It’s because of your, mine and everyone’s genes, brochacho! Your taste is, to an extent, literally innate. Jennifer Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee’s College of Nursing, published a study this year showing that one’s ability to alternately enjoy or be disgusted by bitter-tasting foods strongly correlates with your genes. So how’s it actually work? And what’s a person to do if they’re hard-wired to constantly wonder, “Why don’t I like vegetables?”
Alongside Smith herself, we plucked ourselves some fresh answers…
Okay smart guy, why don’t I like vegetables? Is taste really biological?
Yep, and Smith isn’t the first to demonstrate this. Other scientists have explored tasting genes and their effect on human psychology, including the one Smith targeted, which is known as TAS2R38. But Smith chose to specifically look at this phenomenon for its effect on patients with at least two risk factors for cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, arrhythmia, etc.).
“As you know with cardiovascular health, the better your diet is, the better you do,” Smith says. But if we all know how that works — or at the very least, that a diet with more vegetables and less crap is better for our health — then why is some people’s taste holding them back from eating, and thus, living healthier? Smith determined that it’s because they have two copies of that particular gene.
How’s that work?
That specific bitter-taste gene, TAS2R38, codes for a particular bitter-taste receptor on your tongue. This receptor is just one of more than 30 bitter-taste receptors on your tongue, too. “We have more bitter-taste receptors than we do for any other taste sense,” Smith explains. “So we’re highly tuned to taste bitter stuff in food.” The one she looked at is known for being particularly sensitive.
If you get two copies of this particular gene (one from your mother and one from your father) you are what’s called a “super taster.” This is tested by licking a set of chemicals on a piece of paper — which, for a super taster, is pretty much the most horrific taste imaginable. If you can taste what’s on it, you have both those genes. Smith is one herself, actually. “I’ve taken the paper test, and it’s literally the worst thing you can put in your mouth if you taste it,” she says.
So people with two copies of the gene don’t like bitter foods?
That’s right. Ninety-five percent of people with one or two copies of the gene were in the low-vegetable-eating group in Smith’s study.
Basically, then, people with two copies of the gene can’t stand vegetables?
No, it’s not that simple. There are some super tasters who enjoy extremely bitter sensations — black coffee, strong beer, lots of broccoli. And of course, when it comes to eating behavior, there’s more than just taste, Smith points out — there’s culture. We tend to favor the things we were fed growing up, or what’s regionally accepted, or what’s available in our areas. Preferences are really complex, but taste is certainly a strong part of it.
Okay, so then what the hell am I supposed to do if I’m genetically hard-wired to hate vegetables?
Smith points out that not all vegetables are bitter! Corn, for example, tastes nothing like Brussels sprouts or cabbage. And cooking a vegetable in different ways gives it vastly different flavors. Ever had a delicious, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth roasted carrot? It’s a world away from a fresh, crunchy, raw carrot, and both are an utter delight compared to a soggy, limp, disgusting boiled carrot (why did people ever boil vegetables???). “If you find yourself not liking particular types of vegetables, all is not lost,” Smith says. “Keep trying things because not all vegetables are really bitter, just some.” You can play around with flavors, oils, garnishes, spices — hell, you can put vegetables on your pizza. Just get creative and try lots of different kinds with an open mind.
Alternatively, can I actually get out of eating vegetables now by just saying it’s biological?
Nice try. Even though Smith is a super taster, she claims she likes vegetables herself. Learn to live with them, man! If nothing else, you’ll live longer — which, of course, was the entire reason Smith undertook her study of inveterate vegetable-aversion in the first place. Vegetables may not add life to your years in the way only a decadent burrito can, but they’ll undoubtedly add years to your life. Stop asking, “Why don’t I like vegetables?” and consider, instead, why you haven’t tried harder to find the ones that work for you.