When you live in California like I do, green vegetables are a fact of life, from the common California salad bar to coastal kale recipes to wheatgrass shots. That suits me fine, but bitter greens aren’t for everyone. Turns out a taste for greens may be in our genes, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.
Sure, we know veggies are good for us–they defend against cancer, heart disease, and a host of other ills. But around 75 percent of people say broccoli and spinach just don’t pass their taste bud test. Now they can blame heredity.
Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA looked at how genetic variants of a newly discovered taste gene might explain our differences in taste. Some people are sensitive to the bitter taste of propylthiouracil (PROP). One group in the study couldn’t taste PROP at all, a second group tasted the bitter flavor in moderate amounts, and a third group detected a strong bitter taste even from the tiniest amount given.
Mothers and children in the study didn’t always fall into the same group. Only 43 percent of the mothers but 64 percent of the children were sensitive to the lowest concentrations of PROP. That’s good news, the researchers speculate: it shows that veggie haters may outgrow their sensitivity to bitter flavors over time.
Sweets or Greens (“Cake or Death”)
Not surprisingly, bitter-sensitive children preferred sweet foods to yucky bitter foods like Brussels sprouts. In fact, they said they usually ate more sweets than other children. They were also more likely to pass on milk and water in favor of sweet carbonated beverages. Some adults balked at bitter foods as well, but they didn’t make up for it with a sweet tooth. Adults’ taste preferences were more likely to be influenced by cultural forces, which might explain why bitter foods taste better tucked inside favorite family recipes.
One way the 70 percent of people who hate bitter vegetables can meet their vitamin and mineral requirements is by eating extra servings of fruit. Sprinkle berries over breakfast cereals or snack on apples and oranges. Add papaya or pineapple in place of vegetables at mealtime and feast on chocolate-covered strawberries and honeyed bananas for dessert.
But to reap the full benefit of the hundreds of phytochemicals found only in vegetables, here’s how to make bitter foods better:
- Stir fry broccoli, snow peas, carrots, and green beans Asian style with noodles, nuts and savory sauces. Lightly cooking vegetables can dull the bite.
- Grate, mince, or puree carrots, zucchini, and spinach into pasta sauces, soups, and quiches. The better you blend them, the less you’ll recognize them.
- Add something salty like soy sauce or Parmesan cheese to block the bitterness and bring out other flavors.
- Sweeten winter squashes, carrots, and other root vegetables with honey, syrup, brown sugar, or marmalade.
- Neutralize the taste of bitter salad greens with a little olive oil or avocado. Some bitter compounds literally dissolve when mixed with fats.
- Sprinkle raw veggies with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.
When none of the above tips help, make sure you’re still getting your essential minerals, even if that means grabbing a nutrition bar, smoothie, or another fortified food.
Looking for a new greens recipe?
- A Girl and Her Greens: Hearty Meals from the Garden, by April Bloomfield and Goode, JJ, EdD
- Green Kitchen Travels: Healthy Vegetarian Food Inspired by Our Adventures, by David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl
- Greens 24/7, by Jessica Nadel
- The Best Green Smoothies on the Planet, by Tracy Russell