Why You Find Certain Foods Disgusting (and Others Don’t)

No one was expecting to find horse meat mixed in with beef during routine government food testing in Ireland, but as the contamination (as some are calling it) is turning out to be more and more widespread, other governments and major meat distributors are scrambling to do their own tests. It turns out people have been chowing down on horse not only in the UK, but in Europe, while in South Africa, consumers have been unknowingly ingesting donkey and water buffalo. It certainly raises some interesting questions about our global industrial food chain.

Perhaps more interesting is why so many of us are appalled at the idea of eating one kind of animal, while we’ll happily chew on a very similar animal. Where does this line in the sand come from? Is there a scientific reason for our disgust?

Why, yes. Yes, there is.

Social psychologists, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have been studying the mechanics and causes of disgust for years. Jonathan Haidt developed a scale for measuring individual variations in sensitivity to disgust, and Paul Bloom gives a decent overview of inborn aversions, culturally-reinforced aversions and the play between the two.

Focusing more exclusively on the topic at hand, the things we do and do not want to put in our mouths, I’ll turn to Steven Pinker, whose book, “How the Mind Works,” includes a detailed section on the evolutionary origins of our disgust.

All of us have an inborn set of rules about the things we’re wiling to touch or eat. If something disgusts us, like feces or rotting meat, then we’re not willing to eat it. If we tried to force ourselves to, our body would likely respond with gagging, the result of our unconscious mind anticipating how sick it will make us.

Likewise, if something good, like a fresh red apple, were to make contact with a disgusting material, we wouldn’t want to eat it anymore. We now understand that this is an intuitive microbiology: it’s about the invisible spread of germs that make us sick. Our ancestors evolved these rules, and they further strengthened and codified them in cultural taboos about food in the millenia since. Through natural selection, those who came up with the correct hard-wired food rules went on to survive and have more descendants, and the upshot is that modern-day humans come with these rules pre-installed in our brains.

But wait, you say. What about my two-year-old, who will put absolutely anything in her mouth? And, hey, don’t they eat haggis in Scotland, grubs in Thailand and get grossed out by beef in India? How is this disgust universal when every culture eats different things?

Ah, there’s the rub. In fact, these two questions are related. We do go through a period when we’re very young and want to put everything in our mouths. That’s because the hard-wired rules of disgust haven’t kicked in yet. This is our “learning period.” You see, humans have long been omnivores, getting their nutrients from whatever combination of species — plant, animal, whatever — was available. But eating something unfamiliar can be risky, and our ancestors knew the risks were much higher when it came to animals, whose parasites and diseases in life, and decomposing bacteria and fungi in death, were that much more likely to thrive in our own bodies.

So the general rule is that plants are okay, while animal meat (and weirder things like blood, eggs, or milk) goes on the “disgusting” list by default. Getting an animal product on our “okay to eat” list means being exposed to it in early childhood, during that “chew on anything” phase. We then grow into adults with a natural aversion to every animal product except the relatively few options our parents introduced us to. In contrast, we’re never too old to discover a new vegetable or fruit.

The vegans may be on to something when they say animal products are disgusting. It’s certainly true, at least, that every animal product is disgusting to anyone who isn’t already used to it.

Related stories:

Donkey and Water Buffalo Meat Found in South Africa

Horse Meat Found in Lasagna: Who’s Responsible?

Horse Meat Found in Burgers

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Dale O.

Yes, Pego R, the much beloved (or maligned) Brussels sprouts can developed quite the aroma if they are sadly overcooked.

Care2 on occasion does articles about eating insects, often just in time for the summer BBQ season and these are touted as alternate protein. I remember when chocolate covered ants came out and in Cambodia, they sell deep fried tarantulas at the open market and sometimes grilled rats.

Dale O.

That has happened to me, Nicole B, when you said: "one of my cats decided to jump on the keyboard and hit the enter key."

This must be filed under a daily feline schedule of things to do to their humans.

I love Brussels sprouts with almonds but if someone ends up being cooking these for too long, they get mushy and as with many things suffering the same fate, end up not being at all appealing

Dale O.

Agreed, Pego R. Much of the misunderstanding of the beloved Brussels sprouts comes from some who over cook the poor green orbs within an inch of their lives and turning them to mush. Your recipe sounds delicious. Certainly, some dislike veggies because of others cooking them far too long, losing flavour and nutrition.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago


Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M4 years ago

Here's a wikipedia link to reading all about Witchety Grubs with a photo and in that photo you can see how big and thick they are beside a stick.


This link is where you can go to actually eat them. There is a writer who lists many places etc. But if you go on a bush tucker trip, you will surely get to eat one.


Dale O.

Yes, Pego and Summerannie M...so many people do not know how to prepare the much maligned Brussels Sprouts properly...little wonder some children go running from the table at the very sight of the over cooked and mushy green turned grey orbs of disgust. You both have splendid ways of cooking this much neglected veggie and mine are crunchy and tasty as well. I have also seen carrots turned into mush along with green beans and snow peas that look sad beyond belief.

Speaking of bizarre, what is with the photo? A bland face made up of olive eyes and a dill pickle mouth...well, some dislike dill pickles and some really can't stand olives but then the 'head' is raw ground whatever...maybe a beef 'head.' Wonder why it is not presented as a cooked beef head since unless one is eating what is called "Steak Tartare" (often served raw in French restaurants...sending Mr. Bean into a tizzy) most don't eat a lot of raw meat. Inuit (or Eskimos as Americans often refer to them) will eat mainly raw meat in their diet but most omnivores cook the meat. There are a few raw meat dishes around in other cultures but are few and far between. Of course one could add cut up raw cucumbers for the mouth of the raw meat head, would be more consistent. Perhaps the raw meat is here to frighten off those who don't eat meat, who knows. We can't have any cooked beef here can we? It might tempt someone. Certainly Australian Aborigines and other Native Peoples around the world are inventive when it co

Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M4 years ago

Pego well done. I like fresh and crisp brussel sprouts tossed quickly in a good oil, a bit of onion and then cook aside some bacon if you will and add that to it as well. When b/sprouts are over cooked like in steaming for instance, they go grey, limp and at times do have an odour.
I love a quick steam to al dente and then grate good parmesan cheese over them so it melts over it. YUM

Dale that was an interesting site .thanks! You know perhaps a century or so ago Aboriginals did eat koala. I have no idea b/c now they are protected from just after the turn of the century here. Anyway, lets go with it that they did eat them, Aboriginals all know classy ways of surviving in rugged deserts and forests. Not that Koala's live in a desert they dont. However, Aboriginal knowledge of how to heal, cook, and all that sort of thing which we havent a clue about, perhaps way back a gazillion years ago they did. But

Pego Rice
Pego R4 years ago

Oh Poor Brussles

The victim of a cultural joke and bad cooking. I love them and, quite frankly, when *I* cook them people ask for seconds, thirds and maybe some to take home for a friend. They do develop a funk when overcooked. I toss them in olive oil and a few seasonings and roast with baby potatoes and bacon to just al dente for the sprouts

Dale O.

Summerannie M, I think some here are not partial to the often much unloved Brussels Sprouts thinking they are pure punishment but perspective is everything. I love them as long as they have some crunch left to them but their odour is rather strong. (Pales no doubt in comparison to the legendary Durian). Also not a soy fan but it's true that the preparation and sometimes concealment of foods can do wonders.

Since the eucalyptus oil that I have is rather a powerful scent...non-edible/poisonous Koalas are quite understandable. It's good that they are protected although the Wedged Tailed Eagle, the Barking Owl, Red Foxes and a few others can prey on the young bears at times. Have read some articles saying that in the past Australian Aborigines ate Koala meat while other articles dispute this.