For The Love Of Hot Sauce: How Do We End Up Liking Flavors We Hate At First?

Your friend’s gusto for sloshing hot sauce over anything and everything eats might be gross to you — and so painful to the mouth, am I right? — but then again, maybe your predilection for shoveling horseradish into your Bloody Mary is distasteful to him. Why do some people love what is loathed by others, and how come that can change over a person’s lifetime?

NPR’s The Salt blog delved into those questions, of why consuming hot and spicy chilies is totally normal for some people, despite the burning sensation that could turn people off.

The Salt talked to cultural psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania who has examined peoples’ attitudes toward food. Why can some people tolerate spice and others can’t? It’s kind of a learning process, he says.

For example, when explorers first brought Mexican’ chili peppers back to the Old World, it tasted bad because people hadn’t eaten it before. But then somehow it becomes a major flavoring in parts of the world like West Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Rozin points out how, in a Mexican village where everyone eats the same things, that kids started liking chili as early as four or five, simply because it was on everything they ate. Even the dogs and pigs who ate the town’s garbage preferred to eat food without chili on it, he said.

“I thought that was a really interesting finding,” he told The Salt. “And I think that this is a very special human characteristic — the ability to overcome an innate aversion and make it into a pleasure.”

That happens after you’ve been exposed to it enough, Rozin thinks.

“But normally you would never be exposed [to hot chilies] more than once,” he says. “And the reason you’re exposed to it a lot is because that’s what the family’s serving so you just eat it. The experience of eating it a lot somehow converts what was an aversion to a preference.”

Other examples of this pop up in the list of things you might’ve hated or disliked as a kid, but now consume with relish as an adult: Coffee, beer, horseradish and other strong or bitter flavors, or even temperatures, like an aversion to very cold liquids or foods as a kid or European.

“It’s like getting to like smoking — when you first smoke it’s terrible,” Rozin explains. “But you [may] keep going because there’s social pressure. And that pressure gives you enough experience … and somehow with that experience it usually inverts.”

How Do We Grow To Like The Foods We Once Hated? [The Salt]