The Scientific Reason Some People Can’t Stand Vegetables

And what it takes to overcome an aversion to bitter greens

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 19, 2019

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Photo credit: Paquito Pagulayan / EyeEm / Getty Images

BBitterness is nature’s way of warning us about harmful things we shouldn’t eat, like cyanide. But several very healthy foods, including broccoli and cauliflower, are bitter, too — which makes them disgustingly inedible to some people, but not to others. You haters can blame your genes, studies show. And while you can’t change your genes, you might be able to overcome your distaste if you’re willing to try, try again. After all, it works with coffee. (And beer.)

Scientists have known for many years that some people have a genetic aversion to bitter vegetables. One in five find them unbearable, says Clare Collins, PhD, a professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle in Australia. These are what researchers call super-tasters. If you inherited super-taster genes, then those flowering cruciferous vegetables, which also include bok choy and Brussels sprouts, “will taste disgusting,” Collins explains.

Cruciferous vegetables are loaded with nutrients, from beta-carotene to vitamins C, E, and K, and they’re a good fiber source. But they’re also packed with glucosinolate, which produces a bitter oil when cut, chewed, or cooked.

Roughly 30% of people don’t sense the bitterness at all. These people have two copies of a gene variant called AVI, explains Jennifer Smith, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in cardiovascular science at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine. People with one AVI and one PAV variant taste bitterness more than some people but less than others. The super-tasters have two PAVs. “We’re talking a ruin-your-day level of bitter,” Smith says.

Smith’s preliminary new research, being presented at this year’s meeting of the American Heart Association, involved people at risk for cardiovascular disease, who really should be eating their veggies. It compared their genetic profiles, via analysis of their saliva, to what they ate, based on questionnaires. People with two PAVs were more than 2.5 times as likely to be in the bottom half of a list ranking everyone in the study by the quantity of vegetables they eat. “We hypothesize that this is because the vegetables taste bitter,” based on the prior research…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB