Ever wonder why cilantro makes you gag while your mom can’t imagine her favorite guacamole without it? Or why you adore mushrooms while your best friend refers to them as “fungi” and crinkles her nose at them?
These eats—and many more—are all considered polarizing foods. So what makes us hate a particular food with a passion while another person can’t understand what all the fuss is about?
Chalk it up to your genes, which control your taste buds and sense of smell, and to powerful life experiences. “People differ tremendously in the sensitivity of their sense of smell,” explains psychologist Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., an associate member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute studying taste and smell. “Some people are more sensitive to certain bitter compounds than others.
But we find that culture and individual experiences can override many of these individual differences. Think about hard liquor, chili peppers or hoppy beer—who likes that at first? But people learn to like it. And even people who are very sensitive to bitter can learn to like Brussels sprouts.”
Yes, even you. Here’s a look at nine of the most popular polarizing foods.
This herb, popular in Mexican and Asian dishes, is surprisingly divisive (there’s even a website dedicated to cilantro-haters. “There’s no food I don’t like—but cilantro is one thing I have no interest in,” admits nutritionist Keri Glassman, R.D.
“The aldehydes give cilantro its fragrance and give off that soapy smell and flavor, but some people find it pleasing.”
Want to make it more palatable? Crush up the leaves, which converts the aldehydes into a less noxious aroma, making it easier to eat.
Bitter Brussels Sprouts
Although some people love these pint-size veggies, others can’t stand the odor of Brussels sprouts, which are a member of the cabbage family.
“Cooking Brussels sprouts releases a sulfur compound,” explains Glassman. “The longer they’re cooked, the more it smells.”
Try cutting Brussels sprouts in half, rubbing olive oil over them, sprinkling on some kosher salt and roasting them for sweeter, odor- and bitter-free Brussels sprouts.
About 19 percent of American adults don’t eat raw tomatoes, notes Pelchat. “That’s amazing given that they’re included in practically every salad and sandwich,” she says.
It’s also rare for people to like both raw and cooked tomatoes, according to Glassman, with their wildly different textures.
Although most people like tasty tomato sauce—how can you have pizza without it?—some have an issue with raw tomatoes, with its tough skin that can stick to the roof of your mouth to its liquid-like, seed-filled center. “Some people don’t like texture transitions within their foods,” says Pelchat.
Fennel’s strong licorice scent can be off-putting to some and refreshing to others.
But if you’re not a fan of fennel, you may not even notice it when it’s sliced up into a salad.
That’s because it’s the scent—not the taste—that’s troublesome. “The aromatic compound anisole is an important component of the flavor of fennel, licorice and anise,” explains Pelchat. “They all have the same smell, but they don't all have that annoying taste.”
People who don’t like eggplant often can’t reconcile the tough-on-the-outside, mushy-on-the-inside texture. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to cook it,” notes Glassman.
“It’s hard to cook properly. And eggplant can be chewy and is like a sponge, sucking in all the flavor.”
Opt for Chinese eggplant instead (it looks more like a purple zucchini), which has a thinner skin and is sweeter than American eggplant.
‘Shrooms are grown in the ground so it’s no wonder that they have an earthy taste and are associated with dirt. “People who get easily grossed out don’t like mushrooms,” says Glassman.
“They have a hard time knowing what they are—that they’re a fungus.”
Mushrooms can also be slimy depending on how they’re cooked. On the positive side, they’re loaded with health benefits, from shiitake mushrooms, which help lower cholesterol and may have anti-cancer attributes, to maitake (or hen of the woods) mushrooms, which have been shown to enhance the immune system, regulate blood pressure and cholesterol, and possibly aid weight loss.
There’s no delicate way to put this: Raisins resemble feces, notes Pelchat.
That may explain why many people can’t stand even the sight of them while they adore grapes (raisins are simply dried grapes).
Raisins also have a tendency to show up where you least expect them, such as in what you thought was a chocolate chip cookie. “A lot of picky eaters say they hate surprises,” says Pelchat.
Potent, spicy ginger is a popular ingredient in Asian dishes.
A mixture of the natural compounds in ginger causes its characteristic and, in some cases, despised pungent odor and flavor (particularly with pickled ginger, which tastes like perfume or soap to some).
“The spicy taste of ginger turns most people off, but it is this spicy trait that provides all the health benefits,” says Glassman. Ginger can soothe an upset stomach and reduce motion or morning sickness.
You can tame ginger’s flavor reign by adding it to other strongly flavored meals or using it sparingly.
Although pulpy juice is associated with just-squeezed freshness, people who are fans of pulp often say things like they don’t want to “chew their juice.”
“Can you really blame them?” says Glassman.
“Suddenly there is a consistency to your drink and rather than chugging down a glass of OJ, you need to take more time, chew a little, swish it around and then swallow.”
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