Taste aversion describes negative associations and tendencies to avoid particular foods. It is often caused by negative experiences, such as illness, that occur shortly after eating the food in question. For instance, if one gets ill after eating a variety of different dishes at a party, he or she might associate the last thing he or she remembers eating with the experience. In turn, this will lead to him or her developing a taste aversion even if the dish itself is unrelated to the illness. This corresponds to the principles of classical conditioning: a neutral stimulus, the food, is paired with an unconditioned response, feeling sick.
Although taste aversion can be viewed as a type of conditioning, it is different from classical conditioning. It may occur after a single pairing incident, in contrast to classical conditioning, which generally requires multiple. Moreover, the unconditioned response, feeling sick, does not need to occur immediately after the stimulus. Thus, even though one might feel sick the next morning, and only once, after consuming the food in question, it will suffice to form a taste aversion.
Taste aversion can be applied in the treatment of various eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, which is linked with obesity. If a person exhibits a preference for a particular food as his or her binge food and develops a taste aversion to it, he or she will be less likely to indulge in it during the next episode. However, conditioning taste aversion to treating psychological or health disorders raises ethical questions. Specifically, since it always involves a negative response, it means deliberately causing harm to a patient. Furthermore, if the food associated with the disorder is not otherwise unhealthy, developing an aversion to it can cause undue stress and interfere with the recovery of healthy eating habits to control the disorder.