For John McQuaid, author of Tasty, the cultural and social context in which we encounter certain foods plays a strong role in determining whether we embrace or reject them.
Every country has its own local delicacy that doesn’t translate to other cultures, says McQuaid, but they work in the country of origin because they are wrapped up in accompanying traditions. Rotten shark meat – a pungent delicacy in Iceland – is typically eaten during special festivals, for example.
This means that if food manufacturers want to succeed in establishing a product in emerging markets they also have to create a ‘culture’ to go with it.
“The trend for flavour pairing shows that there are many combinations that may taste good, but because they have no cultural context they seem weird,” McQuaid told FoodNavigator.
“Deliciousness and disgust are very closely related- one can quickly change into another depending on where you are or who are with. If you want to introduce new ideas for a mass audience you have to be careful not to up-end everyone’s expectations or override existing trends.
“It’s not a food formulation issue but more of an advertising or presentation issue,” the author said.
Reasons for aversion
According to McQuaid, there may also be strongly-rooted evolutionary reasons behind certain taste preferences, citing people's aversion to cheese in Asia.
“Cheese is fermented milk and the idea of fermentation itself is innately suspicious because it is a form of decomposition. It is culturally idiosyncratic to like it, meaning you have to be conditioned to want to eat it.”
Yet globalisation is making this ‘conditioning’ easier as consumers are more open than ever to trying new cuisines. Sushi chains are now a ubiquitous feature of Western city centres and Chinese imports of cheese are on the rise.
The next taste taboo
With the raw fish and cheese hurdles overcome, what is next in modifying consumer taste preferences?
Eating insects is being increasingly touted as a sustainable solution to the protein demands of a growing world population.
While marketers face a seemingly momentous task in overcoming the disgust factor – a 2014 study into commercialising insects in the West was entitled ‘How to market the impossible’ – there are ways of making insects appear more palatable.
Tiny Farms is an American start-up which aims to innovate the production methods for insects.
They chose to raise crickets because they don’t have as many negative associations in Western consumers’ minds. Crickets can also be ground up for use in flours, further disassociating the final product from its original ingredient.
“People think of a nice pastoral scene, with crickets chirping away in the field,” said founder Imrie-Situnayake.