Why you recoil from bitter tastes

Move over, Nigella Lawson, and your finger-lickin’ sweet treats … bitter is the new black at mealtimes.

Whether its apple cider vinegar, kombucha or fermented beetroot, health fanatics are turning in droves to the gut-mending qualities of bitter foods and beverages.

But what if you are one of those unfortunates who can’t stand tart, pungent tastes? Fortunately, there are hundreds of recipes you can cook that will help you disguise the bitter flavour of many vegetables, without compromising on their disease-fighting attributes.

The Eating Well website is a good place to start learning how to prepare bitter veggies so that they are appetising and go a long way to improving gut health and, subsequently, your overall wellness.

If you do struggle with the acrid aftertaste of some foods, there is a good reason why, and it is in your DNA.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined at a microscopic level what happened to the taste receptors of people who don’t enjoy bitter foods, but who agreed to sample several sour vegetable juices for the research.

“The most-studied gene for bitter-taste receptor, TASR38, comes in two types. People who have only one type or the other may be at the extremes – they are either very sensitive to bitterness, or don’t taste it unless it’s very strong,” a report on the study in livescience.com said.

The 18 study participants all had the same bitter-taste receptor gene. After they sampled the juices and rated them on a bitterness scale, the researchers took small tissue samples from their taste buds.

The amounts of molecules called messenger RNA (mRNA) in the extracted tissue were measured. Participants with the most mRNA molecules rated certain juices higher on the bitterness scale than those who produced fewer mRNA molecules.

“The amount of messenger RNA that taste cells choose to make may be the missing link in explaining why some people with ‘moderate taster’ genes are extremely sensitive to bitterness in foods and drinks,” said study researcher Danielle Reed, a geneticist at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Centre.

Since that study was published in 2013, more scientific thought has been given to why some people, especially children, avoid vegetables. It seems around 20 per cent of the population have an aversion to strongly flavoured vegetables, and they have been called the super-tasters. A third of people do not have the aversion and approximately half sit in between the extremes.

Writing in The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition professor Clare Collins says there is a simple test you can perform on your tongue, as long as you are not allergic to blue food colouring, to figure out where your tastebuds sit on the scale.

Prof Collins recommends dipping a cotton bud in some blue food colouring and painting the front part of your tongue. Blue dye will stain most of the area, but not the papillae which house your taste buds. The papillae will stand out as prominent pink dots. Stick out your tongue and take a picture.

 

Super-tasters have lots and lots of pink dots because they have double the number of papillae compared to non-tasters. A word of caution, if you overdo the blue food colour and end up swallowing a lot, it might turn your bowel motions green.

If you confirm that you are indeed a super-taster and you do not want to miss out on the health benefits of bitter foods, take a look at the tips provided by Prof Collins for tricking your taste buds into loving all vegetables.

Do you hate your veggies, especially bitter green ones? Will you take the Professor’s blue-tongue test? Do you think people who won’t eat their vegetables are just plain fussy?

Related articles:
How to boost gut health
Good guts need this
Twist on tummy troubles

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Olga Galacho

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