One of the things I love about what I do is the opportunity it gives me to walk into completely new markets with very different cultures and start to understand how and why they respond differently to experiences, products, brands etc. Over the past 10 years I have researched hundreds of products in many different markets around the world and love to observe how our attitudes, our taste palates, our responses to all sorts of stimuli are shaped by the environment and culture in which we grow up.
I have just returned from researching beverages in an officially dry country and was intrigued to note some very significant differences in not only the roles and functions of different hot and cold beverages in this market but also very significant differences in the development of the taste palate and thus their emotional responses to flavours.
What intrigued me the most was not the effect of prohibition in this market, but the realisation of how significantly the rest of us are influenced in ways that we are quite unaware of by the consumption of alcohol in our cultures.
I should say now that I do not drink, but I regard this with no more significance than that I do not particularly like milk. I happily consume many products that contain milk and that contain alcohol and I have, on ample occasions, placed my personal taste preferences on one side while researching alcoholic drinks, and also milk.
So as a non-drinker myself I am quite familiar with finding different drinks to compliment my food, to match my mood, to relax and socialise with, the greater emphasis that I place on eating rather than drinking with friends, family etc.
What I perhaps was less aware of – until forced to think about it – was how greatly my taste palate has been affected by the fact that I grew up in an alcohol consuming country, even though I take almost no part in that alcohol consumption myself.
It is a rite of passage for most of us that as we pass from being teenagers to becoming adults we start to drink alcohol. We may not like it at first – although we never admit that to our friends who all seem to be enjoying it – but we soon acquire the taste. We gradually move from lager to bitter from alcopops to spirits and wine. We move from simple sweeter flavours to more complex, more bitter, but ultimately more rewarding, flavours. And as our taste palate develops so do the flavours and foods that we choose outside of alcohol. We learn an appreciation of complex more difficult flavours, we acclimatise to less sweet and more challenging tastes and textures.
And even those of us that do not drink alcohol get pulled along as the collective taste palate of our peers develops, we too acquire a taste for more complex more challenging tastes and textures, or risk getting left behind and regarded as having “childish tastes”.
Of course alcohol consumption is not the only factor in the development of the taste palate and of course taste palates in non-alcohol consuming countries develop over the years in similar – if not quite the same – ways.
But this experience brought home to me some of the wider effects of alcohol consumption on attitudes and taste palates. And so as we are now seeing some significant changes in the patterns of alcohol consumption in our market with the increase of sweeter, less challenging drinks and the decrease of interest in the more complex, more challenging drinks, are we also considering the long term effects this may have on our taste palates, our attitudes to food and drink and even our struggle with obesity and diet in decades to come.