Oh, to have been born loving broccoli instead of chocolate! Truth is, your DNA alone doesn’t dictate what you like (and don’t like).

If a built-in aversion to bitter might have helped our ancestors to survive and evolve, did this mean I’d gotten “good” taste genes? It’s a logical theory—but, in fact, there’s little evidence that a particularly acute sense of taste offers health protection. In fact, in a world where we “hunt” and “gather” at supermarkets, being easily turned off to bitter may be a liability. Many phytochemicals linked with health benefits—glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts and kale, flavonoids in grapefruit and isoflavones in soy—impart bitterness. And, in fact, research shows that people genetically programmed to detect subtle bitter tastes consume fewer cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, tart citrus fruits, green tea and soy products—all foods associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. “We have data that show that people who were more sensitive to bitter tastes consumed fewer vegetables and had a greater incidence of colon polyps, a marker of higher risk for colon cancer,” says Duffy. “This research is preliminary but it connects genetic variations that affect oral sensations with specific health outcomes.”

Luckily, inheriting an ultra-sensitive bitter-detection system doesn’t mean that your diet is doomed. “You can temper the bitterness in foods by pairing them with other sweeter foods or cooking them in ways that bring out their natural sweetness,” says Duffy. “Salt and strong spices, such as garlic, chiles or ginger, also can make bitter foods more palatable.” Jack and I do a lot of this sort of thing at home: we sauté spinach with sweet red peppers and enhance asparagus with garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt. (See “Taste Tips")

Even after bringing the bitterness of a food to a more acceptable level, it can take time to learn to enjoy the formerly off-putting flavors. Says Duffy: “Someone who has had unpleasant experiences in the past has to unlearn connections between unpalatable bitterness and particular food flavors.” One can do this by crowding out the bad memories with good experiences of eating deliciously prepared foods.

Next: Like Mother, Like Son »

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