Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 15:30 UK

Food memories 'influence tastes'

By Joanne Manning
BBC News

Red and green chillies
18% of those questioned in Cardiff said they would be unwilling to try chillies

If the thought of gobbling down a mound of sprouts or chewing on some rabbit makes you feel queasier than a trip on a rickety rollercoaster, it could be because of your childhood food memories.

According to a new survey, these memories have a huge impact on our tastes in later life with almost half (43%) of people questioned across the UK admitting they have not tried the food that gave them their earliest bad flavour memory again.

Smell expert, Professor Tim Jacob, from Cardiff University's School of Biosciences, said flavour was actually a mixture of two senses - taste and smell - and in many people, these were inherently conservative.

"We spend our formative years being fed with things that are sweet and are quite bland," he said.

"Once we have established what foods we need to survive, why change it? We often don't want to take that risk.

"Because of the way our tastes develop, things like olives are an acquired taste but memory and emotion remain closely linked to flavour preferences throughout our lives."

Tastes in Cardiff
54% of people are scared to try new foods
24% of people admit that there are foods / flavours they have never tried but claim they don't like
26% of people would be unwilling to try / nervous about eating rabbit
18% of people would be unwilling to try / nervous about eating olives
18% of people would be unwilling to try / nervous about eating chillies
70% of people still eat the food that gave them their earliest fond flavour memory
39% of people have not tried the food that gave them their earliest bad flavour memory again
Source: Matters survey for Walkers Sensations

According to Professor Jacob, our childhood palates are not too partial to sour or acidic foods and a taste for salt only develops when we are around six-years-old.

"Children's foods are basically very conservative for biological reasons. But as they grow up it seems some tend to stick with this conservatism even though biologically our tastes change," he said.

"But also our preferences for food seem to stay with us. Babies have a preference for sweet foods."

Professor Jacob's work at the university involves looking at which sides of the brain are activated by good and bad smells.

Student volunteers are often are exposed to butyric acid, a chemical which smells of a combination of vomit, smelly feet and ripe Parmesan cheese, as well as nicer whiffs like almonds, pear drops and roses.

Professor Jacob said we often adapted to bad smells more quickly than good ones but we were more sensitive to changes in the concentration of bad smells than good smells.

He has also researched the influence of smell in attraction and is currently looking into the ability of people with schizophrenia to smell.

"Schizophrenics are often overwhelmed by sensory information like voices and hallucinations. Smells are also a part of this," he said.

"Our research seems to indicate that the more severe the schizophrenia, the more sensitive the patient is to smells. However they are less able to distinguish between some of the smells.

"Our work is only at a very early stage but we are hoping it will open up a debate about looking at different ways of handling schizophrenia."

Here are a selection of your comments:

I never liked brussel sprouts too much as a youngster, and would have a 'deal' with my dad to eat a minimum of just five if they were part of dinner. However, now as an adult, I really like them, and have even tried to grow my own!

Clare Benfield, Chepstow, Wales

The place was Dimmock Street Infant school in Wolverhampton during the Second World War. The food was figs, a special treat, so we were assured by the Headmistress. We were given two each. A quick nibble, and I put mine down, feeling sick. One boy on the same table managed to eat the rejected fruit - ten of them. What he thought about it later I cannot say, but I feel nauseous to this day at the very thought of figs. On the other hand, I have never been known to say no to any Finnish delicacy, certain items of which look distinctly unappetising. One, indeed, appears to have passed through the digestive tract already, but tastes wonderful.
Raymond Hopkins, Kronoby Finland

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