Don’t say no to that asparagus just yet. New research suggests people may find the taste of bitter green vegetables more enjoyable if they eat them more often.
Christopher Gardner’s son was the typical picky eater. He knew what he liked and knew what he didn’t like.
That suddenly changed right around the time he became a teenager. He began liking “adult” foods and became more adventurous.
Gardner was surprised at how abruptly the change came about, but, as a nutrition science PhD-holding researcher and professor at Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center, he was glad to see his son embrace new and different flavors.
“Gen Z is really great at exploring food,” Gardner told Healthline. “They want to blow their taste buds away.”
But that doesn’t mean they all come out of the womb as adventurous eaters. Some take longer, and new research suggests our dietary likes and dislikes aren’t ingrained in our DNA.
Because even when we think we don’t like the taste of something, our tongues haven’t quite made up their minds yet.
Bitter, for example, is a complicated taste. It typically serves as a warning sign; as in, if something tastes bitter, then it might be poisonous.
Unfortunately, that includes cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, radishes, and arugula.
Otherwise known as the short list of foods lots of kids often don’t like. At least at first.
Recent research out of the University at Buffalo (UB) conducted on rats suggests that trying more bitter foods — particularly those found in a healthy plant-based diet — changes proteins in saliva that affect how we perceive the taste of food.
The researchers filled two water bottles with different tasting solutions and trained rats, some genetically modified with activated salivary proteins akin to those who had been raised on a diet of bitter foods, to choose from the two bottles to indicate whether it tasted bitter or sweet.
But Ann-Marie Torregrossa, PhD, an assistant professor in UB’s department of psychology and the associate director of the university’s Center for Ingestive Behavior Research, says those rats with the bitter-induced salivary proteins turned on couldn’t taste the bitterness at higher concentrations when compared to others that didn’t have the same protein activated.
“Once these proteins are on board, the bitter tastes like water. It’s gone,” Torregrossa told UB’s news service.
The research, published in the journal Chemical Senses, suggests that repeated exposure to bitter foods can change the proteins in saliva, essentially calming the initial distaste for bitter and other flavors.
“If we can convince people to try broccoli, greens, and bitter foods, they should know that with repeated exposure, they’ll taste better once they regulate these proteins,” Torregrossa said.
While rats and humans are drastically different in many ways, the research does offer insight into how our palates can adapt to the foods we’re given with repeated exposure.
Experts say repetition and engaging picky eaters into the cooking process are surefire ways to help change the minds — or at least the saliva — of stubborn eaters.
Catherine Brennan, a registered dietitian nutritionist who writes for FeelingFullNutrition.com, says while several factors like genetics, culture, environment, and upbringing all play a role in developing our palates, the earliest influence could be our mother’s milk.
Into childhood, developing brains prefer foods with energy return and replenishment, like sugars and salts.
While those same children may be rejecting new foods, Brennan recommends people follow the advice of most pediatric dietitians: Try a new food 10 or more times before finally throwing in the towel.
“Think about it: How many of us took a sip of our parent’s coffee or beer as a child and spit it out, wondering how anyone could ever like the bitter taste?” she told Healthline.
Brennan, like so many of us, did. Now she has a hard time imagining her life without coffee or beer.
That’s because we experience the world of five key factors: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. We experience them best through complex foods, where taste is broken down even further into five more categories: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami.
Dr. Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says different flavors affect different parts of our brains. He believes the “taste” part plays a less important role than sight or touch.
That makes it harder to teach such a small part of the brain to inherently like healthier foods lacking the sugar, caffeine, and salt the larger parts of our brains prefer.
“The way to make our brains learn to like healthier foods would be to increase the flavors of these healthy foods to provide some other sensory enjoyment. Possibly adding something to make it smell good, which would theoretically co-stimulate our vision centers,” Segil told Healthline.
“With repetition, our brains can get accustomed to things, and if they are withdrawn, then we would miss it. But I find it challenging to think of a way we can trick our brains into eating healthy,” he said.
The point is to make sure it’s not a trick. It’s to avoid gimmicks and marketing buzzwords from companies that want to sell you nutrients in a bottle and consume them as a naturally packaged deal.
Gardner doesn’t want a single dollar more from the National Institutes of Health to study which of their individual molecules to brand things as “superfoods.”
Bundled together, everything in foods like broccoli and kale have been proven to give the human body the essential nutrients it needs. The important part is eating all of them together in their original packaging.
That’s not burger wrappers or powdered shakes, nor is it fad diets or 30-day challenges.
Earlier this year, Gardner and his team published a study in JAMA that tested low-fat versus low-carb diets in adults with obesity.
The study found neither was good for everyone, but people who ate a mix of vegetables and whole grains while avoiding sugar and refined grains had the most success.
That’s mostly because personal and cultural differences affect our palates and our metabolism.
Gardner says creating lasting behavioral changes that “bring joy back to food” are the most impactful. Part of that isn’t only the foods we choose, but how we choose to behave around food.
He recommends getting children and the rest of the family into the kitchen as early as possible and making meal preparation a family affair.
That’s why he fulfills his namesake by running Stanford’s “Food and Farm Summer Camp,” where children as young as 5 years old can learn to cook foods they just cared for and picked on an 11-acre farm.
He also teaches cooking classes for doctors-in-training at Stanford. He says those classes are always full because people on a hectic schedule who understand how the human body works want to be able to maximize its use and longevity.
“We’re teaching basic life skills,” Gardner said.
But convenience, mass production, and building a food system that’s built on feeding nutrient-dense ingredients like corn and soy to animals meant for slaughter?
Gardner says mass-produced food may taste good, but it has one major drawback.
“It’s killing us,” he said.
Trying to eat more broccoli, however, won’t kill you. Even if your taste buds initially think it will.