M.Div, Psy.D, D. Min

Essentialism in Food Preference

Shulan Lu, PhD

Derek Harter, PhD


Individual differences in food preference is a complex topic no single theory can account for. In addition to the evolutionary and biological determinants of food preferences, this paper discusses the psychological factors underlying variations in food preferences. In particular, this paper discussed the essentialist mindset, whereby people seek contact with the essence of the world we live in. and this drives some of their food preferences experts have not been able to account for through biological or social mechanisms.

Keywords: psychological essentialism, food preference, food choice.

Learning Objectives:

  1. What is psychological essentialism?
  2. What are some of the factors impacting food preferences?
  3. How does psychological essentialism explain some of the variations in food preferences?

Target Audience: Psychologist, Social Worker, MD

Program Level: Intermediate

Essentialism in Food Preference

The topic of food preference is obviously complex. People tend to think the explanations for food preferences come from physiology and evolutionary biology. For example, humans naturally do not like bitter things, because bitterness is a cue to toxicity. Some individuals are supertasters, because their tongues have a higher density of receptors (Bartoshuk, Duffy, & Miller, 1994). Supertasters perceive vegetables such as broccoli to be very bitter, whereas non-tasters do not experience the bitterness. Paul Bloom, one of the deepest thinkers in psychology, tackled this topic by steering people to think about the essence of what people get pleasure from.

Culture explains a large portion of the variation in food preferences. For example, Harris’ optimal foraging theory (1985), which posits that food choices are rational survival decisions, gives a societal-level account of how and why food preferences may be established. Cultural food preferences may be shaped by the availability and cost-and-benefit tradeoffs of obtaining and consuming food sources. Thus we would expect different regions with different natural food resources to spawn different food choices and cultures. Likewise, society, social pressure, and observation give individuals strong clues about what to eat or not eat.

But within these biological and cultural factors, we are still unable to easily explain why individual preferences can and do vary widely. For example, even twins who were brought up in the same households could differ in their food preferences. Individual history of dietary experiences could explain some of the variations in food preferences (Bloom, 2010). For example, getting very sick from a certain food is one factor that could explain why individuals would not eat the food later. Individual observations of what members of a social group eat can also be a strong factor in developing individual food preferences (Harris, 1998; Shutts, Kinzler, McKee, & Spelke, 2009). For example, young children who used to like Asian food served in their households would no longer eat Asian food after they eat together with other children at a Western daycare that serves Western cultural meals.

The emotion of disgust plays yet another important role in individual food preferences (Bloom, 2004; Rozin & Fallon, 1987). Other than as a reaction to pungent or rotten foods, disgust is part of an emotional reaction to the foods that are not consumed by respective cultures. For example, many Americans have grown to be disgusted by animal intestines, whereas Scottish people do not mind serving haggis (i.e., sheep’s pluck).

Cannibalism is a challenge for various theories of food preferences. There are several forms of cannibalism that have existed. For example, the eating of placentas, a form of everyday cannibalism, is still being practiced, even though there are adequate sources of obtaining protein nowadays. Bloom (2010) proposed in this case that it might be life-force essentialism at play, where we perceive we are what we eat. As yet another example, in traditional Chinese folk wisdom if a child needs more strength, the mother will buy a pig’s kidney and cook for the child. Consider another simpler example of essentialism. Bottled water often costs much more than gas, but people are still willing to pay for it. Why? People perceive some brand name bottled waters to have the essence of purity and thus are willing to pay for the purity. The paradox here is that people could not tell the brand name from the generic brand if the labels were stripped off. Bloom (2010) notes that “sensation is colored by our beliefs, including our beliefs about essences” (pp. 49).

People derive pleasure from pain (e.g., eating very spicy food), and vice versa. This could explain why some individuals would enjoy aversive foods (Bloom, 2010). For example, chili pepper, coffee, chocolate, and beer are some examples of such aversive foods. The pleasure of eating the foods is so great that people could get addicted to such foods as if they develop substance dependence (Gearhardt, Corbin, & Brownell, 2009). People refer to such addiction using words like “chocoholic.” There is evidence that such addiction arouses the brain in the same way drug addiction does, even though it is less intense.

Lastly, morality plays a role in our food choices. For example, liberals tend to be obsessed with the morality of eating organic, locally produced food. Another example is some vegetarians shun any food that has meat composition because of their beliefs in animal rights. Some people opt to eat seafood that is certified as sustainable fishing. In many cases, people even develop disgust toward the foods that are perceived to be inedible.

The topic of what accounts for individual food preferences is so complex that no single theory can yet explain most of the variation in food preferences people exhibit (Bloom, 2010). Evolutionary and biological mechanisms, cultural learning, and the economics of sustained access to certain foods account for some of the food preference variability. But, what is left unexplained remains a fascinating mix of processes developed from personal experience, peer social learning, and pleasure seeking that shape individuals’ tastes and choices about what to eat. Among these, our essentialist mindset, seeking contact with the essence of the world we live in and the life we desire to have, has steered many of our food preferences. One might choose to drink expensive bottled water for the sake of purity. One might also choose to enjoy the soup made with turtle in pursuit of longevity.


Bartoshuk, L. M., Duffy, V. B., & Miller, I. J. (1994). PTC / PROP tasting: Anatomy, psychophysics, and sex effects. Physiology and Behavior, 56, 1165-71.

Bloom, P. (2004). Descartes’ baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human. New York: Basic Books.

Bloom, P. (2010). How pleasure works: the new science of why we like what we like. Norton: New York.

Gearhardt, A.N., Corbin, W. R., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Food and addiction: An examination of the diagnostic criteria for dependence. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3, 1-7.

Harris, M. (1985). Good to eat: Riddles of food and culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Free Press.

Rozin, P., & Fallon, A. (1987). A perspective on disgust. Psychological Review, 94, 23-41.

Shutts, K., Kinzler, K. D., McKee, C. B., & Spelke, E. S. (2009). Social information guides infants selection of foods. Journal of Cognition and Development, 10, 1-17.

About the Authors

Shulan Lu is the director of cognitive science laboratory at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Derek Harter is the director of the artificial intelligence and robotics laboratory at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

They have been collaborating in investigating the cognitive processing of interacting with computer mediated environments. This work is an example, where they extend their efforts in understanding the cognitive science of pleasure inducing activities from interacting with computing environments to everyday life.

Published by Dr. Robert O' Block in Inside Homeland Security December, 2014