Food is often viewed as fuel. And that’s true since we do need the energy and nutrients from our food. But what happens when that fuel is the wrong sort of fuel? In this article, I’ll take an in-depth look at food tastes and textures.
One of the best analogies to describe food textures is to think of a vehicle fuel system. The fuel provides energy to the engine. But sometimes, fuel can become contaminated, or a different type of fuel not meant for that engine might accidentally be pumped into the tank.
A food texture that isn’t sensory-friendly is like contaminated fuel. In both cases, the response will be sluggish, or a complete rejection from the system itself. The wrong sort of food that you want to avoid completely is like avoiding putting diesel into a petrol engine.
But why do some neurodiverse people have sensory issues with certain foods? Research on this topic is lacking, but it is possible to explain what happens by taking a look at the mouth anatomy.
The gag reflex and oral-sensory processing
Food that enters the mouth is processed orally by the soft tissues at the top and the back of the mouth. These tissues, such as the hard and soft palate (see diagram) are connected to a branch of the vagus nerve which then sends sensory information to the brain.
In neurodiverse people, these oral tissues can be incredibly sensitive. In addition, we all possess a gag reflex, which is a protective mechanism that stops food from going down the windpipe and causing choking. This gag reflex is enhanced if you have autism or other neurodivergent conditions.
The gag reflex happens when a bad food texture or consistency enters the mouth. This causes the mandible (part of the skull) to lower, and the muscles of the throat to constrict, preventing the food from entering the body.
Research on the topic does suggest hyperactivity can lead to a heightened gag reflex, but we still don’t know why exactly it happens.
Texture and consistency
Textures of food refer to how the food feels in your mouth, rather than the taste of the food itself. It is sensory-based because it is a form of passive touch (touch can be both passive and active). Passive touch requires no movement from the observer.
Consistency on the other hand refers more to the make-up of the food. Mashed potato and pureed food for example are incredibly consistent. But fruits such as blueberries are not, because one blueberry can be squishy, and the next one firm. That lack of consistency can lead to distress.
An example of a consistent food with a bad texture might be a mushroom. Even though the mushroom might feel the same in your mouth as eating a fried egg white, the rubbery texture can cause problems. My body completely rejects them.
There are plenty of food textures that neurodiverse people don’t enjoy. Gherkins and pickles in burgers are often sensory unfriendly, as are onions which aren’t finely chopped and diced and added to a food such as bolognese sauce.
The importance of texture and consistency in foods can lead to restricted diets in neurodiverse people, particularly autistic people. It may not be possible to eat every fruit and vegetable that often gets talked about.
When it comes to taste, the way food is perceived is a lot different than texture, because taste is dictated by our taste buds. And some neurodiverse people have sensitive taste buds.
For example, while a mushroom might have a rubbery texture, it doesn’t necessarily impact the taste. On the other hand, a drink such as beer or strong coffee can have an incredibly bitter aftertaste that lurks in the throat.
Spice is also very important, because a hypersensitive person may have a strong sensation from spicy food such as chilli. They will often avoid foods containing spice or ask to have a milder version of the dish.
The salty taste of chips that come from McDonald’s is so familiar that I do not enjoy the taste of chips without salt on them.
One of my favourite things about home cooking is that I get to be in control of what I make. Following recipes is good for a starting point, but any offending food that causes problems can usually be removed or replaced. For example, mushrooms do not go in my bolognese.
A strong alcoholic taste can often be anticipated by looking at the percentage of the alcohol content on a bottle or can. This helps to determine whether the alcohol is suitable for a neurodivergent person. This is one reason I prefer sweet fruity ciders over spirits like vodka and rum.
I also like to think of the full English/Scottish breakfast in the same way. Even if there is one food you can’t eat on the plate, you’re still getting the energy from the other foods that are good.
Some of us like to think of our food as ratios. What is the correct ratio of pasta to sauce, for example?
The taste of foods can also be affected if different foods touch each other on a plate or bowl. This is why I prefer baked beans in a bowl.
The right food is the best food
The best food is not always about what you enjoy, but about what is sensory-friendly to you. The topic is complex, and every individual will be different.
Pick the right foods for you. If the mushroom doesn’t work for you, no one should shame you for it.
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