Before we get started, let me say that this blog is not just about broccoli. It’s really about why some of us love to snarf down things that are fatty and salty, things that are sweet (sweet tooth anyone?) or (believe it or not) foods that are basically bitter. As we all know, our tastes run all over the map. The question is: Why is that, and are there any health implications involved?
But first, let’s get back to broccoli. Broccoli comes up a lot as a “super food,” whether you like it or not. As such, we are encouraged to eat it. But, some people continue to refuse consumption of it, on the grounds that it is “horrible,” “gross,” or “feels like torture.” Some of us may wonder where this attitude comes from. Was it some sort of traumatic childhood experience? Was it required eating at the school cafeteria or summer camp? Were we at some point forced to eat a whole plate of it? With no cheese sauce or anything?
Finding the answer
Turns out that the answer is somewhere else.
You may not be aware, but in this world there are people who are “super-tasters,” people who are “non-tasters,” and everything in between. Apparently super-tasters make up about 25% of the population (you are not alone, all you broccoli haters). Non-tasters make up about 25% of the population (we will get to them later), and then there is everybody else, often considered “normal” in the literature.
How do we know this? Well, back in 1994, a researcher discovered that there was a certain chemical that occurs in bitter-tasting foods called (for short) PROP. Turns out that super-tasters have a gene that expresses itself and make the person extra sensitive to bitter tastes. Enter broccoli, arugula, chicory, radishes, Brussels sprouts, coriander, parsley, watercress, cabbage, kale, collard greens and many more. Bummer! This is virtually an A-list list of many of the vegetables that are super good for us!
Why? Because these veggies have loads of chemicals in them that fight cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and so forth. Our guts actually have sensors in them for bitter veg, and this helps our bodies fight bad, pre-cancerous cells (think polyps in the colon), and helps to regulate blood sugar better than the sensors that pick up the sweet stuff (yes, there are gut sensors for that too).
Because science can’t help itself, they have looked in to whether or not the super-tasters tend to be healthier than the non-tasters.
Here’s what they found. As usual, it’s kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, super-tasters tend to be non-smokers because they are more sensitive to the noxious taste and smell. They tend to pass up high-fat, high-sugar foods, have a lower body weight, and even have better cardiovascular profiles. On the other hand, they don’t eat their vegetables! One is reminded of George H.W. Bush, a famous broccoli hater, who lived well in to his 90’s. Clearly, results may vary.
Then there’s the non-tasters. They tend to end up being smokers, prefer high-fat, high-energy and strong-tasting foods, consume more sweets, get more cavities, and, if not managed, are more prone to obesity. Drat!
Here’s some other interesting factoids. Apparently we can actually change our tastes. Turns out that, if we keep eating bitter stuff, we will start to be OK with it. Your saliva actually changes so that it doesn’t taste as bitter. Furthermore, as we age, our taste changes. Especially after 70, this aversion to bitter flavors can change. This can happen even sooner in our lives. How many of us can remember, say, hating peas or spinach as a kid, and now are OK with them? (On the other hand, you may NEVER like liver…I get it!)
And now, let’s think about this…many of us develop a taste for beer, wine, and coffee as we get older. These are bitter for sure. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonders of dark chocolate, also a bitter food.
One more thing: Scientists have now discovered at least 30 genes that have to do with how we enjoy (or don’t) our food. There’s probably more in the pipeline.
Here’s the thing. Even with the information I just gave you, we do not need to overthink this. Some of us hate broccoli. Some of us don’t. But, let’s remember a couple of things:
- Most of us are in the middle, somewhere on the continuum. That means that we can happily try to eat more veggies and not gag on them.
- For the super-tasters and the non-tasters, you now have an excuse “My genes made me do it.” But you must not rest! Things can change, like how you respond to certain foods. Also, once you can identify your aversions and cravings, you may be able to work with them, change a few behaviors, and slide on over to some healthier eating.
- Notice that the super-tasters, even though they don’t particularly like bitter veggies, tend to have better health and maintain a lower weight. Could it be the tendency to lay off the sweets and high fat foods? Hmmm…. I think there is a note-worthy message here.
All the best
© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Nicoletaionescu | iStock