Starving Dietitian

Bitter Food Blunder

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It doesn’t take long to realize that humans are quite possibly the pickiest animals on the planet.

We need our meats done “just so”, our vegetables a specific texture, and our fruits a precise color.

At one time, this pickiness may have helped our species succeed. Overripe fruits are sweeter but more likely to harbor insects. Underripe fruits are still capable of storing more energy.

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And this goes for just about every situation. Too much may be bad, too little may not be enough.  Pickiness, so often discouraged as a kind of closed-mindedness, actually lies rooted in the depths of our genetics.

So why should we override our genes?

The answer is trickier than you’d guess.

In the past I’ve explained the function of phytochemicals like carotenoids, polyphenols, and flavonoids. By “turning on” certain genes they protect us from the likes of solar radiation and carcinogens. But I’ve never mentioned what they taste like. One of the characteristics common to this branch of non-caloric nutrients is… can you take a guess? Bitterness!

Bitterness has long signified “poison” throughout language. This is for good reason. Many plants produce chemicals called alkaloids.  Nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, and morphine (to name a few) are all grouped under this category and they can all kill you in high enough doses. You want to guess what literature tells us these taste like? Bitter!

It is near unanimous  that alkaloids produce a bitter taste for humans. It is thought this may be to protect us from eating poisonous plants, if we ever found ourselves foraging from the land.

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So if bitter = bad, then why do we develop such a taste for them? Ask any wine, beer, coffee, or chocolate connoisseur and they’ll undoubtedly tell you these foods are all extremely bitter. Likely one of the reasons why few appreciate their first mug of Dads coffee, or their first sip of Moms wine. We have to learn to like these foods, because our bodies think they’re poison! It takes repeated exposures, retraining our tastebuds, to learn just how much we love them. It isn’t a coincidence that all four of those foods are super-foods given the right quality.

Which brings us to our last peculiarity. Picky children. How iconic is the child’s distaste for broccoli?

How many parents have pleaded “Just one bite and you’ll get your dessert” while their toddler lobs the miniature tree against the already stained wall. Well, that too may not be the kids fault. Some 25% of the population is determined to be supertasters.

Supertaster Tongue

Supertaster Tongue

Those who are taste bitter things much stronger than others. Biologically, this should be an advantage, especially in children where toxins are more often lethal.

In this day and age, where our plants are store bought, and our fruits are picked by machines, these genes simply don’t help us survive. In fact, by discouraging us from eating healthy-bitter foods like spinach, kale, or broccoli, the supertaster gene has become a bit of a nuisance.

That, my friends, is why we have to override our genes and gobble down those leafy greens.  So called “health-freaks” don’t feel tormented by their food, you make an effort to like the stuff, and suddenly you crave it.

Be good to each other.

– Joshua Iufer, RD

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