02 August 2019

Struggling to eat your greens? You can train yourself to like them

If you despise the taste of broccoli (and other vegetables), you can trick your brain into liking the bitter taste, according to research.

When asking for advice on eating for optimum health, many dietitians will tell you the same thing – include plenty of vegetables in your diet, especially green ones.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for those people who can’t stomach the taste of vegetables, especially bitter greens such as spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. But there is a way you can teach yourself to like these foods, and reap their health benefits, researchers at the University at Buffalo say.

Your response to bitter foods all depends on the specific proteins found in your saliva, which affects your sense of taste and diet composition, according to a new study published in the journal Chemical Senses.

What does your saliva have to do with it?

Not only can the bacteria in your saliva hold clues to your overall health, but specific proteins in your saliva determine how you perceive certain foods. Everything we eat first gets dissolved by saliva before it interacts with taste receptor cells, according to research.

"What you eat creates the signature in your salivary proteome, and those proteins modulate your sense of taste," says Ann-Marie Torregrossa, an assistant professor in UB's Department of Psychology and the associate director of the university's Center for Ingestive Behavior Research in a news report

"We've shown in previous work with rats that changing your diet changes what proteins are in your saliva. Now we're showing that the proteins in your saliva change how you taste."

"If we can convince people to try broccoli, greens and bitter foods, they should know that with repeated exposure, these vegetables will taste better once they regulate these proteins," says Torregrossa.

So, how many times should I try before I taste a difference?

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t indicate precisely how many times you should choke down a mouthful of your most dreaded vegetable before you start enjoying it.

"Our data doesn't provide a number, such as 12 servings of broccoli. However, for people who avoid these foods because of their bitterness, but would like to include them in their diet, they should know their taste will eventually change,” says Torregrossa.

Bitterness is also a near-universal characteristic of paediatric medicines, and getting infants to swallow a bitter liquid, which by nature they want to reject, can be a challenge.

"An additive to that medicine to make it less bitter would increase compliance," she says. "It's similar to liquid dietary supplements in the geriatric population, which often contain sugar to tame the bitterness. Achieving the same result without sweeteners has obvious benefits.

"Trying to convince someone that a salad tastes great isn't going to work because to that person it doesn't taste great. Understanding with taste that we're dealing with something that's moveable is significant.

"It's an elegant physiological shift allowing you to put these foods into your diet," says Torregrossa

For the study, Torregrossa trained rats to choose from one of two water bottles after tasting a solution, to indicate whether it tasted bitter, according to the news report.

Animal research in this case allows for tighter dietary control, and the variation of specific proteins can be monitored in a way that's difficult to achieve with human participants, according to the research.

"The variation around sweet is very small," she says. "Nearly everyone likes a cupcake, but the variation around liking broccoli is enormous.

"This research helps explain why that variation with bitter food exists and how we can get more people to eat broccoli instead of cupcakes. The point of the research is to try and combat an obesity crisis by getting people to make healthier food choices."

How can I enjoy my vegetables?

For now, here are some simple tactics to help you include more vegetables in your diet:

  • Be open to experiment with new textures and tastes.
  • Switch up your cooking methods – try roasting your vegetables for extra crunch and flavour. Steaming is also better than boiling, as it maintains the crisp texture of the veggies, instead of cooking them until they are bland and mushy. 
  • Make spices your friend. A dash of olive oil and sweet herbs such as rosemary and thyme can transform a dull head of broccoli.
  • Blend a cup of spinach into a fruit smoothie to disguise the taste.
  • Add vegetables to your favourite soups and sauces. Not only will you enjoy the benefits of fibre-rich veggies, but you will also require less meat if you're preparing a Bolognese with extra veggies.
  • Don’t only focus on the colour green – eat as many colours as possible, as purple vegetables such as red onions and beetroots contain the greatest amounts of antioxidants.

Image credit: iStock


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