First Bite: How We Learn to Eat
by Bee Wilson
Basic Books, 2015 ($27.99)
Every bite forms a memory, and the most powerful ones are the first, says food writer Wilson. As children, we do not simply learn what we like and dislike by putting new foods in our mouth. We also learn by watching others eat—at home, at school and on TV. By the time we turn 18, we have each had some 33,000 unique learning experiences with food, Wilson estimates. In First Bite, she details the complex, often fraught relationship humans have with food and explores why, for some of us, eating can go so wrong.
Genetic differences may determine how we taste foods, even how much we enjoy eating, but the environment in which we learn to eat ultimately shapes our dietary habits. For instance, most babies will stick their tongue out, spit or even cry when confronted with a bitter taste, although many will grow up to savor a pint of India pale ale or a cup of French roast coffee.
Learning to like new foods is largely a consequence of familiarity, Wilson says. Humans are wired to like what they know. A child will often decide to dislike a certain food before trying it because it may look or smell different from foods he or she already eats. Studies reveal that we acquire new tastes through “mere exposure,” a process that boils down to a tendency to learn to like new things by trying them repeatedly.
Although certain foods may always taste particularly acrid to a subset of genetic supertasters, people's belief that tastes cannot be changed can dissuade them from sampling new foods and lead to bad or selective eating habits. In fact, Wilson claims, an estimated 25 percent of all adults never grow out of their childhood food fussiness.
In the most extreme cases, picky eating can lead to a lasting fear of certain foods, which can consume people's life. Wilson describes one woman who made her choice of college based on the fact that the school cafeteria served plain pizza without the taint of oregano or spice.
In addition to describing such dire disordered eating, Wilson devotes a lot of space to more basic everyday bad habits. She explains how they develop—largely as a result of the food environment in which we learn to eat—and how we can overcome them. Being open to new food experiences is a start. At times, Wilson's critique feels cloying, beating on overdone consumer health tropes, including the obesity epidemic and the pitfalls of a “Western” diet. She injects some levity into these weighty discussions, however, when she describes how she would often blitz through tubs of ice cream as a teenager.
First Bite is a worthy read that provides sharp insights into how our tastes evolve. Notably the book offers all of us Pringles fiends and Hostess hounds a chance at redemption with sage advice on how to quit junk-food addictions and change even the most ingrained eating habits.