I‘ve been a bit fussy with what I eat for years. Though I have a very healthy appetite and have never suffered from any eating disorder, I certainly wish I had a slightly broader palate. Included on the list of things I won’t eat are tinned tuna, salmon, many ready-prepared sandwiches, cucumber, raw fish and raw tomatoes. In other words, a cold buffet is not usually my idea of fun.
However, though there are quite a few foods I won’t try, I’m certainly not that badly off. For others, the situation is a lot more restrictive. It’s common for children to be fussy with food, yet some have extreme eating habits, only eating a single-figure amount of items. The Internet offers stories of adults who only live on one thing, such as chips or pizza. Similarly, the sympathetically-named TV show Freaky Eaters, with the UK version running from 2007 to 2009 and the US version from 2010 to 2011, often dealt with incredibly narrow eating, focusing on people with, across both shows, cheeseburgers, burnt sausages or even French fries, for example, as the sole mainstay of their diet. But is there a scientific basis behind picky eating?
It appears that there is. Some people are supertasters – people who perceive tastes far more intensely than the average person. The term ‘supertaster’ was first coined by Prof Linda Bartoshuk. According to Smithsonian.com’s 2004 article, “A Matter of Taste”: “To find what made supertasters special, Bartoshuk zeroed in on the tongue’s anatomy. She found that people have different numbers of fungiform papillae, with tongue topography ranging from, say, sparse cactus-pocked deserts to lush lawns. To qualify for supertasterdom, which is a genetically inherited trait, a person has to have wall-to-wall papillae on his or her tongue and also have an ability to readily taste PROP, a bitter synthetic compound also known as 6-n-propylthiouracil, which is used as a thyroid medication.” (See here). Indeed, genetics clearly plays a role – according to Wikipedia: “Taste receptor 2 member 38 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the TAS2R38 gene. TAS2R38 is a bitter taste receptor; varying genotypes of TAS2R38 influence the ability to taste both 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) and phenylthiocarbamide (PTC).” (Link here)
On a webpage on supertasters on the BBC website, a video from Dara O Briain’s Science Club suggests that 25 per cent of the UK population are supertasters, with the page itself suggesting that less than 15 papillae makes a person a non-taster, between 15 and 35 indicates an average taster and over 35 indicates a supertaster. However, one 2014 study could not find a link between the amount of papillae and supertasting.
For some, picky eating be caused by an eating disorder. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 2013. ARFID denotes an eating or feeding trouble that is severe enough to mean that a person fails to meet ideal nutritional needs, resulting in problems like losing weight, being dependent on supplements or a feeding tube, nutritional deficiency or psychosocial disruption. The way symptoms manifest can include eating habits that on the surface might seem like fussy eating, such as only eating a certain brand or type of food. However, just because a person has certain likes or dislikes regarding food doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disorder – it is when the problem is beginning to interfere in the areas listed above that someone may need to seek help. Studies have also been done on food neophobia – a fear that people can have of consuming new or unfamiliar foods.
These are just some of the theories behind the phenomenon of fussy eating – many more studies have been done in this field. However, these ideas do suggest that those with narrow eating habits may not simply be being awkward or fussy after all.