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My sister has never eaten a grape. Seriously. In 30 years of living, the girl’s never so much as tried the damn fruit, often citing their “gross” shape as the reason. Her strong aversion to the bulbous food has become as much a part of her personality as, say, the fact that’s she’s a teacher and that she’s an expert in art history. Needless to say, folks usually have an incredulous response upon hearing she’s never eaten the seemingly innocuous fruit.
I’ve always found people’s dislikes to be as interesting as their likes. I’d much rather hear about why you hate Billy Joel or the movie Titanic than hear why you like the things that most of us also enjoy. And, to me, there’s nothing more telling than hearing about the foods people can’t stomach. Maybe it’s because I’m decidedly unpicky when it comes to consuming, or maybe it’s because I just love to eat, but I’ll often press people I meet to share their antipathy for certain foods.
Understanding why we hate the foods we do is a complex task, given that aversions typically stem from much more than general distaste. In the case of food, preferences are influenced by a variety of factors, evolution among them.
“We’re born liking sweet and disliking bitter,” said Debra A. Zellner, PhD, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University who’s spent a substantial part of her career studying food aversions. Zellner explained that this is likely because sweet flavors signal calories, and famine has been a constant problem over the course of human history. Bitter, on the other hand, signals toxins. “Those humans who ate sweet things got calories, which helped them survive,” she said. “Likewise, those humans who avoided bitter things survived because they succeeded in not poisoning themselves. These predispositions help in solving the omnivore’s dilemma. We can eat a lot of different foods, but figuring out which are good to eat and which are not is hard.”
Our taste for sweet and bitter is just the start—other factors that can influence your tastes include genetics, general conditioning, and even what your mom ate while she was pregnant (2001 research by biopsychologist Julie Mennella found that children whose mothers ate an excess of carrots when pregnant preferred carrot-flavored cereal after they were born, while babies whose moms didn’t eat the veggie did not show the same preference).
However, just because you’re not a fan of, say, olives doesn’t mean you won’t ever like them. There are numerous ways to learn to like certain foods, but the easiest way, according to Zellner, is persistence. “There’s something called the mere exposure effect. The more we’re exposed to something, the more we like it,” she said, adding that the rule absolutely works with food.
The tricky part is overcoming the fear associated with eating things we think we hate, but Zellner insists that if you continue to taste it, over time you’ll get to like it.
Still, my colleagues seemed pretty adamant about not ever learning to like the below foods when I asked them to provide me with the one thing they’ll never eat—and why.
Desserts with nuts
“Sounds crazy, but I absolutely cannot stand desserts that have nuts in them. You can destroy a brownie with pecans, ruin ice cream with pistachios, and crucify a creamy chocolate bar with almonds. What’s bizarre, though, is that I love nuts on their own—in all shapes and sizes and textures. It’s just when they’re combined with sugar that the whole game changes for me and causes me to unravel. What this says about me, I’m still a little unclear on. (Jessica Teves, editor in chief)
I can’t even think about the taste of root beer without gagging, which apparently is a giant affront to my American upbringing, according to the Internet. (I Googled why do I hate root beer?, and hundreds of results outlined the fact that it’s beloved in America, with one calling the soda “a symbol of national pride.”) To me, the flavor is strong, it’s weird, it’s cloying, and it’s downright gross. I’m so averse to it that I accidentally used root beer–flavored lip balm recently and was queasy for two days. (Perrie Samotin, site director)
I just can’t get on board with the overwhelming, herby flavor. You can blame my mum for this one: She took me to play at a friend’s house many weekends when I was a kid, and that family had a tennis court that was surrounded by both an abundance of wild cilantro, and, strangely, stink beetles. Although cilantro is certainly getting more palatable as I get older, to this day I still can’t think of one without the other. Ick. (Jasmine Garnsworthy, editor)
While I’ve never been one to count calories, I always ask for my sandwiches without the mayo. The white, thick condiment is absolutely revolting to me. There’s something about the consistency and smell and the fact that it jiggles. What does a substance like that even do in your body? Why does it smell like it’s already gone bad? And, no, Miracle Whip doesn’t work for me either. (Rachel Adler, beauty director)
I fucking hate cinnamon. If I accidentally bite into something with cinnamon in it, I’ll spit it out. If I walk into a store and it smells like cinnamon, I’ll leave. The fact that people voluntarily chew cinnamon gum is an eternal mystery to me—that’s a product from the gates of hell as far as I’m concerned. I hate the taste, and I hate the smell—and there’s no real reason why. (Alle Connell, senior beauty editor)
Worst. Cheese. Ever. I couldn’t think of how to describe its horrific taste, so I Googled it. One person who actually enjoys Brie said, “Brie needs to be mature before eating, and when it’s nice and runny it smells something like sweaty socks but has a lovely intense flavor.” Enough said. (Candace Napier, graphic designer)
I despise foods that make my entire meal taste like only that specific food. And pickles are the ultimate flavor-hog. Nothing ruins a savory club sandwich piled high with ingredients like a cold, floppy, wet pickle. It makes my layers of turkey, bacon, cheese, and tomato taste like pickle, pickle, pickle, and pickle. Gross. (Samantha Lim, director of creative projects)
When I was a kid, I accidentally took a huge swig from someone’s Solo cup of beer at a family party—I thought it was my apple juice—and was totally thrown off by the sour, fizzy taste when I was expecting something sweet. I guess I never got over the shock, because I hate beer to this day. I don’t know how I made it through college, to be honest (actually, I do: Franzia boxed wine.) (Cristina Velocci, managing editor)
I’ll eat almost anything, and a lot of my favorite foods are ones that plenty of people consider pretty gross—pickles, gorgonzola cheese, raw oysters, any and all carpaccios, mayo (wait, is mayo not technically a food?). So I can’t explain my strong aversion to beets, a rather innocuous vegetable that most people seem to enjoy. I hate the taste of them, I hate the texture of them, and I hate looking at them. (Rachel Krause, beauty editor)
I really hate the taste of vodka, which is odd, since it’s supposed to be tasteless. Blame it on too many reckless nights, but even the smell of it turns my stomach. (Cady Lang, social media editor)
I really, really dislike sauerkraut. Everything about it disgusts me for some reason. The smell, the slithery texture, and even the way it’s chopped—I don’t even like to look at it. (Victoria Moorhouse, associate editor)
I love hot tomatoes, but I avoid cold tomatoes because I don’t like the texture of tomato gel. I dislike very few foods, yet I look so picky just because tomatoes are on basically every salad. (Sarah Wharton, copy editor)
Raspberry flavor, particularly artificial, leaves a really strong aftertaste that I’m definitely not a fan of. I associate it with the taste of lipstick—don’t ask me why. I avoid raspberry jams and fillings at all costs. (Jasmin Perez, contributor)
Photo: Getty Images; Art by Candace Napier