Dear Dr. Universe,
Will I ever like Brussel sprouts? – Sincerely, Susan
Before I answer this question, I must ask that you abandon your normal eating routine over the next three days in favor of Brussels sprouts.
Yes, for every meal.
Do you like them yet?
If not, you may be what Carolyn Ross and other food scientists call a supertaster.
“Supertasters actually have more taste buds,” says Ross, a chemist and food scientist at Washington State University. “We’ve found that people who are supertasters are particularly sensitive to bitterness.”
Bitterness really strikes at a supertaster’s fungiform papillae, those bumps on your tongue that house your taste buds. Because of their enhanced flavor awareness, supertasters can’t stand those bitter greens from the Brassica oleracea species: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
But beware if you’re hoping to get out of eating those nutritious, if bitter, veggies by declaring to your family that you’re a supertaster. Supertasters are also sensitive to sweetness. They try to avoid ice cream, cake, pie, cookies, candy, and brownies because they’re way too sweet.
That’s because supertasters super taste everything. Bitterness is just one of the five basic tastes that humans perceive, along with sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and umami (which is a savory, brothy flavor).
But it’s not just humans that can determine these five basic tastes. Dr. Ross’ lab in the Food Science and Human Nutrition building houses an “electronic tongue” that can also taste those five basic gustatory perceptions, plus spiciness and metallic. The point of her work with the e-tongue is to give a numerical value to something that has already been described in great detail.
For instance, we all know that soda is sweet and bubbly. But Ross’ e-tongue can tell us how sweet, on a scale from 1 to 50. Some people say soda tastes “spicy.” The e-tongue can tell us if the syrupy nectar is truly spicy, on a chemical level.
It’s on a chemical level because that’s how taste begins. When a food or liquid hits your tongue, little chemical reactions take place and we recognize sweet sugars, sour acids, bitter alkaloids, savory amino acids, and salty salt.
Brussels sprouts have very high levels of glucosinolates, which contain sulfur and nitrogen. The most notable glucosinolate in the little cabbages is sinigrin, which gives them their bitter flavor. In fact, some glucosinolates are known to be toxic, and some animals take bitterness as a sign: DO NOT EAT THIS.
But with humans and Brussels sprouts, the benefits outweigh the bitterness. They’re packed with vitamins K, C, A, and B-complex, beta-carotene, folic acid, iron, magnesium, and fiber. And they have cancer-fighting properties. Which all adds up to: EAT THIS.
So the odds are you’re just a normal taster with an aversion to Brussels sprouts. But Ross says it takes about eight attempts at eating something before you’ll warm up to it. So go ahead. Keep eating those Brussels sprouts. For three days. Just don’t boil them. That makes them smell and taste really nasty. Chemically speaking, of course.