The Science of Picky Eating

In her new book Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, journalist Stephanie Lucianovic tackles her lifelong disgust with most kinds of food — by asking whether science has anything to say about picky eating. The answers are hilarious, and sometimes illuminate how little we understand about why one person's dinner is another person's nightmare. We've got an excerpt.

Excerpt from Chapter 9: "Picky Eater, Sleeping Foodie"

Picky eaters don't pick off, scrape off, or "eat around" foreign objects. Take the basic example of a sandwich. If a picky eater likes a plain tuna sandwich with nothing added other than mayonnaise, don't give them tuna salad and shrug that they can just "pick out" or "eat around" the celery, pickles, capers, relish, or whatever other highfalutin ingredients you shoved in there. My childhood bologna sandwiches were bread, bologna, and French's yellow mustard. If my mother momentarily lost her head and tried to sneak in a layer of mayonnaise or a blandly innocent leaf of iceberg lettuce, that sandwich was trash- bound. And there was no sense in telling me I could just remove the lettuce and continue eating. I could still taste lettuce sweat on my bologna slice, and it was the taste of evil. (It didn't matter that I'd eat iceberg lettuce in a salad. It didn't belong on a sandwich. Ever.

Jess Thomson is someone I went to culinary school with, but I didn't know until recently that she is also a former picky eater. Jess tells me that one of the things she feared most was going out to dinner, specifically to McDonald's. She was afraid she wouldn't get her plain cheeseburger. "I was petrified that it wouldn't come plain, and that someone would suggest that I scrape things off. But don't they understand, that's not plain?" Jess demands, outraged. Why isn't scraping off good enough for a picky eater? "Because you don't want any microscopic evidence," Jess clarifies. Exactly. Picky eaters can taste the flavor watermark that every unwanted addition leaves on the surrounding food.

For years, I constantly wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn't I just eat the way everyone else ate? None of my other friends could taste flavor watermarks. And no good telling me it's what made me "special," because every kid knows that "special" really means you're such a freak that they haven't invented an actual word for you yet. I thought I might be able explain it away by claiming supertaster status, but as my adventures in scientific experimentation reveal, that's a wash. But pawing through abstruse articles is about to pay off as science throws picky eaters another bone.

A 2008 article in the British Journal of Nutrition notes, "Many children also dislike foods with ‘bits' or pips, the unexpected presence of which might signal contamination of some kind."

After reading that, I jump up and run down the hall to tell Mark. It explains so much about my picky past! It explains why I used to avoid chunky pasta sauce and why I went through a stage where none of my foods were allowed to touch- it was all a fear of contamination! "You didn't want your foods to touch?" Mark asks uneasily. (He's learning so much about me.) I ignore this and am off and babbling that my abhorrence of foods touching or being combined was because I instinctually believed that my food could be poisoned. "Poisoned?" Mark repeats, even more uneasily.

Did I truly believe my mother was trying to murder her second- born? Of course not; it was an unconscious, unrealized whatchamacallit- an instinct, I guess, buried deep down wherever instincts are buried. Using the fear of contamination revelation as a jumping- off point, maybe the picky eaters who are afraid to try new foods (food neophobes) are afraid because their instincts tell them to fear the unknown. Because there's every chance that the unknown could turn out to be poisonous, and eating indiscriminately has the potential to be deadly.

Maybe we, the picky, are more in touch with this cautious instinct compared to the rest of the population.

Maybe we, the picky, are the ones who said, "The Borgias invited us over for another wine and cheese tasting? Tell them we're busy."

Maybe we, the picky, are next in line to evolve to a higher plane of existence. Like Obi- Wan Kenobi, if a sodden pile of succotash tries to strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. The best part about picky eaters evolving above and beyond everyone else is how far in the future higher planes of existence tend to be, so no one can prove we aren't on track to do just that.

While at Monell's DNA Camp, I float this theory to Dr. Reed. Might picky eaters be the ultimate survivors? "Yes," Dani responds, "but they will also starve to death in times of famine." Yeah, there is that little issue, I guess. Dani tells me about some Scandinavian farmers who colonized Greenland in the tenth century. The explorers brought sheep and dairy cows with them, but after a few rough winters and a dearth of nourishing vegetation, the farmers were forced to slaughter and live off their cattle and hunting dogs. Once those food sources were gone, some archaeologists hypothesize, the colonists had nothing left to eat. Greenland's waters would have been teeming with fish and seal, but since the farmers refused, for whatever reason, to learn how to fish, the colony was completely wiped out by 1500. (New and groundbreaking theory about the Lost Colony of Roanoke: They were picky eaters who gagged "CROATOAN" at the idea of eating barbecue.)

Fine, so maybe we aren't more highly evolved, but you probably won't catch a picky eater playing Russian roulette with their life by ordering fugu at a sushi bar.

Reprinted from Suffering Succotash by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic