Why You Should Try Foods You Think Are Gross
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Ever tried escargot — a staple of French cuisine that is, essentially, snails served with butter and sauce? If you haven't, today might be the day to give it a whirl — it's National Escargot Day, the holiday dedicated to this very divisive snack. However, if the idea of eating a snail puts you on the edge of a dry heave, I have some news for you: you're experiencing food disgust — and you can actually do something to change that (note: if you're down with escargot, you can replace it in this discussion with frog legs, mayonnaise, fish eggs, yogurt, jerky, maggot-infested cheese, or any other food that turns your stomach a bit).

Of course, you may be asking yourself a thoroughly sensible question right now: "Why would I want to get over my disgust for a thoroughly disgusting food? I'm HAPPY not eating foods that I find disgusting." Well, while our impulse is usually to stay away from things that induce disgust, there may be hidden values in taking the plunge and holding your nose when it comes to food. Eating foods we think are gross can make us healthier — and even impact our larger worldview.

Human disgust is an evolved response that is designed to keep us safe. We feel repulsion towards foods that our brains read as potentially dangerous. Because humans are omnivorous, disgust acts as a protective mechanism, stopping us from putting whatever we like into our mouths and causing ourselves serious harm. Disgust of all kinds, according to some researchers, is rooted in our response to food; feeling disgust for, say, a soiled floor or a smell of vomit elicits the "core" responses of nausea and a gaping mouth that come with facing disgusting foodstuffs. But if a food isn't going to make us ill or cause us problems, are there still good reasons to shield ourselves from it — or does the science indicate that, perhaps, a little adventurousness with texture and taboo might be a good idea?

You Feel Disgust Towards Certain Foods Because Your Body Is Trying To Keep You From Getting Poisoned

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Dislike is different from disgust. To dislike a food because of its bitterness or excessive sweetness, for instance, is just your taste profile, which is developed over years of experience as we are exposed to new and exciting flavors and smells. Feeling dislike for a food is not the body rejecting something because of its potential to kill us.

Professor Paul Rozin, one of the world authorities on the psychology of disgust, explains that this feeling is the difference between "core disgust" (what you feel when you bite into a wormy apple) and "distaste," which is what you experience when something has "negative sensory properties." He explained in a 1997 interview,

According to researchers, there are  two particular aspects that make a food "disgusting" to us: "aversive textural properties of the foods and reminders of livingness/animalness."

The texture part — from the sliminess of oysters to the peculiar rubberiness of tripe — harkens back to textures that may signify rotting or harmful substances, even if we know empirically that the food itself isn't going to hurt us.

The "reminders of livingness" are a little trickier. Our disgust reaction is likely partially because of the possibility of contamination by blood/offal/bacteria/waste, and partially because we now live in a society that largely distances itself from the realities of meat production. (This is why raw cookie dough contains raw egg and uncooked stuff, and yet we're fully capable of getting over it and eating it by the spoonful.)

Together, these two qualities can scream "contagion!" in our brains — which manifests as finding a certain food to be totally foul.

Disgust For Specific Foods Is Also Culturally Created

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Disgust is not just about bodily reactions alone, of course. It's also about how we're taught to respond to particular ideas. Professor Rozin has written that disgust has evolved as human beings have: "Disgust evolves culturally, and develops from a system to protect the body from harm to a system to protect the soul from harm."

Meaning: what we regard as disgusting these days, in food terms, isn't necessarily rooted in potential threats to our health; it's also about our cultural constructions of goodness, acceptability and what is and is not a "reputable" food.

This idea of what foods qualify as "disgusting" varies a lot from culture to culture — a point exemplified by our reactions to the idea of eating insects. Insects are, for some cultures, a foundational part of the diet, and as the world population booms, scientists are calling for more insects to be introduced to normal lunches and dinners to help provide everybody with protein.

But disgust gets in the way: both "core" disgust, which looks at all insects as somehow possibly harmful or germ-ridden, and cultural disgust, which leads people from some cultures to regard insects as things that humans don't eat.

Interestingly, a 2016 study found that people could circumvent both types of disgust and have an easier time trying insects if beforehand, someone explained to them how the insects were cooked and prepared. "Cooking," the scientists note, "is a process by which raw ingredients are transformed into finished products, reducing the 'animalness' of meat products that renders them disgusting." Taking away the "animalness" of insects and making them into food, it seems, helps people from cultures where insects aren't typically eaten think of them as acceptable food — a process that we already undertake all the time with other meat products.

Disgust frames the ways in which we are trained to look at the world and to receive and understand new sensory and cultural inputs — and it doesn't stop at food. We are more inclined to dehumanize people who we perceive as "disgusting", and Scientific American stated in 2013 that "empathy and disgust do battle in the brain."  

So reaching past your disgust impulses when it comes to food won't just make you a more exciting dinner companion — it can also potentially help you develop other, more positive approaches to the world.

Disgust Doesn't Stop At Food — It Colors How We Treat Others, Too

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Disgust frames the ways in which we are trained to look at the world and to receive and understand new sensory and cultural inputs — and it doesn't stop at food. We are more inclined to dehumanize people who we perceive as "disgusting", and Scientific American stated in 2013 that "empathy and disgust do battle in the brain."  

So reaching past your disgust impulses when it comes to food won't just make you a more exciting dinner companion — it can also potentially help you develop other, more positive approaches to the world.

Disgusting Foods Can Have Excellent Health Benefits

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So all this aside, why would you want to eat a food you find disgusting? How could that possibly benefit you?

Well, for one thing, many foods that possess innate "disgusting" qualities seem to have major health benefits. Seaweed, which many people find deeply texturally unnerving, is hugely nutritious and seems to convey big health benefits to people who make it a substantial part of their diet. Oysters are protein-rich and contain many vitamins. And that's before we get into how nutrient-packed certain kinds of ants are.

Some "disgusting" foods are definitely not for the faint-hearted (hakarl, fermented shark, has turned even Gordon Ramsay into a retching mess), and you shouldn't feel pressured to ever eat anything that makes you uncomfortable. But if you've done your research and you're curious about what life could be like if you pushed beyond your disgust impulses, it might be worth taking the chance on that bite of grasshopper.