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The Journal Gazette

Monday, July 17, 2017 1:00 am

Labeling can fool taste buds into liking broccoli

Courtland Milloy | Washington Post

To improve my health, I recently bought some broccoli. For men 55 and up, like me, just a few cup-size servings of broccoli each day help prevent many diseases, according to the website Well-Being Secrets, which says the vegetable also “helps you look younger” and “increases sex stamina.”

I should be gobbling up this stuff. Except that I can't figure out how to make broccoli edible. My taste buds are so offended by this cruciferous vegetable that they trigger a kind of “gag reflex,” literally blocking the digestive path to good health.

“These little mini trees are notorious for being pushed off the plates of kids around the world,” according to an article on website Medical News Today, “but broccoli's reputation as one of the healthiest veggies still rings true.”

Unfortunately, few people are getting the message.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 percent of Americans are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables. And yet, there is no better health care plan than a healthy diet. Vegetables, especially broccoli, help prevent the leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and strokes.

A depletion of the healing nutrients found in vegetables also makes it more difficult to break chemical addictions to substances such as opioids, something that has become an epidemic in some states.

But last month, the Food and Drug Administration signaled its intent to rewrite long-delayed menu-labeling rules passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Several nutrition-related riders were added to an appropriations bill, including one that targeted voluntary sodium reductions for the food industry. And Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the department would be slowing the implementation of aggressive standards on sodium, whole grains and sweetened milks in school breakfasts and lunches that were passed during the Obama administration.

So now, we get to create a new generation of people who turn up their noses at healthy food. Maybe they can use the same excuses we use.

We're too stressed after work and we need something comforting, something fatty, fried or sweet. Or how about it takes too much time to prepare vegetables? For some, fresh vegetables and fruits are too difficult to find, especially in low-income neighborhoods where the corner store serves as the “supermarket.”

But what accounts for the fact that “kids around the world,” as Medical News Today put it, are pushing one of the healthiest foods in the world off their plates? They are being served broccoli, just not eating it.

One explanation is the rarely acknowledged fact that human beings have extremely wide variations in sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes.

“Although many bitter foods are harmful and should be avoided, there are bitter compounds in fruits and vegetables with beneficial effects on health,” according to research funded by the Monell Chemical Senses Center and National Institutes of Health. “Some of these compounds include ... organosulfur compounds (found in cruciferous vegetables).”

Sulfur – so that's what makes broccoli taste so nasty to me.

“Public health efforts to increase fruit and vegetable intake have been challenging, and the resistance to increase consumption may in part be due to the bitter tastes of these foods,” the researchers noted. “Indeed, many of the 'healthy' vegetables such as cruciferous vegetables are often disliked, especially by children, perhaps for their bitter taste.”

There may be a solution, however.

“One might imagine that consumer food products will be tailored to accommodate differences in genotype-based tasting ability,” NIH researchers said. “In a sense, humans do this already by cooking and producing foods with different spices or added sugars and salt, but genotype information introduces a biological and perhaps more rational approach to cater to different tastes.”

A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that more vegetables were consumed when they were labeled with “indulgent descriptions that are usually reserved for more decadent foods.” The labeling included words such as “dynamite,” “caramelized” and “sweet sizzling.”

The findings may show how to make healthier foods more appealing and encourage people to make healthier dining choices, according to researchers from Stanford University.

Meanwhile, a friend suggested that I try broccoli dipped in melted cheese. The thing came out looking like a bonsai tree covered in acid rain.

Still, it's hard to beat the benefits.