What Tastes Good?

When I was a kid, I ate a lot of noodles -- generally Butoni wagon-wheels -- with Ragu's original "Old World Style" jarred spaghetti sauce and the cheap grated Parmesan out of the green shaker. Loved it. Had it for lunch at least once a week!

Then, the summer I was 19, I read my first nutrition book (Psychodietetics by Cheraskin and Ringsdorf) and overnight stopped eating sugar and white flour. I switched over to whole wheat noodles. And, reading the label on Ragu Old World Style and discovering it had added corn syrup, I switched to Ragu Homestyle Sauce, which had no added sugar of any kind.

It tasted funny. Not bad, I didn't hate it, but the Homestyle Sauce just didn't taste... right, somehow. Quite simply, it wasn't what I was used to.

Well, giving up sugar and white flour had been a revelation; I felt immensely better virtually overnight. I wasn't about to go backward. So I kept eating the Homestyle sauce, and before long it tasted just fine to me. Became a staple of my diet.

It would have been a few years later that I was at my mother's house, and she was serving the Ragu Old World Style, the stuff I'd grown up on. I decided to eat just a little, despite the sugar.

And it tasted funny. Really funny. Much funnier than the Homestyle had tasted when I switched. It was bland and insipid and weirdly sweet; it was obvious that the corn syrup was being used to dilute more expensive -- and flavorful -- ingredients, like tomatoes and spices.

This was my first concrete illustration of a very important point: What tastes "good" is largely a function of what tastes familiar.

I've had a ton of similar experiences since then.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite forms of sugary junk was any creme-filled chocolate cake thingie -- Hostess cupcakes, chocolate Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Devil Dogs, Yodels, any of that stuff. Obviously, I dropped this junk like a bad boyfriend when I gave up sugar and white flour.

Well, the winter I was 21 -- maybe 2 1/2 years after dropping sugar -- I was in a corner bodega in Chicago, and saw the snack cakes by the checkout. I thought, "Oh, what the heck. Let's see what I think now. Bought -- something, I don't remember if it was cupcakes or Ho-Hos, but one of those. Took one bite. Dropped the rest in the nearest garbage can.

It just didn't taste good. I wish I could remember who originally said this, so I could credit her, but it exactly expresses how I felt: It was like running into an old friend and suddenly realizing we no longer had anything in common.

Had a similar experience in '96, a year and a half after going low carb. I had promised myself that on Christmas Day I would have an Indulgence, and I could, for that one day, eat anything I wanted. In particular I had promised myself some of my mother's homemade Christmas cookies.

It was 10 pm on Christmas Day when I suddenly realized I hadn't had a single Christmas cookie. I wasn't hungry, I hadn't craved them, hadn't even thought about them all day, though of course the family was eating them. Just hadn't occurred to me.

But darn it, I had promised myself some Christmas cookies! I deserved those Christmas cookies!

So I took the cookie tin down from the top of the fridge, opened it up, and picked out a nut-butter ball. Took one bite. Gave the rest to someone else.

It was far too sweet, and frankly, kind of bland. All my life I had found nut-butter balls devastatingly delicious. And now? Just... nothing.

One more example and I'll quit. For years and years I drank vast quantities of diet cola -- Tab, in particular. During my high school days I put down between twelve and eighteen cans a day. Considering the quantity of caffeine that represents, it's astonishing I could sit still in classes.

But when Tab, sweetened with saccharine, gave way to Diet Coke, sweetened with aspartame, I discovered that just two cans per day were enough to give me panic attacks at night. I stopped drinking diet soda, not because I didn't like it, but because it made me feel unwell.

And what happened? I completely lost my taste for soda. It's now been something like twenty years since I drank soda at all. I find it frankly revolting, just way too sweet and fake tasting. If I want a cold beverage I drink unsweetened iced tea or sparkling water, which I find infinitely more refreshing than anything sweet could ever be.

I tell you all of this to suggest to you, to plant the idea in your mind, that tastes can and do change. And what tastes "good" is almost entirely a function of familiarity. My sister spent a couple of summers shepherding French exchange students around San Diego, and discovered that all of them simply loved liver pate, but thought peanut butter was the most revolting substance on God's green earth.

Please, if you're just starting your journey toward better eating habits, keep this simple point in mind: What tastes "good" is not graven in stone. Tastes can and do change. It's matter of time and exposure. And it's a shift worth making.

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