Highly flavored processed foods have hijacked our sense of taste, driving unhealthy cravings and sabotaging our health. “We used to get the flavor in our food from plants and animals, and now we get it from factories,” says journalist Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor.
Trying to satisfy our inherent cravings for sugars, fats, and sodium with hyperflavored convenience food fails to meet our health and nutrition needs — and actually makes us crave even more processed foods. Sugar, fat, and salt also activate regions in our brains associated with desire and reward. Food manufacturers know this, and they are constantly creating complex flavors and textures that are specifically and expressly designed to be irresistible.
The good news is that you can consciously reprogram your palate in the service of your health. Use the following six steps to get your 10,000 taste buds back on track.
1. Cleanse Your Palate
Whether you gradually ease off highly flavored processed foods or eliminate them all at once, your sense of taste will eventually become more attuned to subtler flavor variations.
You might notice a difference within just a few weeks of eliminating the bad stuff, says Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. “After a while, you’ll begin to taste things such as the natural sodium in vegetables that you’ve never tasted before.”
One way to jump-start this palate cleansing is to serve yourself the good stuff first: Eat your veggies before digging into the other food on your plate, giving yourself the opportunity to savor their delicate tastes and textures.
2. Slow Down
People are used to eating foods that are so highly processed that they don’t take much effort or time to be consumed. Food-texture expert Gail Vance Civille says that her research in the 1960s and 1970s showed that most steaks required chewing up to 25 times on average before being swallowed. Now, “consumers are most comfortable with foods that are chewed only 10 to 15 times,” she says.
To bring out the full flavor of what you’re eating, chew slowly and mindfully. This will also aid with digestion and help you get the most nutrition out of your food.
3. Try Something New
If you’re trying to introduce your taste buds to sensations beyond salty and sweet, broaden your horizons with food from one of the other taste categories at each meal: sour (citrus, sauerkraut); bitter (turmeric, dark chocolate); and umami, the rich, meaty taste found in mushrooms, tomatoes, and red meat. (For more on umami, see “Umami: The Secret Flavor.”)
“Processed food numbs the taste buds, but indulging in true flavor can help reclaim them,” chef Rebecca Katz says. She uses the mnemonic acronym FASS as a reminder to include healthy fats, taste-bud-brightening acids, flavor-enhancing salt, and mellowing sweetness in every meal. (For more on FASS, download this PDF.)
4. Make a Positive Connection
Remember that fun gathering with your new neighbors, when you amiably tried baba ganoush for the first time? It turns out that recalling happy times associated with tasting nutritious foods can help you acquire a new taste (even for eggplant!).
We learn to like foods through positive associations, says Traci Mann, PhD, psychologist and author of Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.
So just because you couldn’t stand overcooked peas in your school lunch doesn’t mean your taste buds won’t flip — eventually — for freshly shucked peas from the farmers’ market.
5. Get Your Brain on Board
“Looking forward to eating a food you love provides real pleasure,” says Mann. So allow yourself to build up a sense of anticipation, especially if you’re about to eat a food you particularly enjoy.
And if it’s a food you don’t normally like, warm up the analytical part of your brain instead. Set out to collect some interesting data — about its health benefits, texture, flavor, temperature — that might help you overcome your initial aversion.
6. Try and Try Again
Research has shown that repeated exposure can increase how much you like a particular food. And while that’s a good reason to keep dishing up spinach to your kids at dinnertime, it’s a course of action that can work just as well for you, too.
“The more times you eat something, and the more times you enjoy a happy moment while eating that food, the more you’ll end up liking it,” Mann says. “For some bitter foods, it might take up to 20 separate tastings before your taste buds finally learn to like it.”
Try different preparations to see if you find one tastier than another. For example, if you don’t care for roasted beets, try eating them raw in a salad.
This originally appeared in “Take Back Your Taste Buds.”