Did your parents try to feed you Brussel sprouts, telling you they taste great, but one bite confirmed your suspicion that vegetables are bitter yuck? Your parents didn’t lie – they just lacked the ability to taste a chemical related to bitterness.
My Chicory Nightmare
For me it wasn’t Brussel sprouts, it was chicory. My mom swore by the health effects and deliciousness of these little grenades. All I tasted was a very, very bitter leaf. Worst of all, I thought she had deliberately lied to me and for a long time I eyed all vegetables with a deeply ingrained suspicion, especially when someone told me about their “great taste” and health effects.
For you it maybe wasn’t chicory, but Brussel sprouts, cabbage or raw broccoli. Other people are rather sensitive to the bitter components in tonic water, coffee or dark beers.
It’s Your hTAS2R38
Many years later I found out that my mom’s appreciation of chicory very likely is genuine. She probably simply has a different version of a taste receptor called “hTAS2R38”, which is responsible for letting you experience bitter organic compounds. In some people, hTAS2R38 reacts very strongly to bitterness, in others it seems to be on an endless vacation (PDF).
This defect (or blessing, depending your point of view) affects 25% of the people in the world, which results in them either finding bitter foods and drinks less bitter or not bitter at all.
From an evolutionary point of view being able to taste and then avoid bitter foods makes sense, because it protected us from potential toxins in food.
Eating loads of cabbage, for example, can cause goiter (a swelling of the thyroid gland from a lack of iodine), because the chemical in the cabbage responsible for its bitter taste blocks the absorption of iodine from food. Therefore, if our ancestors lived in areas where little iodine was available from what they ate, their bodies telling them to better avoid cabbage was sensible.
Can You Change This?
Well, you can’t change your genetic heritage, but of course you can try conditioning yourself into appreciating bitter tasting vegetables (I-like-this-I-like-this-I-like-this). If you even are sensitive to the bitterness of carrots, you can try eating young vegetables (baby carrots, baby spinach etc.), as they usually have much smaller amounts of the bitter components.
Picture courtesy of “worak“.