In a laboratory in Denver, on a decommissioned U.S. Army base, a baby sits in a high chair with two electrodes attached to his chest. To his left, on a small table, a muffin tin holds four numbered cups, each filled with a green substance. On the walls and the ceiling, four cameras and an omnidirectional microphone record the baby’s every burble and squawk, then transmit them to a secure server in an adjacent room. What looks like a window with blinds, across the room from the baby, is in fact a two-way mirror with a researcher behind it, scribbling notes. The baby’s mother takes a spoonful of the first sample and lifts it to the baby’s mouth, and the experiment begins.
But it’s not that simple. Supertasters don’t always live up to the name—in some studies, they react to food just as regular tasters do—and genetic effects tend to fade. Children who are hypersensitive to bitterness are often especially fond of sugar. But that predilection disappears in adults, while the taste for bitterness grows. Being a finicky eater makes evolutionary sense for a toddler, lumbering around sticking things in his mouth. Better to spit them out if they don’t taste familiar. But we learn to pick our poisons, and then to love them beyond reason. We go from Pabst to I.P.A., milk chocolate to dark, latte to espresso, homing in on the bitterness we once avoided. “Our biology is not our destiny,” Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, told me. “We’re omnivores, and there is a lot of plasticity in the brain.” Taste begins as nature and ends as nurture.
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