What factors affect a person's eating preferences?

Eating behavior - preference and aversion

  1. Nutrition tips
  2. Eating behavior
  3. Preference and aversion

No likes or dislikes are determined solely by genes or the environment. It is true, however, that it is more difficult to change genetic preferences than learning-induced ones. Examples of genetically determined food preferences are the preference for sweet and salty. The increased preference for intensely tasting foods with increasing age is also genetically determined. The reason for this is, inter alia. the physiological decrease in taste sensitivity. Food preferences can be changed through nutrition-related experiences and the social consequences of eating. Culture and religion are also of great importance in this context.

Food aversion can also have different causes. Sometimes preferences turn into aversions because of certain events.

Preferences - Genetic Factors

Preference for sweets

An experiment showed that newborns prefer sweet liquids to pure water. The higher the glucose concentration, the stronger the preference. Differences between the sexes could not be proven.

However, early contact is not a prerequisite for a preference. Researchers showed that cultures that originally lived without sweet foods took on a preference for sweets after being exposed to sweet foods.

The preference for sweets decreases with age. However, this can be based on learning-related reactions. For example, a trigger could be increased worry about weight gain and / or eating more nutritionally.

Preference for salt

The preference for salt is also largely genetic, but the way it appears can be changed by environmental experience.

In contrast to sweeteners, salt is not preferred from birth, as infants cannot taste salt until they are four months old. From this point on, they prefer salty solutions to pure water. They know what should taste salty and reject foods that do not do so to the usual extent.

Although appetite is dependent on physiological need, high physiological need is not a necessary precondition for consuming large amounts of salt. As a result, the preference for salty foods means that the amount of salt consumed often far exceeds the body's requirements. By eating only foods with a low salt content for several weeks, however, it is possible to reduce the need-independent salt preference depending on experience.

Preferences - environmental contributions

Aside from genetic preferences, what is liked is the result of a social learning process, with observational learning being ascribed an essential function. The sensory impression described as pleasant is not assessed cognitively, but results from getting used to an increasingly familiar taste impression.

Children adopt the preferences of people they dine with. They also develop increased preferences for foods that are given to them as a reward or that are accompanied by adult attention.

The culture in which a person grows up also influences their preferences. They learn from them, for example, when which food is eaten and how (temperature, preparation method, etc.). Cultural influences also include the effects of social class. People tend to eat foods that are preferred by those of the social class they would like to belong to more often.

Indirect contacts (e.g. TV advertising) can also change preferences. Experiments show that promoting foods with low nutritional value increased their preference among children.

In connection with food preferences, the "mere exposure effect" and "specific sensory satiety" are mentioned again and again. While the mere exposure effect describes the establishment of a certain taste preference through repetition, the specific sensory saturation states that a repetition of similar sensory impressions leads to their weakening. Since specific sensory saturation develops very quickly and remains stable for a long time before it drops again, it is assumed that it comes from sensations when eating and not from the effects of food.

The mere exposure effect and the specific sensory saturation are intertwined: A dish only becomes a favorite if it is not eaten too often. The preference for a food is thus strengthened in the long term by the mere exposure effect, but reduced in the short term by the specific sensory saturation.


There are four types of food that can trigger aversion.

  • Unpleasant tasting foods: Most of them would eat these without reservation if their own taste was masked or delayed.
  • Unsuitable foods: Substances that are considered inedible.
  • Dangerous foods: Those that could cause physical harm if eaten.
  • Disgusting foods: Substances that normally nobody wants to absorb.

While the first three types are classified as "aversive" in the context of direct contact, "nauseating foods" are referred to as such based on experiencing the reactions of others. Furthermore, food can be classified as disgusting because it has come into contact with something nauseating (principle of contiguity) or because its appearance is similar to something nauseating (principle of similarity).

Certain events, such as sudden nausea or illness, can turn preferences into aversions. The rule here is that aversions develop more easily towards less preferred foods and are also transferred to foods that are similar to the foods associated with the illness / nausea.