Some students in the new University of Delaware Winter Session “Psychology of Food” course love sushi. At least one hates sushi, several detest mushrooms, and their professor can’t bear to eat bananas.
One young woman, totally disgusted by tasting a tiny sample of a harmless chemical, reached immediately for something — anything — she could eat or drink to counteract the intense bitterness. Many of her classmates were baffled by her reaction; the same chemical was tasteless to them.
In discussing friends and acquaintances, other differences became clear as well. Students knew a few people who see mealtime as a necessary nuisance that interferes with other activities, while they were aware of many more people who consider eating to be a pleasant and social experience.
“You can learn a lot about food by studying psychology,” said Beth Morling, the professor ofpsychological and brain sciences who developed and teaches the course. “And you can learn a lot about psychology by studying food.”
Morling, a social and cultural psychologist, does not specialize in food psychology, but she created the one-credit, four-week course as a fun way to introduce students to some important principles of the discipline. Students will learn such skills as how to read and analyze articles about psychology research and how to identify the different types of studies that psychologists conduct.
In its first meeting last week, the class conducted some correlational studies of its own. In one, all 17 students used food coloring to paint their tongues blue, then placed a ring-shaped sticker on the surface and took a “tongue selfie” with their cell phones. They used the resulting photos to count the tiny projections, known as fungiform papillae, which hold taste buds.
The number of the papillae varied from person to person, ranging from six or seven to as many as 50 in the small area outlined by the sticker, and Morling entered that data into a table where she also recorded the students’ perceptions of various tastes and their intensities.
People with a larger number of fungiform papillae, she told the class, are apt to be so-called “super tasters,” the 25 percent or so of the North American population who detect bitterness and sweetness much more intensely than most people and tend to dislike strong-tasting or bitter foods such as hot sauce or Brussels sprouts. (They also tend to be thinner.) Another 25 percent are “non-tasters,” while about half the population falls between those extremes, detecting a moderate intensity of taste.
The course will cover such topics as the psychology of taste and individual differences, mindless eating, nature and nurture, culture and taste, and the psychological effects of acute and chronic hunger.
Students include those majoring in food science, chemical engineering, nursing, nutrition and dietetics, early childhood education and hotel, restaurant and institutional management, in addition to some psychology majors.