Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

So I was thinking about taste (flavor) and disgust (emotion.)

As I mentioned about a month ago, 25% of people are “supertasters,” that is, better at tasting than the other 75% of people. Supertasters experience flavors more intensely than ordinary tasters, resulting in a preference for “bland” food (food with too much flavor is “overwhelming” to them.) They also have a more difficult time getting used to new foods.

One of my work acquaintances of many years –we’ll call her Echo–is obese, constantly on a diet, and constantly eats sweets. She knows she should eat vegetables and tries to do so, but finds them bitter and unpleasant, and so the general outcome is as you expect: she doesn’t eat them.

Since I find most vegetables quite tasty, I find this attitude very strange–but I am willing to admit that I may be the one with unusual attitudes toward food.

Echo is also quite conservative.

This got me thinking about vegetarians vs. people who think vegetarians are crazy. Why (aside from novelty of the idea) should vegetarians be liberals? Why aren’t vegetarians just people who happen to really like vegetables?

What if there were something in preference for vegetables themselves that correlated with political ideology?

Certainly we can theorize that “supertaster” => “vegetables taste bitter” => “dislike of vegetables” => “thinks vegetarians are crazy.” (Some supertasters might think meat tastes bad, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t support this; see also Wikipedia, where supertasting is clearly associated with responses to plants:

Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. …

Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:

Mushrooms? Echo was just complaining about mushrooms.

Let’s talk about disgust. Disgust is an important reaction to things that might infect or poison you, triggering reactions from scrunching up your face to vomiting (ie, expelling the poison.) We process disgust in our amygdalas, and some people appear to have bigger or smaller amygdalas than others, with the result that the folks with more amygdalas feel more disgust.

Humans also route a variety of social situations through their amygdalas, resulting in the feeling of “disgust” in response to things that are not rotten food, like other people’s sexual behaviors, criminals, or particularly unattractive people. People with larger amygdalas also tend to find more human behaviors disgusting, and this disgust correlates with social conservatism.

To what extent are “taste” and “disgust” independent of each other? I don’t know; perhaps they are intimately linked into a single feedback system, where disgust and taste sensitivity cause each other, or perhaps they are relatively independent, so that a few unlucky people are both super-sensitive to taste and easily disgusted.

People who find other people’s behavior disgusting and off-putting may also be people who find flavors overwhelming, prefer bland or sweet foods over bitter ones, think vegetables are icky, vegetarians are crazy, and struggle to stay on diets.

What’s that, you say, I’ve just constructed a just-so story?

Well, this is the part where I go looking for evidence. It turns out that obesity and political orientation do correlate:

Michael Shin and William McCarthy, researchers from UCLA, have found an association between counties with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and higher levels of obesity in those counties.

Shin and McCarthy's map of obesity vs. political orientation
Shin and McCarthy’s map of obesity vs. political orientation

Looks like the Mormons and Southern blacks are outliers.

(I don’t really like maps like this for displaying data; I would much prefer a simple graph showing orientation on one axis and obesity on the other, with each county as a datapoint.)

(Unsurprisingly, the first 49 hits I got when searching for correlations between political orientation and obesity were almost all about what other people think of fat people, not what fat people think. This is probably because researchers tend to be skinny people who want to fight “fat phobia” but aren’t actually interested in the opinions of fat people.)

The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee
The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee–note that Phoenix is #7, not #1.

Disgust also correlates with political belief, but we already knew that.

A not entirely scientific survey also indicates that liberals seem to like vegetables better than conservatives:

  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to eat fresh fruit daily, and 17 percent more likely to eat toast or a bagel in the morning, while conservatives are 20 percent more likely to skip breakfast.
  • Ten percent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with 3 percent of conservatives.
  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to enjoy beer, with 60 percent of liberals indicating they like beer.

(See above where Wikipedia noted that supertasters dislike beer.) I will also note that coffee, which supertasters tend to dislike because it is too bitter, is very popular in the ultra-liberal cities of Portland and Seattle, whereas heavily sweetened iced tea is practically the official beverage of the South.

The only remaining question is if supertasters are conservative. That may take some research.

Update: I have not found, to my disappointment, a simple study that just looks at correlation between ideology and supertasting (or nontasting.) However, I have found a couple of useful items.

In Verbal priming and taste sensitivity make moral transgressions gross, Herz writes:

Standard tests of disgust sensitivity, a questionnaire developed for this research assessing different types of moral transgressions (nonvisceral, implied-visceral, visceral) with the terms “angry” and “grossed-out,” and a taste sensitivity test of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were administered to 102 participants. [PROP is commonly used to test for “supertasters.”] Results confirmed past findings that the more sensitive to PROP a participant was the more disgusted they were by visceral, but not moral, disgust elicitors. Importantly, the findings newly revealed that taste sensitivity had no bearing on evaluations of moral transgressions, regardless of their visceral nature, when “angry” was the emotion primed. However, when “grossed-out” was primed for evaluating moral violations, the more intense PROP tasted to a participant the more “grossed-out” they were by all transgressions. Women were generally more disgust sensitive and morally condemning than men, … The present findings support the proposition that moral and visceral disgust do not share a common oral origin, but show that linguistic priming can transform a moral transgression into a viscerally repulsive event and that susceptibility to this priming varies as a function of an individual’s sensitivity to the origins of visceral disgust—bitter taste. [bold mine.]

In other words, supertasters are more easily disgusted, and with verbal priming will transfer that disgust to moral transgressions. (And easily disgusted people tend to be conservatives.)

The Effect of Calorie Information on Consumers’ Food Choice: Sources of Observed Gender Heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart, states:

While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such
as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed
(Keller et al. 2010).

(Always remember, of course, that a great many social-science studies ultimately do not replicate.)

I’ll let you know if I find anything else.

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14 thoughts on “Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

  1. Are super tasters predominately female? Toxic plant products which trigger avoidance by super tasters would lead in super taster females to a reduction of fetal damage or death and provide higher fetal survival. Selection in males should be for a wider selection of food sources if not a super taster, increasing survival in adult males. This is not PC, but seems consistent with general observations.

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  2. There’s too much going on here to be useful. For starters, taste isn’t static (many foods that I could not stomach as a child I find tolerable now [plus mushrooms and onions, which I actually enjoy]). Secondly, some specific foods are poorly prepared on an almost universal scale. I love coffee, but if I don’t love it, I don’t drink it. Starbucks serves burned crap, but claims it’s delicious. Thirdly, on a larger scale, ethnic generic correlations will mess up the analysis. Germans and Irish like beer, Scots whiskey, Indians all assortment of spices, but all groups that are hardly monolithic in political tastes, if more so on culinary preferences.

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    • Children crave sugars (and fats) and adults tolerate bitter. Probably biological, due to growing bodies needing more concentrated sources of calories and being more susceptible to poisoning.

      Lots, lots, lots of correlations, yes. But that’s part of what makes it fun to think about.

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  3. I recall reading about studies where thresholds for tolerance to disgust indicated political animation

    Basically disgusting shit doesn’t bother liberals, and the more disgust people felt the more likely they are conservative.

    How they quantify such a thing…..

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    • Probably by sticking them in brain scanners and watching if the disgust regions of the brain light up, but possibly just by asking, “So, does this disgust you?” Sometimes reactions are really obvious–Echo once nearly threw up after she found a (perfectly nice) chicken heart in a bowl of soup I’d made.

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  4. Supertaster is just correlated with being northern european. Normans and English and Germans all greatly preferred “bland” foods in medieval times. That is why traditional wines are very subtle, while most people actually enjoy fruity wines much more.

    My father is a huge supertaster and also a liberal union man all his life. I am too and more middle of the road. Both muscular not fat.

    Weight probably just corresponds to being well off and having a desk job, which is not surprising to be more common in white americans.

    Eating a vegetarian meal when you hate most vegetables is is bound to be unhealthy though. I don’t eat vegetables, period, and seldom fruit. Doctor is shocked I am so healthy. You actually don’t need to ever take vitamin C, if you eat enough fresh meat. Your body can manufacture it from DHA, and some people can also manufacture it directly.

    Physiology of people varies quite a bit and all diets are not equal for everyone. Empty carb diet is a truly terrible one though, which is what many vegetarians in america end up gravitating to.

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    • Sorry, you got caught in the spam folder! Very interesting comment. I love vegetables and voluntarily eat “vegan” food just because I like it, but can’t keep weight on if I don’t eat meat. So I eat lots of meat.

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