Hate Vegetables? Blame It On Your “Supertaste” Gene

by Ann Lokuta on April 5, 2013

Mouth-watering or cringe-worthy?

Kids (and adults) have been finding ways to avoid eating vegetables for decades.  A friend of mine once told me that she used to dump her broccoli in her milk and quickly empty out her glass in the garbage disposal at the end of each meal.  If she were ever caught, she would shamelessly blame the scam on her unassuming little brother.  To this day, she still avoids veggies – they just don’t taste good to her.  This was hard to understand for a vegetable lover like myself.  Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach – you name it and I’ll bet I like it, because it tastes good.  Well, it turns out the same Mother Nature that brought us vegetables, may also determine whether we love or hate them.

Supertaster tastes Superman…

That’s right folks, we’re talking genes here.  People can be classified as nontasters, tasters, and supertasters based on their sensitivity to bitter compounds.  This sensitivity is affected by the alleles we carry for a specific tasting gene: TAS2R38.  Those who have two copies of the “P” allele are known as supertasters and are super sensitive to bitter compounds in foods.  Tasters only carry one “P” and are slightly less sensitive, while nontasters don’t carry any “P” alleles and are the least sensitive to bitterness.  So, what foods do people taste differently and why does this matter?

Broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and grapefruit are a few examples that contain the naturally occurring compounds that make supertasters cringe.  These foods also happen to be nutritional powerhouses – stacked with antioxidants and minerals.  We have an issue if taste perception determined by genotype results in less consumption of these healthful items, which is exactly what studies have begun to find.  Research has shown that adult supertasters consume vegetables on a less frequent basis than tasters or nontasters.  Another study found that children with the double “P” genotype appear to be more sensitive to texture and taste, which may be related to the observed decrease in vegetable consumption, compared to their taster and nontaster counterparts.  If supertasters consume fewer nutrient dense foods over a lifetime, it may generate concern that they are at greater risk for nutrient deficiencies and/or chronic disease.  So here’s the question: should we consider targeting the supertasters in health improvement plans?

Some scientists seem to think so.  Those in favor have started to develop “bitter blockers” to enhance the palatability of vegetables for the supertasters among us.  If done in a safe, effective, and acceptable manner, could “bitter blockers” improve the diet of supertasters?  It could be a possibility, but only time and science will tell – until then, try plugging your nose (or your child’s nose) and downing the recommended 5 servings of veggies a day.

Professor Blue April 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Building the better bitter blocker (say that 10x fast) might be the way to go, but there’s always a price to pay, isn’t there, taking a medication, even if it’s for the good. My approach is to hide nutritious food in dishes having more comforting flavor profiles. I do it all of the time myself, though I think my supertasting gene has receded (if that’s even possible). Where I once restricted what I ate to about 10 foods, I now enjoy cabbage, bleue cheese, and other horrors.

Ann Lokuta April 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Hello, Professor Blue! It’s definitely possible that your “supertaster” status has slightly diminished. I’m not sure how old you are – but taste in general diminishes with age and it is possible that aging masks the effect of any genotypic differences. There is always a risk involved in developing new products – which definitely needs to be seriously considered.

Be careful masking nutritious foods with comfort foods, if those comfort foods tend to be sugary, fatty, or extremely salty…but still glad to hear that you are beginning to enjoy some of the healthy horrors!

Thanks for reading :)

Michael April 5, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Another option, for parents at least: start small! I’m not fond of broccoli, for example, but I had a Riceroni (sp?) dish with the stuff that tasted just fine. Maybe if my mom had started me with something like that and worked her way up to the boiled florettes she preferred, I would have developed a taste for it?

Ann Lokuta April 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm

That’s a good hypothesis Michael – but makes me wonder the exact opposite. What if Mom would have started you with that boiled broccoli before you even knew what anything like Riceroni tasted like (I’m talking baby status). Would you have then developed a liking for broccoli just because you didn’t know any other taste existed? Love when science makes us think!

Angela April 16, 2013 at 8:40 am

Thanks for the post! Interesting way of categorising people. If possible, I would put a more publicly accessible link for ‘nontasters, tasters, and supertasters’, also in terms of style (science papers might not help many readers in getting an understanding of e.g. ‘supertasters’).

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