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Scientific knowledge, societal judgment, and the picky eater: Interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic (part 2).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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We continue my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview.)

In this segment of the interview, we ponder the kind of power picky eaters find in the scientific research on pickiness, the different ways people get judgmental about what someone else is eating, and the curious fact that scientists who research picky eating seem not to be picky eaters themselves. Also, we cast aspersions on lima beans and kale.

Janet D. Stemwedel: Are there some aspects of pickiness that you’d like to see the scientists research that they don’t seem to be researching yet?

Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic: There was the question of whether there are sex differences in pickiness, which it seems like maybe they’re looking into more now. Also, and this is because of where I am right now, I’d really like to see them look into the impact of having early examples of well-prepared food, because I have a hunch this might be pretty important. I’m pretty sure there’s no silver bullet, whether you’re breast-fed or formula-fed or whatever. It can make parents feel really bad when they get a long list of things to do to help your kid not be picky, and they do everything on the list, and the kid still ends up picky. But I’d like to see more of the research suggesting that it’s not just early exposure to food but early exposure to good food. I’m also intrigued by the research suggesting that pickiness is not a choice but rather a part of your biology. Lots of my friends who are gay have likened it to coming out of the closet and accepting that who you are is not a choice. I’d like to see more pickiness research here, but maybe it’s not so much about the science as the sociology of finding acceptance as a picky eater. Also, I’m not sure the extent to which scientists are taking the cultural aspects into account when they study pickiness — you figure they must. I am sick of people throwing the French back at me, saying, there’s this book written by the mother who raised her kids in France, and her kids were not picky, so, generally, kids in France are not picky. And I’m thinking, you know, I’m willing to bet that there are picky kids in France, but they just don’t talk about it. Scientifically speaking, there’s a high probability that there are picky eaters there.

JS: Right, and their parents probably just have access to enough good wine to not be as bothered by it.

SL: Or maybe their stance is just generally not to be bothered by it. Jacques Pepin said to me, “We just didn’t talk about it.” His daughter liked some things and disliked others, and he said, “You know, when she decided she liked Brussels sprouts, we didn’t get down on the floor to praise God; we just didn’t talk about it either way.” It doesn’t become a thing in the family. Parents today are so educated about food and nutrition, but it can have bad effects as well as good effects.

JS: We have the knowledge, but we don’t always know what to do with it.

SL: I’m hoping that scientists will be able to take all that they’re learning about the different facets of pickiness and put that knowledge together to develop ways to help people. People have asked me whether hypnosis works. I don’t know, and the scientists I asked didn’t know either. But there are people looking for help, and I hope that what the scientists are learning can make that help more accessible.

JS: Something occurred to me as I was reading what you wrote about the various aspects of why people like or don’t like certain flavors or different textures. I know someone who studies drugs of abuse. During the period of time just after my tenure dossier when in, I detoxed from caffeine, but I kept drinking decaffeinated coffee, because I love the taste of coffee. But, this researcher told me, “No, you don’t. You think you do, but the research we have shows that coffee is objectively aversive.” So you look at the animal studies and the research on how humans get in there and get themselves to like coffee, and all the indications are that we’re biologically predisposed not to like it.

SL: We’re not supposed to like it.

JS: But we can get this neurochemical payoff if we can get past that aversion. And I’m thinking, why on earth aren’t leafy greens doing that for us? How awesome would that be?

SL: They don’t get us high. They don’t give us the stimulant boost of caffeine. I think what your researcher friend is saying is that the benefit of caffeine is enough that it’s worth it to learn how to handle the bitterness to get the alertness. I started out with really sweet coffee drinks, with General Foods International coffees, then moved on to Starbucks drinks. I can finally drink black coffee. (I usually put milk in it, but that’s more for my stomach.) I can actually appreciate good coffees, like the ones from Hawaii. But, it’s because I worked at it — just like I worked at liking some of the foods I’ve disliked. I wanted to like it because the payoff was good. With greens, the only payoff is that they’re good for you. I reached a certain age where that was a payoff I wanted. I wanted to like Brussels sprouts because the idea of actually healthful foods became appealing to me. But there are plenty of people I know who are picky eaters who couldn’t care less about that.

JS: So, if there were more reasons apparent within our lifestyle to like leafy greens and their nutritional payoff, we’d work harder when we were in junior high and high school and college to like them? Maybe as hard as we do to become coffee drinkers?

SL: Sure! I’m trying very hard to like kale.

JS: Me too! I feel bad that I don’t like it.

SL: I know, right?

JS: I feel like I should — like a good vegetarian should like kale.

SL: Well, everyone’s trying to like it, and I’ve found some ways of liking it. But, what’s the payoff for kale? Obviously, it’s very good for you, and it’s supposed to have some specific benefits like being really good for your complexion, and cleaning out your liver. Have another glass of wine? OK, if you eat your kale. But again, “good for you” is a weird kind of payoff.

JS: It’s a payoff you have to wait for.

SL: And one you’re not necessarily always going to see. I’ve been told that eating lots of salmon also has health benefits, but I just don’t like salmon enough to eat enough of it to see those benefits.

JS: Heh. That reminds me of the stories I heard from our pediatrician that you’ve probably heard from yours, that if you feed your baby too much strained carrot, the baby might turn orange and you shouldn’t be alarmed. And of course, I was determined to sit down and feed my child enough carrots that weekend to see if I could make that happen.

SL: I’ve never seen that happen. Does it really happen?

JS: Apparently with some kids it does. I tried with mine and could not achieve the effect.

[At this point we got a little sidetracked as I offered Stephanie some of my Gigantes (baked organic Gigante beans with tomatoes, leeks, and herbed feta). I had ordered them with some trepidation because someone on Yelp had described this as a lima bean dish, and I ... am not a fan of lima beans. The beans turned out to be a broad bean that bore no resemblance to the smaller, starchy lima beans of my youthful recollection.]

SL: I’ve never actually seen those lima beans fresh, just in bags in the frozen section.

JS: And assuming they still taste like we remember them, who would get them?

SL: Well, my husband is the kind of person who will eat anything, so he might. But you can also take limas and puree them with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil and make a white bean spread. If I had to eat limas, that’s what I’d do with them. Maybe add a little mint. But I wouldn’t just eat them out of the bag, not even with butter.

JS: They’re not right.

SL: No.

JS: With so many different kinds of beans, why would you eat that one?

SL: There’s a reason why Alexander, of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, had lima beans as his hated food. But, there are scientists at Monell working on flavors and acceptance of food — trying, among other things, to work out ways to make the drug cocktails less yucky for pediatric AIDS patients. They’re working on “bitter blockers” for that. (Maybe that could help with lima beans, too.) Anyway, getting Americans to eat more healthy foods …

JS: There’s probably some pill we could take for that, right?

SL: Hey, I thought we could do that with vitamins. Then I heard Michael Pollan saying, basically vitamins are pointless. (I still take them.) It’s tricky, because lots of people eat primarily for pleasure, not for health. I’m not sure why we have to see the two as being in opposition to each other; I enjoy food so much now that I find pleasure in eating foods that are good for me. But there are also plenty of people who just see food as fuel, and don’t find it any more interesting or worthy of discussion than that.

JS: At that point, why not just stock up on the nutrition bars and never do dishes again?

SL: When Anderson Cooper came out as a picky eater on his talk show, he said, “I would rather just drink my meals. I would rather have a shake.” His reaction to food was at the level where he wasn’t interested in anything more than that, at all. He’d rather go for convenience.

JS: That seems OK to me. That’s not how I am, or how the people I live with (and cook for) are, which means I can’t just blend it for meals, but that’s how it goes.

SL: For people who are like that, and know that they’re like that, if drinking meals is what works for them, that’s great. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be that way, but then again, I say that not really knowing what it’s like to be them instead of me.

JS: Do you think that interest in the causes of pickiness is driven by the amount of judgment people attach to picky eaters?

SL: Certainly, that’s my interest in it. I don’t think that’s necessarily why the scientific community is interested in it — I mean, I don’t think it bothers them very much, except in terms of understanding the psychological effects that are connected to pickiness. But yes, let’s talk about how food is the subject of judgment in general — especially among people in the Bay Area, among foodies.

JS: “Are you really going to eat that?! Do you know where that’s from?”

SL: Right, or “I won’t eat anything that wasn’t grown or raised within a 90 mile radius.” We have so many levels at which we judge what someone else is eating. My personal motivation for writing this book was to shed light on this topic because of the judgment that I saw picky eaters experience. For a while, I wouldn’t even admit my past as a picky eater. I had become a foodie and I was out here reinventing myself, but I kept my mouth shut about things I didn’t like until other people around me were admitting that they went through a picky stage of their own. Whenever I’ve written about pickiness online, the comments end up having a lot of people sharing their own stories. It seems like everyone can relate to it: “This is what I don’t like, and here’s why …” or, “I never thought I’d find anyone else who didn’t like this food for the same reason I don’t like it.” I’ve found that people can bond just as much over hating foods as they do over liking them. Let’s face it, food is often about community, so discussions of things we hate and things we love can be equally interesting to people. Even if you have the Pollyannas who say, “Who really wants to talk about something as unpleasant as what we don’t like?” guess what? We all dislike things.

JS: How many of the scientists who do research on the different aspects that contribute to pickiness outed themselves as picky eaters to you? Or do you think the scientists who study this stuff seem to be less picky than the rest of us?

SL: None of them really admitted to me that they were picky eaters. And I would ask them point blank if they were. One of the scientists working on the Duke study, Nancy Zucker, told me, “No. I ate everything as a kid, and I still do.” And, she told me her mom did some really weird things with food because her job was to sample products. The other scientist I spoke to on the Duke study admitted to not really liking tomatoes, but that was the extent of her pickiness. I got the sense from Dr. Dani Reed at Monell that she loves food and loves to cook. There were some foods, like organ meats, that she hadn’t quite accepted but that her friends were trying to get her to like. But, not a whole lot of people in this scientific community admitted to me that they were picky. I’m now thinking through everyone I interviewed, and I don’t recall any of them expressing food issues.

JS: I wonder if that’s at all connected with the research — whether doing research in this area is a way to make yourself less picky, or whether people who are picky are not especially drawn to this area of research.

SL: A lot of them would admit to having family members or friends who were picky. So then you wonder if they might have been drawn to the research because of this need to understand someone in their life.

JS: Maybe in the same way that losing a family member to leukemia could draw you to a career in oncology, having a family member who ruined family dinners by not eating what was on the plate draws you to this?

SL: Quite possibly. By and large, the scientists I spoke to about pickiness were so non-judgmental, probably because they’ve been studying it in various forms for various reasons. The rest of us are just now talking more about it and starting to notice the research that’s been amassed (on children, or breast feeding, or “inter-uterine feeding” and what they’re “tasting” in the womb). Since Monell is the center for research on taste and smell, they are used to journalists asking them about picky eaters. They’re also used to being misquoted and having the journalists’ accounts of the science come out wrong. (For example, they hate the word “supertaster,” which the media loves.) I got the impression that they were very non-judmental about pickiness, but none of them really described themselves as picky to me — and I asked.

JS: Maybe the picky eaters who are scientists go into some other field.

SL: Maybe. Maybe they don’t want to be involved with the food anymore.

JS: “Get it away from me! Get it away from me!”

SL: Seriously! “I lived it; I don’t need to study it!”

JS: Do you think having a scientific story to tell about pickiness makes it easier for picky eaters to push back against the societal judgment?

SL: Oh yeah. Lots of interviewers I’ve spoken to have wanted to tout this book as the science of picky eating — and let’s face it, it’s not all about the science — but people want to latch onto the scientific story because, for the lay person, when science hands down a judgment, you kind of just accept it. This is how I felt — you can’t argue with science. Science is saying, this is why I am who I am. Having scientific facts about pickiness gives you the back-up of a big-brained community, we can explain at least part of why you’re the way you are, and it’s OK. When parents can be given scientific explanations for why their kids are the way they are –

JS: And that the kid’s not just messing with you.

SL: Right! And that it’s not your fault. It’s not that you did something wrong to your kid that made your kid a picky eater. We’re really talking about two communities of picky eating, the parents of kids who are picky, and the adults who are picky eaters, and both those communities are looking for science because it’s as solid a thing as they can find to help them get through it.

JS: But here, we loop back to what you were saying earlier, as you were discussing how there’s potentially a genetic basis for pickiness, and how this kind of finding is almost analogous to finding a biological basis for sexual orientation. In both cases, you could draw the conclusion that it isn’t a choice but who you are.

SL: Exactly.

JS: But when I hear that, I’m always thinking to myself, but what if it were a choice? Why would that make us any more ready to say it’s a bad thing? Why should a biological basis be required for us to accept it? Do you think picky eaters need to have some scientific justification, or should society just be more accepting of people’s individual likes and dislike around food?

SL: Well, a psychologist would say, the first thing a picky eaters needs to do is accept that that’s who she is. Whatever the reason, whether their biology or their life history, this is who they are. The next thing is how does this impact you, and do you want to change it? If it’s something you want to change, you can then deal with it in steps. Why do we need to know that it’s not a choice? Because you get judged more for your choices. Let’s face it, you also get judged for who you are, but you get judged far more if you make what is assumed to be a choice to dislike certain foods. Then it’s like, “Why would you make that choice?” But there might also be a bully-population thing going on. There seem to be more people who like food of various kinds than who dislike them; why are they the ones who get to be right?

JS: Good question!

SL: And then there are discussions about evolution, where maybe not liking a particular food could be viewed as a weakness (because in an environment where that’s what there was to eat, you’d be out of luck). Sometimes it seems like our culture treats the not-picky eaters as fitter (evolutionarily) than the picky eaters. Of course, those who like and eat everything indiscriminately are more likely to eat something who kills them, so maybe the picky eaters will be the ultimate survivors. But definitely, the scientific story does feel like it helps fend off some of the societal criticism. Vegetarians and vegans already have some cover for their eating preferences. They have reasons they can give about ethics or environmental impacts. The scientific information can give picky eaters reasons to push back with that stronger than just individual preferences. For some reason, “I just don’t like it” isn’t treated like a good reason not to eat something.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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