The 'Food Disgust Sensitivity Test' Is a Fascinating Window Into the Soul

An online quiz reveals an awful lot about how we think about other people's food habits.

It would seem that I'm disgusting. Maybe not me personally (you would have to ask my husband, friends, and colleagues who most frequently see me eat), but the fact that I scored only 25.88% on the IDRlabs Food Disgust Sensitivity Test that recently trended on Twitter would indicate that I have a tolerance for sensations and circumstances that might send the other 74.12% of the population screaming toward a plunge pool full of hand sanitizer. My triggers — though few — are mainly about hygiene (especially with crusty flatware), decaying vegetables, and unintentional insects and mold (as opposed to, say, chapulines and Roquefort where they're features, not bugs). I'm pretty cool with fish (raw, even), meat (even with a face), and past-prime fruit, provided it's not actively rotting. 

A chunk of blue cheese

Jon Lovette / Getty Images

There are reasons for some of this, primarily that it was hammered into me as a Catholic school girl and granddaughter of people who had lived through the Great Depression that it was sinful to waste food. Patch of mold on the bread or the top of the leftovers? Think of the kids starving in whatever country had been in the Sunday sermon and how lucky you are and cut that part off. Nauseated by overcooked peas? Too bad; Sister Thomas, the school principal who'd been raised around people who'd weathered the Irish Potato Famine would stand behind you in the cafeteria, wagging her knobbled finger at you until every last one was gone. Disgust — or at least refusal of food as a result of it — was not an option, even if it meant that food would be making a return visit the way it came in. (Long story short: never serve my sister quiche or beef stew, I beg you.) 

But disgust doesn't inherently mean that anyone is trying to be prim and precious about things. Though the IRDlabs test itself isn't scientifically certified (I mean, it's an online quiz on a site where you can also figure out where you are on the "Jock-Nerd/Prep-Goth alignment chart" or which Breaking Bad character you are most like) it cites the work of consumer behavior professors Dr. Christina Hartmann and Dr. Michael Siegrist as its basis and includes an "Explanation of Triggers" for each category, detailing their origins. 

In short, plenty of disgust is rooted in cultural exposure. Maybe you don't come from a seaside place where freshly-caught fish is served with the head on, were raised in a vegan or vegetarian home, or aren't from a culinary tradition with fermentation or preservation at its core. Some disgust comes from a particular event that associates a flavor, dish, or texture with an unpleasant memory or person (perhaps your terrible ex loved fish sticks, or you got carsick after drinking cherry soda). Others stem from the brain's instinctive need to avoid things that might make you physically ill, like bacteria, mold, or certain kinds of insects. Plenty of people are neuroatypical and are highly sensitive about sensory input. The explanations also note that certain triggers — especially those around vegetables — may originally manifest in childhood but decrease with age.

The thing that does disgust me (though not present in the graph), is the all too frequent tendency for people online to conflate their own personal revulsion with judgment of a person whose triggers don't map exactly to theirs. Shockingly enough, while this quiz was trending, the always extremely nuanced and sensitive Twitter discourse was bubbling over with sentiments along the lines of "Some of you are so disgusting!" class and cultural judgments, and folks calling one another "dirty." While it's important to follow basic safety practices around hand washing, cross-contamination, cooking temperatures, and the like, yucking another person or culture's yum — and using it to degrade them — is always in bad taste.

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