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"We Like What is Familiar’’: How Mere Exposure Can Help You Eat Healthier

Liking is a Consequence of Familiarity

The “attitude someone has to food at the age of two will probably still be the way that they eat when they're 20.  And yet, the evidence is that there's immense potential for change.”

Bee Wilson, author of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat discusses how our earliest food habits are formed and how these stay with us much of our lives.  Hearing a recent interview with Wilson on NPR’s Fresh Air , answered a lot of questions I have when trying to figure out people’s tastes.  As a personal chef, I cater to the like/don’t like preferences of my clients.  It is easy to see the connections we’ve built around food and the environment in which we grew up.  I’ll notice that adventurous eaters have often traveled internationally or come from families of immigrants.  Eaters who prefer simple preparations with minimal sugars and salt often had homemade, from-scratch meals growing up.  Conversely, clients who admittedly love frozen pizza and Oreos ® often grew up in homes where this was standard dinner and dessert.

Amniotic Garlic Bath: It Starts Early

Swimming in a Garlic Bath

Swimming in a Garlic Bath

The earliest influences on taste start in the womb.  Wilson described a fetus swimming in a bath of garlic amniotic fluid.  She draws upon the point that even the food choices the mother makes while pregnant impact that baby’s food preferences after birth.  In experiments where babies and toddlers were fed plain cereal flavored with garlic juice, those who had mothers who ate a lot of garlic preferred their garlic cereal.  Those fed cereal flavored with carrot juice, preferred the carrot cereal if their mothers consumed carrots while pregnant. 

Because of this in vitro exposure to these foods, that baby will grow up to become a child (and eventually an adult) who will enjoy garlic or carrots because they “taste like home” Exposure starts early.  Moms have a huge responsibility to consider the impact their food choices have on their growing sidekicks.  For taste “liking is a consequence of familiarity” so these early exposures will build into ingrained preferences.

Banner Ads – Modern Day Garlic Baths

Advertisers use this psychology of familiarity to influence our adult buying decisions.  You know the annoying banner ads that float above Google® searches and below YouTube® videos?  We can all probably agree that we rarely do what they want us to do.  Rarely do we see one, think “$30 throw pillows at Target?  Right now!?”, click on the ad, and put our money into a 5-minute sell.  Rather, we might be wandering the aisle at Target, see a gorgeous throw pillow, and think “Hey, I like that”, and add it to the cart.  We like it because it looks familiar to us, the Target brand is familiar to us.  Or, we’re roaming the dairy aisle at the grocery, see that familiar Stonyfield Farm ® label, and don’t even give it a second thought before adding the yogurt to our cart.  These decisions might be the effect of 20 or 30 of those banner ads, subtly building familiarity without us ever really noticing.  Scientists call this the “Mere Exposure Effect” where these subtle, positive impressions leave you with a sense of familiarity that, in turn, makes you like something.  

Use Familiarity to Your Advantage – Expand Your Options

Picture this:  a swirling collection of hot pools, bubbling with their own flavors and aromas.  There are garlic baths, curry saunas, ginger dashi, lemongrass whirlpools, and saffron soakers.  So many choices to see and smell.  You get to choose which ones to try.

Having Fresh Fruit in Eye's View will subtly encourage healthier snacking

Having Fresh Fruit in Eye's View will subtly encourage healthier snacking

Just as the messaging of banner ads can influence our shopping habits, visual reminders can also subtly encourage us to change.  For office workers adopting new recycling programs, having the recycle bins in obvious view made a notable impact on the success of the program.  The “mere exposure” to this visual reminder was enough to create action and make change.

While we all may be used to our batch of garlic broth, we should also be willing to buy some new ingredients and expand our tastes.  The key is to keep new ingredients in eye’s view.  As Wilson points out “We have to be exposed without any sense of coercion”.  Whether we are toddlers or baby boomers, we still want the freedom of choice.  Forcing a 60-year-old man to eat broccoli for the first time in his life will rarely work.  But adding a side of steamed broccoli to his dinner plate every night for two weeks?  He might try it.  He might even like it.

The same goes with new spices and flavorings.  Something like cardamom might seem unfamiliar to most of us, but it is a lovely spice.  To build familiarity with this new flavor, buy a jar and keep it in eye’s view.  Shoving it to the back of your spice cabinet won’t do much good.  Yet, placing it in front, or even right on the counter, will remind you to taste it.  You might try a dash in your oatmeal, sprinkle over fruit, or add to blueberry pancakes.  This exposure will build familiarity. 

Apply the same concept to new produce.  Trying out new veggies like Chinese eggplant, purple potatoes, or green Romanesco?  Leave these gorgeous plants out of the plastic, in the front of your fridge, saying “hi” every time you open the door.  Don’t bury them in the vegetable bin graveyard, suffocating in sad plastic bags.  Now, you’ll be more likely to try adding them to stir-fry, roasting for breakfast hash, or steaming for a lunch bowl.

Power of Familiarity: 3 Key Points

Keep in Eye's View: Fresh Orange Slices

Keep in Eye's View: Fresh Orange Slices

Before we swim away in our fantasies of garlic Jacuzzi’s and chocolate rivers, remember these key points on the power of familiarity:

1)      Early Exposure: Because familiarity starts so early, mothers and fathers need to eat a variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole foods to build a foundation for healthy eating

2)      Coercion Won’t Work:  While forcing a toddler to eat fruit instead of cookies won’t work, offering up the choice of “apple or banana” will give protect their sense of freedom

3)      Eye-catching is key: Just as the “mere exposure” of something encourages familiarity, it can also help encourage change


For some delicious inspirations to soak in, try these healthy, whole food plant-based recipes

Resources and Further Learning:

NPR: How Do We Get To Love At 'First Bite'?, Updated November 28, 20158:40 AM ET:

NPR's Fresh Air: In Baby's 'First Bite,' A Chance To Shape A Child's Taste, Updated February 4, 20164:02 PM ET:

University of Chicago Press Journals. "Banner Ads Work -- Even If You Don't Notice Them At All." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 May 2007.

Ryan T. O’Connor, Dorothea C. Lerman, Jennifer N. Fritz, and Henry B. Hodde, How Does Psychology Play a Role in Recycling Bin Contamination?  Effects of Number and Location of Bins on Plastic Recycling at a University, 2010:

D. Balfour Jeffrey, Ph.D., Robert W. McLellarn, M.A., Daniel T. Fox, Ph.D.: The Development of Children's Eating Habits: The Role of Television Commercials, SAGE Journals:

About the Author:

Chicago Personal Chef Katie Simmons

Chicago Personal Chef Katie Simmons

Chef Katie Simmons

Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago.  She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue.  Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 15 years experience in the fitness industry.  For fun, she loves to travel.  Trips have included "exploring the unfamiliar" by hiking the Incan Trail, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, and exploring the flavors of northern India.