary psychologists, we have food preferences to ensure our survival. Behavioural psychologists believe we have these preferences because we have learned them. Psychologists have noted humans have developed food preferences due to cultural influences.

    What are the effects of eating habits and preferences?

    As humans have preferences towards certain foods, these need to be regulated so we can maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.  

    What causes food preferences?

    According to biological psychologists, food preferences result from genetics and serve evolutionary purposes (they ensure survival). According to behavioural psychologists, food preferences are learned via reinforcement, forming associations or imitating role models. However, culture has also been found to play an important role.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which statement suggests that cultural preferences do not influence food preferences?

    What are leptin and ghrelin both examples of?

    According to biological and behavioural psychologists, there is a link between genetics and food preferences.

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