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Why do certain food textures make me gag?

My texture issues mean I can't eat yogurt or anything similarly creamy. Is there anything I can do to fix them?
An oyster, sea urchin, yogurt and flan — foods many folks with texture issues refuse to eat.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images stock

When I was a young boy in grade school, I begged my mom to get me Trix Yogurt. First sold by Yoplait in a partnership with General Mills in the mid-'90s, the bright, colorful and sweet candy-colored dairy product hit all the buttons for me as a little one. Convincing my mother, a staunch advocate of turkey sandwiches on wheat bread and a granola bar for a child’s lunch, was a task. But I succeeded after literal weeks of pestering, wearing her down with doe eyes and pointing at the television when its wacky commercial would come on. Success was sweet, and finally, so was my lunch.

One morning, off I went to school with a pack tucked into a brown bag lunch hastily stuffed into my backpack. In class, I counted down the minutes until lunch where all the kids at school would congregate in my school’s cafeteria, a space which did double duty as an event space for school plays and band recitals. Unfortunately, that day it would be me that would be on stage.

Sitting at a table with friends, I peeled back the yogurt’s lining, dug in a spoon and took an enormous mouthful. I had never had yogurt before, and the texture was off to my adolescent tongue. I found it so repulsive to my palate that in front of my entire grade, I immediately threw up and had to go home sick.

Since that moment, I cannot handle everyday yogurt’s texture or anything remotely similar to it, whether it’s flan, Boston cream in a doughnut, or custards. Even just seeing an entremet on "The Great British Bake Off" is enough to put a frog in my throat. But why? It turns out, there are a few different reasons why certain textures affect certain people in both positive and negative ways.

How do humans interpret texture?

First, it’s helpful to know how textures are interpreted by you and I when we eat and how that affects what we like on our dinner plates. And the biggest name of the game in this arena is a concept known as mouthfeel.

“Mouthfeel is the perception of texture in your mouth,” Ellie King told me. King is a sensory director at MMR Research, a global consumer and research agency that works with brands to optimize the look and feel of their products, and regularly crosses this concept in her day-to-day work. “It seems like a silly explanation, but that’s what it is: the perception of anything that you put in your mouth that is perceived by all the elements of your mouth.”

Mouthfeel, like taste, is super important to the culinary experience — they work hand in hand to make up the eating experience. Mouthfeel also includes anything you put into your mouth, like your toothbrush, for one. Even though you’re not going to swallow that toothbrush, hopefully, past the toothpaste, the sensation of its bristles brushing against your tongue also constitutes mouthfeel.

“When something is perceived on your tongue, its mouthfeel, but it’s also much more than that,” King said, adding that the physical sensation of the product, how that relates to your cheeks, if it sticks to your soft palate or gets stuck in your teeth is also mouthfeel, and that includes parts of your mouth you likely have never heard of. 

Going deeper, there are flavors that aren’t only tasted by your tongue but your whole jaw, believe it or not, called trigeminal sensations. You may have thought your tongue was doing all the tasting work, but you would be wrong. And don’t worry, I promise you will understand what that big term means in a minute, especially if you like Texas barbecue

“The trigeminal is actually a nerve that runs through your jaw, and so trigeminal sensations are also considered mouthfeel,” King said, adding that this would be something like the sensations of heat, cold and astringency (how you perceive acidity or bitterness) you feel in your jaw. “For instance, if you taste a peppermint and it has menthol in it, it has a cooling effect in your mouth, and that’s the same as when you have a chili. When you get that heat, that’s actually your pain receptor, which is part of that nerve. Spice and heat are part of how you generally use it to perceive spicy foods as well.”

You may be asking yourself what this nerve has to do with texture. If you love or hate a dry glass of wine, for instance, it’s the sensation of astringency that is part of deciding whether you go for a glass of crisp chenin blanc or an oaky chardonnay. The sensation of a tannin-rich texture also comes into play with a bunch of other foods like apples, persimmons, cinnamon and much more. Subtle textures are textures just the same.

What are the different textures people like, anyway? Well, there’s four.

“There are four groups of consumer preferences when it comes to texture and we call them segments,” King said. “It could be cultural, but can also just be individual preference.” 

Everyone fits into one of these four textural groups, and that’s a scientific fact. A 2015 research article in the journal Food Science Nutrition found that people have a preferred way to manipulate food in their mouths and that this behavior determines the food textures they prefer. 

The article found that while texture alone doesn’t determine whether or not you like something, usually, textures that fit with the preferred mouth behavior do influence the foods you end up liking. For me, at least, this plays out with the texture of coconut, a flavor I thoroughly enjoy but a texture I don’t enjoy in its most natural state. I’m sorry, shaved coconut, you taste like sweet, shredded office paper to me.

The researcher’s findings indicated that individuals fall into four mouth behavior groups. They named this texture quartet “Crunchers, Chewers, Suckers, and Smooshers.”

“The largest group of consumers, Chewers, really likes to masticate. That was consistent across all of the markets,” King said. “Think chewing gum. These people like to chew something over a long period of time.”

The next group, Crunchers, is a group where auditory feedback or textural rumble is part of the pleasure of eating. So when they crunch down, this group gets the sound perception of a flaky croissant, crunchy double-fried kettle chip or crispy Tater Tot sound that resonates through their head.

“That takes us to the next group, Smooshers, who like things that are very soft,” King said. “Think ice cream, yogurt or crème brûlée with a very smooth texture and not a lot of sound.”

The last group likes to work, and those are the Suckers. “Those are the ones that don’t want to necessarily crunch or chew, but they want to have the food in their mouth over a long period of time. A good example of that is a lollipop or a butterscotch,” King said. She also added that even though these consumer groups had a primary preference doesn’t mean they don’t live in other areas, too. 

 “Let’s say you were very angry and you’re like crunching away,” King said. “By the end of that, you’re less angry because you’ve sort of taken out a bit of that physical violence out on a food product. Whereas if you were in a calm mood, you might be more of a Smoosher or a Sucker in that moment, not wanting to be loudly breaking something down.”

A lot of it is just personal preference, but King said there’s also an element of mental health in what foods you gravitate towards and what foods you avoid. Personally, I fall into two categories: Smoosher and Sucker, with a dash of the other two. When I was in high school, I worked at a Jewish deli where I ate most of the new foods that surrounded me with joy as a child with Caribbean parents. While I constantly devoured the hamantaschen, the knishes and especially the lox and cream cheese, I avoided the gelatinous-looking texture of gefilte fish, even without taking a bite. But why?

Gefilte fish is a dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish and is traditionally served in Ashkenazi Jewish households, especially on Shabbat and Passover.William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

It turns out, I’m not the only one at TODAY that has this specific issue.

Why are so many people not into certain textures?

“If you’re going to give me something crispy and crunchy, I can’t get enough,” Dylan Dreyer told me. “Something like overcooked french fries, or something crispy that melts in your mouth, like the crispy, fatty edge of a piece of steak or pork chop."

“I typically like most foods, but anything with a gloopy, gloppy texture kind of grosses me out … like oysters or sea urchin or boba tea,” Dylan said, adding that she also doesn’t like anything too chewy. “If I have to chew it more than five times, I just want to spit it out.”

Just like Dylan, I can eat almost anything, but mushier and gelatinous textures, those that sit halfway in between liquid and solid, are also an issue for me. This puts a lot of preserved fish or meat dishes that jiggle in the no pile for me. It would be remiss to not say that even the word “aspic” makes me want to go drink a tall glass of water. But what’s the deal here?

 “If you ever watch a baby exploring its world, one of the ways it does it most often is by picking things up, and mouthing them,” John Prescott, a research professor of psychology at the University of Newcastle and author of “Taste Matters: Why We Like The Foods We Do” told me.  Prescott said that we humans start exploring our environment from a very early age with the sense of touch, and that using the mouth to do so is something a baby does to learn about the world.

“One of the important things about touch, even as adults, is that we can explore foods using a sense of touch before we actually swallow the food,” Prescott said. “That’s an evolutionary advantage: to determine before we eat something that’s going to be safe to eat. To some extent we learned that in terms of liking textures, we learned that certain textures are likely warning signs.”

My lifelong yogurt fear makes so much more sense now.

In Prescott’s book, he speaks of another researcher-author, Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” from 1872. In it, Prescott connects Darwin’s research on disgust to our harm-minimization impulses. Taking off my professor cap now, basically what that means is that we don’t eat things that we find gross because usually it’s the gross things that are dangerous to us or have made us sick.

“If something is a bit slimy, for example, it may be an indication of something that’s perhaps past its prime, and it could maybe be a bit off,” Prescott said. He pointed out that perishable food like vegetables and deli meats often have a slimy texture as they get old and inedible, even sitting in the relative safety of your fridge. “People learn that it’s a bit of a warning signal that something is off or contaminated. And people generalize from that.” 

So, for example, part of the reason why eaters in the West typically put a Japanese food like natto in the no pile is that its slimy, stringy texture causes an innate sense of worry. Most of us have no cultural connection to its centuries-old history to tell us that natto is in fact perfectly edible. This same reason might be why the McRib or meatloaf and other highly processed meats are OK for a large segment of the American population, but reviled the world over as “gross American food.”

Natto, a Japanese staple dish of fermented soybeans, is displayed at the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmo, Sweden — but it is not, in fact, disgusting.Johan Nilsson / TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

“The fact of the matter is that we judge texture visually first,” Prescott said. “So, we look at some food, at its surface characteristics and judge its wetness, shininess, et cetera, and we make judgments about its likely texture based on vision even before we bring it to our mouth.”

And that’s why I was unfairly afraid of gefilte fish, even though it’s completely safe to eat — and tasty, too.

Is there a way to change your texture versions? 

So now that we know why we avoid certain textures, and that some of them have less to do with what you need to avoid rather than what you are avoiding based on skewed memory. If you’re like me and want to expand your horizons a bit, is there any way to train yourself? 

“We don’t have an innate dislike of texture, particularly,” said Chris Lukehurst, a food psychologist at The Marketing Clinic, a consumer psychology agency. “The only exception would be if you couldn’t chew sufficiently to get it down to a size where you feel you can swallow it and clearly, you’re going to spit it out.”

Lukehurst asks to imagine taking a big mouthful of overdone brisket and trying to chew it. If you can’t break it down, eventually, you’re either going to gag on it and choke to death or you’re going to spit it out. That becomes an innate and learned behavior, just like Dylan with chewy food.

Going back to my experience in the lunchroom all those years ago, my brain learned distinctly to avoid that yogurt because of my bad experience with it. The mind is a powerful organ, and in terms of food, it's been getting influenced by your surroundings since before you were even born.

Mind-blowing fact time: We start learning what we like to eat in the womb, before we take our first breath, a fact explored in a study by the National Institutes of Health.

“When you’re still in the womb, your mother eats and drinks and that flavors the amniotic fluid, which of course is flowing in and out of your mouth in utero,” Lukehurst says. “You become familiar with the flavors that your mother consumed.”

So if you’re born in Mexico, you probably become quite used to chile peppers and if you’re born in India, you’ve become quite used to spices. “If you’re born in America, unfortunately, you’re probably used to modified cornstarch,” he said.

“There’s a cultural element to what you like, because of your exposure to it,” King added. “If you’re repeatedly exposed to something over time, you’re more likely to enjoy it. That starts from childhood.”

The earlier you expose a kid to something, the more they’re going to integrate it into their lifestyle. For me, flavors like garlic, green pepper, mango and coffee were introduced to me very early on as the child of Haitian immigrants. In fact, I asked my mother what she ate while she was pregnant with me and she mentioned two of my favorites: cinnamon and peanuts.

“Whereas I’m Australian, and spicy food for me is a no-go because I had never been exposed to it,” King said. “And so when I came to the U.S. and tried a Mexican meal for the first time, I said, 'Never again.' With time here, obviously, I’ve gone back and now I love it. But I still keep it mild.”

This technique of training your body to like something over time is called exposure therapy, and while it’s used for many of the serious issues people face, such as disordered eating and food allergies, the same ideas can be used to train your body out of avoiding foods you might actually enjoy if it wasn’t for their texture. While King hasn’t been able to use exposure therapy for her spice aversion just yet, she said that it can be helpful if you want to try to enjoy foods you’ve avoided, like me with Trix yogurt — especially now that the treat is back on store shelves.

Also, there are people who get on board with a food item once they realize they’re the only one they know who doesn’t like it. An NIH comparative study found that kids in high school may only start drinking coffee because their classmates did.

“There’s a lot of debate about whether you can change or not when it comes to your taste preferences and if you’re just born with preferences that will never change,” King said. “Part of that might be the psychology of it. Your conscious bias can force you to physically reject the decision to try it or maybe, like you said, you’ve had a bad experience.”

King said getting over the first hurdle is easy: Just put a little bit of it in your mouth. Perhaps say, “Actually, this isn’t too bad!” out loud. Even if you don’t believe it.

King suggests trying to acclimate to an item gradually. For me and my yogurt, I can do things to change the texture: adding fruit or granola to it. Changing what you hate about it can cause you to incrementally train yourself to get over that aversion.

“By then you’re engaged in the process of discovery,” King said. 

Still, there are people who will never be open to trying new things. And that’s OK.

“What’s really important is the journey that the product takes you on in getting to that end point,” said Lukehurst. “Taste is a journey, one that involves many senses, but one that triggers an emotional response as well. Taste is akin to riding a roller coaster: You get off at the same point you get on, but actually, it’s the journey that changes your mood.”

Joy, calm and anger are all emotions that texture can induce and simply put, the key to avoiding disgust, especially when it comes to texture, is to know why your body is doing it and making a logical decision for yourself, whether or not you’re going to chow down.

“It’s totally OK to be not willing to go outside your comfort zone, just like some people will always live in the town where they grew up, and others will be worldwide explorers,” King added. “The world needs both.”