If you are human, then you search for meaning. That’s the noble view of how we operate. But perhaps we could replace the word “meaning” with “understanding”, because the real human quest is to understand what is happening around us so that we can make the best decisions. It is a survival tactic, and it involves understanding not only the world around us, but also the world within us. Part of the search for understanding will involve you in seeking narratives that weave your past, present and future together. That is why anything that claims to reveal your personality feels so good. Nothing quite tickles your pleasure gland like being told you are “practical and grounded”, “spontaneous and playful”, “dramatic and free-spirited”, or “dedicated and passionate”. Even a negative personality appraisal can spill warm-fuzziness into your bloodstream. For very good reasons, you love to gain insight to your own psyche, but could your food choices provide a window to your soul?

It’s in your blood

Using your food choices to understand your personality might sound a little bit like using a screwdriver to explain dark matter, but there actually is a little science to support the food-persona theorem.

In 2022, the journal Current Research in Food Science published a paper by experimental psychologist Charles Spence from the University of Oxford. The paper was titled “What is the link between personality and food behaviour?”. In that paper, Spence pointed out some of the physiological basis for expecting a connection between the food that you choose and your personality.

For a start, there is research telling us that high levels of the hormone noradrenaline in your central nervous system have been suggested to link to both shyness and sensitivity of smell. Since taste is multisensorial, resulting from combined input from all your senses, anything that influences personality and your olfactory sensitivity suggests a food-personality link. Spence also reports that sex hormones have been linked to both personality attributes and food preferences.

In 2015, the European Journal of Pharmacology published a study showing that there are receptors for stress hormones (notably glucocorticoids) located within the taste buds that detect both sweetness and umami. This suggests that at a biological level, there is some sort of coupling between your disposition to stress and how you taste foods.

Spence concludes his paper by saying that there is a bidirectional link between taste and mood, and that differences in food behaviour “have been linked to differences in circulating levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in both normal and clinical populations.”

Given that there does seem to be a biological basis for the food choice/personality link, let’s see how that plays out.

Some bitter-sweet truths

If you like your foods bitter, then buckle up because the news is not good. The results of two studies led

by Christina Sagioglou, Assistant Professor for Social Psychology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, showed that people with a preference for bitter tastes were more likely to show malevolent personality traits, specifically “everyday sadism and psychopathy”. Exactly what “everyday sadism” looks like is best left to the imagination, but it can’t be good.

By contrast, people who don’t like bitter foods can be more jumpy than other people. We know that about 30 per cent of people can detect the bitter substance 6-n-propylthiouracil even when it is in very low concentrations. This is genetically based and arises from how many fungiform papillae you have on your tongue. The more fungiform papillae, the less you like bitter tastes, and the more likely you are to be sensitive and easily startled.

In the Spence paper mentioned above, he reported that people who like spicy foods tend to be sensation seeking and have an openness to novel experiences. People who like salty foods also tend to like unusual experiences, while anxious people tend to prefer a narrower range of foods.

As we have said, the relationship between personality and mood is bidirectional: personality affects your food choice but food choice also impacts your personality. Sagioglou has conducted experiments showing that tasting bitterness leads to aggression. Similarly, research has shown that just thinking about love can make water taste sweeter and people who are happy because their team has just won a game will rate lemon-lime sorbet as sweeter than do people who have had their team lose.

People who are generally happier will also like sweet food more because the release of serotonin, a feel- good neurotransmitter, increases sensitivity to sweetness by about 27 per cent.

If you want a real guide to your personality however, you need go no further than the work of Dr Alan R Hirsch, neurologist, who did some research into ice cream preferences.

Ice-cream people

Hirsch is the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago USA. In the year 2000, Hirsch decided to study the link between a person’s favourite flavour of ice cream and their personality. Hirsch believes the link between food flavour preference and personality is a logical one because taste, smell and personality are all linked to the limbic system of the brain. Based on researching personality traits of more than 18,000 people and correlating them with ice-cream flavour preference, Hirsch and his colleagues came to the following links with flavour preference followed by personality.

Chocolate — lively, creative and life of the party. Strawberry — reserved, thoughtful and cautious. Vanilla — risk-takers who set high goals and push themselves to achieve.

Chocolate chip — competitive, competent, ambitious and a stand-out in social situations.

Coffee — dramatic and flirtatious, throwing themselves vigorously into everything and thriving on new adventures.

Double chocolate — lively and creative but also craving passion and excitement in romantic relationships.

Mint chocolate — ambitious and confident but a little sceptical about things. These people are realists who like to plan for the future and create lasting relationships.

Rocky Road — outgoing, aggressive and goal- oriented. They like the finer things in life and expect to be catered to.

The rider on this is that people do not always go for the same flavour so this, if you believe it, really only applies to those people who consistently choose the same flavour.

Grains of salt

Of course, not all researchers support the classifications that have arisen out of the research reported here. It seems a little too easy to sum a person up by their choice in ice cream. Personality is complex and so are food choices. The latter are impacted by a variety of factors such as culture, upbringing, socioeconomic status, and dietary requirements.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, there are physiological connections between your sense of taste and the biochemistry that underlies and arises from, your personality. Charles Spence sums it up by saying, “Taken together, therefore, the evidence that has been published to date supports a number of intriguing connections between personality traits and taste perception/food behaviour.” In other words, the idea that your tongue might be a window into your soul is one that is too delicious to resist.

Article featured in WellBeing 210

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