Golden roasted garlicky Brussels sprouts, olive oil, a dash of cracked pepper and sea salt…mmm. My mouth is watering, yours? If your anything like much of the population, there’s a good chance that you’d rather put a fork in your eye than into a serving of these glorious green globes. Not to worry, I’m not here to preach about the numerous benefits of cruciferous vegetables but rather to provide insight as to why taste preferences vary and why some might shutter at the idea of eating any vegetable aside from a French fry (yes-French fries are considered a vegetable by some, but that’s a can of worms for another time) while others bask in the splendor of delicately braised kale or the earthy sweetness of luscious beets (I might be talking about me here).
It turns out that our taste preferences are influenced by genetics and environment. Genes that code for taste have been identified and explain why some people are more sensitive to bitter foods, like Brussels sprouts. However, studies show that children and mothers with the same taste genes have different experiences of bitterness. This has lead researchers to propose that bitter sensitivity is heightened in childhood and dulls over time,. These same children also showed greater preference for sweetness, which does not come as a surprise evolutionarily speaking.
The inherent response to reject bitter plants was important in protecting our caveman ancestors from consuming poisonous foods. In nature edible plants are often sweet (think wild berries), and were safer choices. The tendency towards sweetness was functional at one time to avoid bitter, poisonous plants but has now gotten us into trouble. Sugar is ubiquitous in the food system, and more often is consumed in processed items rather than what nature had intended.
Is it possible that our sugar laden environment has over-ridden the inherent gradual acceptance of bitter foods, like many vegetables? When our palate is conditioned to expect sweetness, unsweetened foods may well be refused, especially by growing children, which is why infants should be introduced to vegetables first rather than fruits. Salt, too, has played an important role in human history but is now over consumed, often unknowingly in processed items, and this over consumption corresponds to various health concerns.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans* pull in the reigns on sugar and salt. Stricter recommendations have been made in hopes of dramatically reducing intake to help manage weight, diabetes, hypertension, and many more related illnesses. However, a common question is: how will people accept and adapt to eating a diet that is so, well, bland? Thinking about all of the variety and flavors that real, whole foods, herbs, spices offer opens up infinite possibilities in the kitchen, but for those conditioned to highly sweet or salty foods, the answer to this question is simply this: like any habit or lifestyle change, it will take time, exploring new foods and flavors, and reprogramming our taste buds.
So, if you’ve sworn off certain foods because you didn’t like them 10 or 20 years ago, be adventurous and give them another shot! There’s a good chance you might surprise yourself; life might just be a little more savory with a few more Brussels sprouts.
*Generally, I’m not a huge advocate of nutrition recommendations propagated by the government (HHS + USDA), as I do not believe they have our best interest in mind (6-11 servings of grains/d!), but it’s a no brainer that we do need to dramatically decrease intake of sugar and salt from processed food-like items. Plus, the Dietary Guidelines have far reaching effects for many populations, which is why I referred to them above.