Bitter Becomes Better: Study Finds You Can ‘Train’ Your Taste Buds To Like Veggies

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Want to eat healthier, but just can’t take the taste of kale, broccoli or other bitter veggies? New University of Buffalo research indicates you might want to consider the sage advice: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That’s because our taste buds can be trained to like vegetables, according to their study.

How, you ask?

Every forkful of food that enters your mouth must first be dissolved by saliva before the taste receptor cells have a turn. There are some 1,000 proteins in our saliva, and these proteins are influenced by what we eat. So the more we eat those bitter greens, the better they taste.

“What you eat creates the signature in your salivary proteome, and those proteins modulate your sense of taste,” says lead author Ann-Marie Torregrossa, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Psychology and the associate director of the university’s Center for Ingestive Behavior Research, in a release. “We’ve shown in previous work with rats that changing your diet changes what proteins are in your saliva. Now we’re showing that the proteins in your saliva change how you taste.”

For this study, researchers were able to control the diets of rats and monitor the specific proteins in their saliva. The rats were trained to choose from one of two water bottles after having tasted a solution. Which bottle the rats chose indicated to researchers whether the rats found the bottle contents to be bitter.

“This is interesting because we’re not asking, ‘Do you like this?’ We’re looking only at, ‘Can you taste this as bitter?’” Torregrossa says. “Animals with these bitter-induced salivary proteins turned on cannot taste the bitterness at higher concentrations than animals who do not have the same protein activated. Once these proteins are on board, the bitter tastes like water. It’s gone.”

So how can this finding be applied to humans? Just how many servings of vegetables does it take to adjust our taste buds?

“Our data doesn’t provide a number, such as 12 servings of broccoli,” notes Torregrossa. “However, for people who avoid these foods because of their bitterness, but would like to include them in their diet, they should know their taste will eventually change.”

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Torregrossa points out that there is a very narrow window in our perception of sweet tastes, which is why cupcakes are universally loved. Differences in how our taste buds recognize bitter tastes, however, is more like a wide door. But, with target practice, we can help aim our taste buds toward a different destination.

The authors say their findings are encouraging in their implications for treating obesity and managing medically necessary diets or medications. At the very least, they want health care and nutritional experts to be emboldened by this knowledge of the flexibility of salivary proteins.

“Trying to convince someone that a salad tastes great isn’t going to work because to that person it doesn’t taste great. Understanding with taste that we’re dealing with something that’s moveable is significant,” concludes Torregrossa.

Study findings are published in the journal Chemical Senses.

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