31/01/2022 # Home
Despite the benefits of vegetables:
Veggie-phobia is coded into our DNA.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of the “four flavors”: salt, sweet, sour, and bitter.
In recent years, four more flavors have been identified:
- umami (referring to a savory “meatiness”)
- kokumi (a mouthfeel that might be described as “heartiness”)
For most people—especially veggie-phobes—bitterness is plants’ dominant flavor.
Yet vegetables can also verge on sweet (think carrots, peas, corn, roasted beets, winter squash, or obviously sweet potatoes) or astringent (legumes, celery, Brussels sprouts, parsnips).
Bitterness comes from alkaloids.
These are nitrogen-based chemical compounds that plants, fungi, and bacteria make to defend themselves against attacks from things like parasites, pathogens, and animals that might eat them.
Alkaloids are a big group of chemicals, and have all kinds of different effects.
They can be:
- deadly (like the atropine in deadly nightshade)
- psychotropic (like psilocybin in psychedelic mushrooms)
- painkilling (morphine, codeine)
- antimalarial (quinine)
- stimulating (hooray for caffeine!)
So alkaloids, as a group, have many uses.
But since they can be so dangerous, we’ve evolved to quickly and easily detect (and spit out) their trademark bitterness.
And modern humans aren’t the only ones fighting their parents over broccoli. Rats will reject bitter foods even if you cut the link between their brainstem and cortex, indicating that other species reject bitterness too.
Not liking bitterness might be more like an innate reflex (in other words, something you can’t really control) than a preference.
Why are some people OK with bitterness while others aren’t?
We’ve known for almost 100 years that people vary quite a lot in how much they can detect and tolerate different bitter tastes.
Flavor is complicated.
Our palate, which is our appreciation for complex combinations of tastes, is determined by three factors.
Factor 1: What flavors are we exposed to in the womb?
Flavor preferences are actually passed on before birth. Amniotic fluid contains a remarkable array of biological scent molecules, and children get exposed to flavors before they can even eat.
(Fun fact: The first research on this was weird—they fed pregnant mothers garlic capsules, and then had volunteers smell their amniotic fluid!)
Factor 2: What’s our genetic makeup?
Much of the modern work in the genetic basis of taste starts with a substance called PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil). Some people, it seems, find this substance overwhelmingly bitter.
Others literally can’t taste it. At all.
Being a non-taster isn’t a problem. Overall, “PROP tasters”, who make up about a quarter of people, are the ones with the problem, because a lot of food tastes bad to them. They’re really, really sensitive to most strong flavors. This includes sweet, hot… and, you guessed it, bitter.
It’s easy enough to tell if you’re a supertaster. Do you like hoppy beers, grapefruit juice, kale, tonic water, espresso, and/or Sicilian olives? If so, you are not a supertaster.
If you find these flavors overwhelmingly strong, then it’s likely you’ve got sensitive buds.
Factor 3: What have we learned and practiced?
Of the three factors, conditioning, familiarity, and practice are probably most important. Our palates can get used to flavors when we taste them over and over again.
Few people like the way coffee tastes the first time, for example. Beer usually really splits the room the first time as well.
But since we all enjoy the buzz, the flavors of beer and coffee become more accessible. Eventually, we just love the bitter flavor.
Here are some ways we may learn our taste preferences:
How were we raised?
Some people grew up on TV dinners, and were simply not exposed to vegetables growing up.
Some people were exposed… but badly! Have you ever had boiled cabbage or microwaved Brussels sprouts? If you have, I am sorry.
On behalf of vaguely Anglo-Saxon people everywhere, I formally apologize for the stunningly awful things my people have done to vegetables.
Over-steamed limp beans, soapy carrots, gray peas… we’ve all had them. And some poor people had them every day.
What’s our culture?
Where did you grow up? What did your family do? What’s your heritage? Tastes, texture, and odors change wildly between geographic, cultural and ethnic groups.
This part isn’t genetic. It’s simply what you grow up believing is normal, what you’re taught to appreciate and, for large chunks of human history, what stood between you and starvation.
If you’ve been to the markets in Hong Kong, you might be familiar with the assault on your senses that is stinky tofu.
This is one of the few foods I could never bring myself to try. I didn’t even want to stand near it. It’s amazingly unpleasant… unless you grew up with it, of course. In that case, it’s probably amazing.
Naturally, this goes for bitter flavors as well.
If you grow up eating bitter melon, as people do in South and East Asia, I’m willing to bet you find other bitter flavors less overwhelming.
If you grow up with the scent of cabbage, neeps (turnips), and onions in an Eastern European, Scottish or Irish home, you might find these tastes comforting.
Do you eat whole or processed foods?
In the modern iceberg-and-watery-tomato-in-a-salad world, bitter foods aren’t common either.
If your intake is more packaged food, less fresh food, then your palate will be that much more conditioned to prefer and seek out the fatty, sweet flavors that processed food has to offer.
Modern agriculture has significantly affected our tastes.
Most modern plants and animals have been carefully selected not for flavor, nor texture, but for yield and attractiveness.
This means big chickens that grow fast. Wheat that grows short and fat and speedy. Tomatoes that stay firm and bright red (even if they happen to taste like styrofoam).
Unfortunately, modern agriculture has little interest in making things taste good.
Many foods have had their natural, complex, intrinsic flavors stripped away, simply because preserving the richness of flavor wasn’t the main goal.
Food companies are in the business of selling the most food to the most people.
This means they’re looking for flavors that are:
- very satisfying; and
- very accessible.
That rules out sharp flavors, fresh flavors, organic flavors, astringent flavors, “kinda grows on you” flavors, and so on.
Reference – Precision Nutrition Published Lesson Plan Articles