Many people like me, who grew up on processed foods, struggle with the fact that healthy foods simply don’t taste as good. Despite knowing that things like potato chips, mac and cheese, candy, and soda aren’t good for us, we crave them anyway. However, there’s a way to win that battle for good—by giving your tastebuds a tune-up! But before you can reclaim your taste buds, it’s important to understand a little about how they work, as well as how they’ve been hijacked by food manufacturers.
Taste Buds 101
Incredibly, your mouth is home to a whopping 10,000 taste buds. Each of those small bumps on your tongue, roof of your mouth, and throat, called papillae, contain up to 700 taste buds. And each of those tiny taste buds contain about 50 to 80 specialized taste-receptors cells that recognize individual flavors like sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. Working with your sense of smell, your taste buds tell your brain when to set your body’s metabolic and digestive processes in motion.
Your sense of taste is also an ancient biological security system. This explains why some flavors, like bitter, are less palatable to us than others, as bitterness can be nature’s way of signaling that a food is poisonous. By that same token, the more delicious a food, the bigger the nutritional punch. At least, that was the case until food manufacturers got involved.
That same biology that once guided our ancestors towards healthy food has been hijacked by the food industry through synthetic flavors and textures designed to appeal to us on a very primal level. Flavor once came from the food we hunted and gathered; it can now be created in a lab. By trying to satisfy our innate cravings for sugar, fat, and salt, hyper-flavored, ultra-processed foods provide little in the way of nutrition, yet leave us craving for more.
While technology has allowed us to enjoy a bounty of foods and flavors regardless of location or season, that abundance comes with a cost. Food became blander and less nutritious when it became manufactured for the masses, with soil depletion, chemical fertilizers, cultivation, and food processing to blame. For example, tomatoes have half as much calcium and vitamin A as they did in the 1950s, prior to large-scale food production.
Ironically, as the flavor in whole foods began to diminish, synthetic flavorings began to take off. Focusing on the flavors that are associated with desire and reward, food manufacturers are constantly creating complex flavors and textures that are quite literally irresistible—and are designed to be far more flavorful than their whole food counterparts.
But no matter how much processed food you’ve been eating, or for how long, rest assured: it hasn’t permanently altered your natural ability to taste—and enjoy—real food. Once you’ve given your palate a reset, it will reliably steer you towards healthier (and tastier!) choices. With these five strategies, you can retrain your brain and your taste buds in service of your health.
1. Ditch the Processed Stuff.
You can phase it out slowly or quit it cold turkey, but the only way you can learn to enjoy the complex flavors of real food is by giving up the “fake” stuff. In time, your taste buds will remember how to recognize the subtleties of whole foods, whether it’s the natural sodium in vegetables or the natural sweetness of fruit. One way to jumpstart this process is by eating the veggies on your plate before you dig into anything else. With your palate a blank slate, you’ll be able to detect and appreciate how flavorful those veggies really are.
2. Eat Mindfully.
Another problem with processed food is that most of it is pre-chewed, in a way. Processed foods can be eaten much more quickly and it’s conditioned us to eat way too fast. By focusing on the meal in front of you (and not your computer or TV), slowing down, chewing and savoring your food, you’ll better detect the complex flavors of a healthy meal. Plus, you’ll digest it better and get the full nutritional benefit from whatever you’re eating.
3. Be Adventurous.
Processed food can numb your taste buds, but you can retrain them to crave more than just salty and sweet by including foods from other taste categories at every meal. Some examples include bitter foods like dark chocolate, turmeric, and cruciferous veggies; sour foods like lemons, limes, tart cherries, and vinegar; and savory or umami foods, such as mushrooms, tomatoes, red meat, and garlic. Experiment with spices, healthy fats, and acids to enhance the flavor of your food. There’s no reason why healthy should be synonymous with bland and boring!
4. Find Ways to Make it a Positive Experience.
Another way to teach your body and your brain to crave the good stuff is through positive association. We may love certain foods because of the happy memories we have attached to them, while hating others because of negative experiences. If you fear bland broccoli or mushy peas, try reframing them through a positive experience. Try a new preparation with friends or family, or commit to trying a once-hated vegetable fresh from a local farmer’s market (I’ll bet it tastes way better than you expect). To help you get over your initial aversion, try focusing on a particular food’s health benefits instead. Sometimes, a little logic can help your brain make a big leap.
5. And If at First You Don’t Succeed…
…then try, try again. Think of how hard it can be to get a toddler to try a new food—it can take a dozen separate attempts before they’ll even consider it. Your adult taste buds aren’t much different, and repeated exposure can really help get them to be more adventurous. For example, it can take your taste buds 20 separate tastings to become receptive to a bitter food like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Different preparations and seasonings can go a long way in helping you realize you actually love foods you once would never touch.