Harvard Medicine

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Tough to Swallow

Genetics plays a role in picky eating habits.

The proof is in the pudding. In the children’s book The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster, picky eater Katerina-Elizabeth dumps her oatmeal out the porthole of an oceanliner, and a sea worm no larger than a thread gobbles it up. The nourished worm, now as thick as yarn, begins following the ship. Each morning, as Katerina-Elizabeth flings her oatmeal, the worm lengthens and fattens. It follows the ship up a river and into a lake, where Scottish children are lobbing not only dreaded oatmeal but haggis and suet pudding as well. Thus fortified, the worm becomes the legendary Loch Ness Monster.

© 2007 by Scott Magoon, from <em>The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster</em>, by A. W. Flaherty, illustrated by Scott Magoon and used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. “Oatmeal is like slug slime, only lumpier,” says Alice Flaherty ’94, the book’s author and an unrepentant picky eater. “My parents would boil Scottish steel-cut oats for nearly an hour, and I would watch in disgust as the concoction belched steam bubbles into the air.”

When she was little, Flaherty’s father told a version of the sea-worm story to try to coax her into eating oatmeal. “Although I loved the story, it didn’t make me love oatmeal,” she says. “Now I have twin girls. One’s a picky eater like me, the other a normal eater like my husband. That got me interested in the biology of pickiness.”

People often blame finicky eating on children’s willfulness, says Flaherty, an HMS assistant professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Much pickiness is genetic, though,” she says, “and can even help children stay healthy.”

Most picky eaters have a “supertaster” gene. If, like onequarter of the population, you have two copies of the gene, you taste flavors strongly, especially bitter compounds in foods such as broccoli. If you have neither copy, you can’t detect bitter flavors. The medium tasters—half the population—can taste the bitterness but don’t mind it.

“The supertaster gene may be a leftover from our evolutionary past, preventing us from eating toxins and spoiled food,” Flaherty says. “I only wish I’d known to argue that as a kid, when I faced all those globs of oatmeal.”

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