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.


Photo credit Melissa Wolf
Photo credit Melissa Wolf (no, it’s not my birthday.)

Chinchillas are probably the cutest of the rodents.

They hail from the desert of the high Andes, where it is simultaneously cold and dry. They are very well adapted to their native habitat, which unfortunately results in them being not very well adapted to places like the US. Some common problems that therefore plague chinchillas kept as pets:

  1. You can’t get them wet. Chinchilla fur is actually so thick and fluffy that it can’t dry out properly on its own, so a wet chinchilla quickly becomes a moldy chinchilla. (Chinchillas take dust baths to get clean.)
  2. They can’t take heat, or even warmth. Our “room temperature” is their “oh god it’s hot.” They prefer to be below 60 degrees F; if the temp heads north of 75, they’ll probably die.
  3. Too many raisins will kill them. Chinchillas love raisins, but unfortunately for them, they’re only adapted to digest dry, brittle, nutrient-poor desert plants. A chinchilla can easily eat a couple of raisins a day without trouble, but if allowed to eat raisins to its heart’s content, its intestines will get all blocked up and the poor creature will die. (At least according to all of the chinchilla-related websites I have read; I have never personally killed a chinchilla.)

(Even though they are cute and fluffy, I don’t get the impression that chinchillas make very good pets, both because they don’t really bond with humans and because they poop constantly. If you really want a rodent, I hear that rats are rather sociable, though honestly, you could just get a dog.)

When I look at modern humans, I can’t help but think of the humble chinchilla, gorging itself to death on raisins. Sometimes we just don’t know what’s bad for us. With us, it’s not just the food–it’s pretty much everything. Find a cute cat picture on the internet? Next thing you know, you’ve just wasted three hours looking at pictures of cats. There are massive internet empires devoted to peoples’ love of looking at a picture of a cat for about two seconds. Sure, you could use that time to interact with a real cat, but that would require getting off your butt.

Facebook is worse than cat pictures. Do you really need to know that your Aunt Susie “likes” IHOP? Or exactly what your Uncle Joe thinks of Obamacare? Or where your vague acquaintance from three years ago had lunch today? No, but you’ll scroll through all of that crap, anyway, rather than face the horrifying prospect of actually interacting with another human being.

I swear, next time I go to a family gathering where people have flown over a thousand miles just to be there, and someone whips out their phone in the middle of a conversation just to check Twitter or FB, I am going to… well actually I will probably just be politely annoyed, but I will definitely be imagining stomping all over that phone.

Modernity is a drug. It tastes great. It’s wonderful. It’s fun. You get TVs and air conditioning and you don’t die of plague. Frankly, it’s awesome. But in the meanwhile, fertility drops. You end up inside, isolated, no longer talking to other humans, simply because that’s more work than clicking on another cake picture. Communities wither. So we get replaced by people who resist modernity, people who still have children and build communities.

Are you here for the long haul? Or are you just here for the raisins?

And if you’re just here for the raisins, why aren’t you enjoying them more?