For the average person, it was an innocent request.
Pat Taylor’s roommate was eating pizza and playing Xbox in a friend’s dorm room, and he asked Taylor, who was planning to join him, to bring a bottle of ranch dressing along when he came over. Taylor reached into the fridge for the bottle, felt a cool smattering of sauce on the outside, and instantly lost his composure.
“I got my hand just completely covered in ranch dressing,” he says. “I hated the smell of it, hated the feel of it, hated everything about it, and I almost threw up right then.”
Taylor was so pissed off, he threw the bottle into a bag and set it on the opposite side of the elevator as he rode upstairs to make his delivery. When he got to the dorm, he threw the bottle down resentfully.
The incident quickly became lore among our group of college friends. Although this was Taylor’s normal operating frequency, that was the day we learned he suffered from a lifelong aversion to white condiments. It also awakened something in me. Taylor is not the first person I’d known who’s grossed out by creamy white condiments. But that day, for the first time, I needed to know why.
I grew up a picky eater, as did my older brother, but his pickiness manifested in much more specific ways that have endured well into adulthood. Like Taylor, he doesn’t eat any white condiments. Sour cream is his particular bugaboo, but otherwise it’s the same roster of revolting creamy substances: ranch, cream cheese, tartar sauce, and especially mayonnaise.
I’ve discovered folks all over the internet who have confessed a seemingly innate fear of white condiments, who look at an overdressed BLT or pasta salad and wriggle with disgust. They include celebrities like Rachael Ray, Jimmy Fallon, and Barack Obama. In one California high school newspaper, a ranch-hating student made for breaking news. White condiment disdain reached a cultural zenith in a 2019 episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo when Mama June saw a hypnotherapist to get over her phobia of mayo.
Taylor’s distaste, like that of many people I talked to, is built on the principle of texture. A gloopy, over-dressed coleslaw is anathema to him. “There are very few things where I think to myself, ‘What this really needs is some type of wild creaminess,” he says. “Depending upon the viscosity of the condiment, it makes it worse.”
Among other folks I spoke with similar repulsions to colorless condiments, words like “greasy,” “slimy,” “slick,” “milky,” and “sickening” came up a lot. It’s not just the whiteness nor the adjacency to eggs or dairy—factors commonly presumed to influence distaste. Maggie Coleman, a 29-year-old nonprofit founder from St. Paul, calls it “unnatural,” though she can’t pinpoint an experience that created such an elemental distaste in her.
“The association for me with white condiments is way too much of the condiment,” she says. “I know people who are like, ‘I don’t love it, I’m not throwing mayo everything I see, but I don’t turn it down, I don’t wipe it off a sandwich.’ Meeting other people with a more intense aversion makes me appreciate that I don’t have it worse.”
Reddit’s self-appointed food therapists have speculated that there is some evolutionary distrust coiled in the lizard brain that makes humans averse to white condiments. Perhaps it conjures thoughts of bodily fluids, like pus and semen, as William Ian Miller posits in his book Anatomy of Disgust. Combine those associations with the soft texture, and you trigger a well-conserved instinct to avoid rot and decay.
“I don’t think that anyone has an aversion to firm textures,” says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. “It’s more the slimy, slippery mushy, slimy things that people tend to pick up on. Maybe in the past, that would have signified overripe fruit or spoiled [food].”
Spence has carved a unique path through science with his cross-modal multisensory taste experiences. He rose to scientific prominence after his discovery that the audible crunch of a Pringle can influence how eaters perceive its taste. Though he laughs off the bodily fluid theory, Spence supposes that a lack of sound could create a sense of rottenness.
However, there are still plenty of silent foods—for instance, mustard or chocolate pudding—that don’t elicit such a strong disgust response. Spence has previously provided evidence that the color itself isn’t unappetizing, but in the case of a globby condiment, the pure, empty color does nothing to disguise the texture. To borrow a term from Coleman, it looks unnatural: less like food more like android blood.
“Trial learning is the strongest learning of all,” Spence says, admitting he still won’t eat spaghetti bolognese after getting sick after eating it as a child. “But a lot of aversions occur prior to tasting.”
Like Spence, Katja Rowell has developed a unique niche in the science of eating. Known as “the Feeding Doctor,” Rowell specializes in helping children develop a healthy relationship with food. Her blog Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating and the 2015 book of the same title help parents and children overcome ingrained gross-outs like those based on color and texture.
“Anxious or avoidant eating has really kind of exploded in the awareness of the pediatric feeding world,” Rowell says. “It’s this emotional anxiety piece where, if someone puts mayonnaise on the table, it almost results in a panic response. It’s a lot more common than it was 30 or 40 years ago, and we’re just kind of figuring out now how to help people who are dealing with it.”
Many types of wide-scale aversions can be categorized as avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), an eating disturbance that the DSM-5 characterizes as “based on the sensory characteristics of food” that can be associated with “marked interference with psychosocial functioning.” According to Rowell, ARFID-associated difficulties with feeding can be exacerbated in people with neuro-divergent traits, sensory processing issues, or ADHD.
Avoidant eating emerges from a complex interaction of nature and personal experience, Rowell says, like a choking event or a food-associated illness (she herself was turned off of dill pickles by a scratch-and-sniff sticker). The issues she specializes in cannot often be traced to a single event. To wit: not one of the people I spoke to could pinpoint a singular trauma that ruined creaminess for them.
Children naturally learn to distrust unfamiliar foods when they’re around 12-15 months old, a learning stage that keeps newly mobile toddlers from ingesting dangerous foods but can develop into food neophobia, or fear of unfamiliar foods. Parents often reinforce picky eating in children by forcing exposure to unwanted foods or, conversely, never offering them again.
“It is very typical for children to stop eating foods to try to get their favorite foods, and especially in that sort of picky eating phase,” Rowell says. “Then the parent feels like, ‘Well, I just have to push harder.’ You can get into that dynamic that’s really counterproductive. There’s actually a lot of research that trying to make kids eat food actually makes them eat less.”
There are treatments available; both Spence and Rowell recommend exposure therapy. But generally, folks don’t feel a strong desire to get over their aversion to white condiments. Cutting a hue of sauces out of your diet isn’t likely to affect your quality of life.
My brother still doesn’t eat anything lighter than beige, and he has a fine life. Coleman can stomach a crab cake with mayo mixed in, but she’s not interested in diving into sloppy potato salad. Taylor is still a strange roommate, but he’s gradually warming to sour cream, aioli, and remoulade. He won’t bend on ranch, but at least he can be assured that there’s at least some hard science supporting his quirky eating habits.