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Make Friends with Bitter Flavors

Sharon Palmer

“I really just don’t like vegetables.” Maybe you’ve heard this from a friend or family member, or maybe your children. Maybe even you. It’s all okay. Let’s talk about it. In fact, disliking veggies may be in your genes.

As early as the 1930s, human research revealed a genetic trait that increases sensitivity to bitter flavors for some individuals more than others.1,2 With a higher than average number of tastebuds, so-called supertasters (and children, it turns out) appear to have an above-average aversion to vegetables.2

Swiss Chard at a farmers market in Bordeaux, France, Sharon Palmer, RDN

Explaining the Differences

Superpower tasting abilities aside, all of us taste some degree of bitterness from one type of compound, glucosinolates.3,4  They appear throughout the Brassicaceae family of vegetables—think mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, arugula, kale, bok choy, Swiss chard, and even wasabi.4 Similarly, isoflavone compounds in soy foods like tofu and tempeh may set off the bitter receptors on our tastebuds, too.5 If you fell in love with all of these foods at first bite, great for you; but for many of us, foods on the bitter side of the spectrum are often an acquired taste.

Greens from the garden, Sharon Palmer, RDN

The Bad News

If you still make a yuck expression when faced with leafy greens, why bother to acquire the taste? The problem is this: they are good for you. Really good for you. Glucosinolates, for instance, are bioactive compounds that actually enhance our own natural antioxidant and detoxification processes.4,5,6  Vegetables, especially the cruciferous ones, are nutritional powerhouses of fiber, folate, vitamins C and K, and calcium.3  A head-to-head comparison of oranges against certain leafy greens like kale, will find double the amount of vitamin C in the kale!7

The Good News

If only you could learn to like the taste… but you can! The super-tasting genetic predisposition is only a starting point. Many factors influence our food preferences, from the number of times we try a food, to societal norms, to what we see our peers doing and eating.2 The more you can cultivate a sense of curiosity about new-to-you foods and flavor-enhancing techniques in the kitchen, the more you will succeed in training your taste buds.

Bok choy at the Pasadena Farmers Market, Sharon Palmer, RDN

Top 3 Tips to Mask Bitterness in Vegetables

1. Trick your tastebuds. Flavorful umami ingredients like capers, miso paste, tomato paste, and vinegars are your secret weapons here: they distract with sour and salty notes, and a little goes a long way. A squeeze of citrus like lemon, lime, or orange right before serving acts similarly.

2. Pair with sweet. Pair bitter vegetables with naturally sweet vegetables like corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and onions. In fact, the sweetness of caramelized onions is an ideal backdrop for any dark leafy green. Don’t forget fruit: top spicy arugula with fresh pear in this Jade Pear Pistachio Salad, or dice dried apricots or cherries into cooked vegetables for a similar effect.

Jade Pear Pistachio Salad

3. The power of fat. By massaging avocado oil or olive oil into raw leafy greens, you add a depth of flavor and creamy mouthfeel, plus boost your absorption of nutrients like vitamin K that actually require a bit of fat for full absorption.

The bottom line: It may take some experimentation to retrain your taste buds, but you can do it!

Pro Tip

Next time you boil or steam vegetables, save that cooking water for repurposing in vegetable broth or deglazing liquid for your next batch of caramelized onions. With long exposure to heat and water, vegetables tend to leak out some of their bioactive compounds and other vitamins and minerals, so don’t throw that good stuff away!8,9

Read on to try our Carrot Top Pesto!

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Lemony Carrot Top Pesto (Vegan, Gluten-Free)


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  • Author: The Plant-Powered Dietitian
  • Yield: 1 cup of pesto 1x

Description

The juice of 1 whole lemon and a bit of miso paste complement the flavor of carrot top greens. which are highly nutritious despite often being discarded as waste. This recipe utilizes both stems and leaves of carrot greens. It’s also a great way to reduce food waste!


Ingredients

Scale
  • 3 carrots with greens attached (will yield about 2 cups of carrot top greens)
  • ½ cup flat Italian parsley (loosely packed into a measuring cup, including stems is okay)
  • ¾ cup almonds
  • ½ cup cooked chickpeas (either canned or cooked from scratch)
  • 1 teaspoon miso paste (any variety)
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • Juice of 1 whole lemon (will yield about ¼ cup)
  • ¼ cup olive oil (extra virgin olive oil is best)
  • Salt and pepper, optional

Instructions

  1. Trim the carrot top stems as close as possible to the large end of the carrot. Use as much of the stem and leaves as possible, but set aside the intact orange root of the carrot for something else (like these recipes featuring fresh carrots)
  2. Place all ingredients into a food processor. Blend for about 30 seconds.
  3. Stop blending to scrape down the sides of the bowl compartment.
  4. Resume blending until desired texture. Add a bit more olive oil or lemon juice if you prefer a smoother, pourable pesto. Add a pinch of salt or ground black pepper if you like.
  5. Serve right away or refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 5 days. Stir in a little olive oil or vegetable broth when reheating or serving cold because the pesto becomes more firm as it cools.

Notes

Nutrition information per serving (1/5 of recipe): 255 calories, 22 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 123 mg sodium, 13 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 7 g protein

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: five 3-tablespoon servings

References 

  1. Flaherty JA. Are You a “Super-Taster”? New York, NY: Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter; 2007;25(2): 6.
  2. Tepper BJ. Nutritional implications of genetic taste variation: The role of PROP sensitivity and other taste phenotypes. Annual Review of Nutrition. 2008;28:367–388.
  3. Tordoff MG, Sandell MA. Vegetable Bitterness is Related to Calcium Content. Appetite. 2009 April ; 52(2): 498–504. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2009.01.002.
  4. Cruciferous Vegetables. Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center Web site. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/food-beverages/cruciferous-vegetables. Updated April 2017. Accessed April 26, 2018.
  5. Roland WS, Vincken JP, Gouka RJ, et al. Soy isoflavones and other isoflavonoids activate the human bitter taste receptors hTAS2R14 and hTAS2R39. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2011;59(21): 11764-71. Doi: 10.1021/jf202816u.
  6. Isothiocyanates. Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center Web site. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/isothiocyanates. Updated April 2017. Accessed April 26, 2018.
  7. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
  8. Yuan G, Sun B, Yuan J, Wang Q. Effects of different cooking methods on health‐promoting compounds of broccoli. J ournal of Zhejiang University Science B. 2009;10(8):580‐588. DOI:10.1631/jzus.B0920051.
  9. Murador DC, Mercadante AZ, de Rosso VV. Cooking techniques improve the levels of bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity in kale and red cabbage. F ood Chem. 2016 Apr 1;196:1101‐7. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.10.037. Epub 2015 Oct 22.

Main image: Grits Smothered with Mustard Greens, Sharon Palmer RDN

Written by Lora Silver, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, RDN

One thought on “Make Friends with Bitter Flavors

  1. A fantastic way to take advantage of the carrot tops. They do not only taste somewhat in the mix of bitter and sweet, but also have a very pleasant astringent scent.

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