The poster child for vegetable hatred, many a broccoli floret has been left on the plates of disgusted diners. Meanwhile others don’t understand how a mild-flavoured vegetable can create such strong feelings. Are the haters just picky eaters and haven’t gotten over their aversion to vegetables?
According to genetics, maybe not.
There’s a compound in broccoli that not everyone can taste – but it can make it bitter and basically unpalatable.
Different populations vary widely on how many people can taste the bitterness of broccoli - more specifically, glucosinolate compounds, which chemically resemble phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). In England the non-taster percentage (or those that can’t taste PTC at all) is 31.5%, but for Native Americans it’s a crazy 98%.
So why do only some of us have this ability?
The genes of broccoli haters
On average, about 70% of us can taste something bitter in broccoli or PTC, but those with two copies of the bitter sensitivity gene are closer to 20%, and they are much more likely to hate it.
Scientists have known for a while that the gene hTAS2R38 plays a role in how bitter we perceive certain foods – such as broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, bok choy and Brussels sprouts are also on that list).
The people with variations in gene hTAS2R38 taste these vegetables as bitter and horrible – whilst those with different variations in their genes don’t.
This is somewhat similar to what happens with coriander haters, because to 13% of the population coriander tastes soapy. A different genetic allele (also called a variation) rs72921001 has been implicated in this case.
Bitter and sweet
But having two copies of the bitter taste allele in gene hTAS2R38 might have some interesting properties completely separate from your hatred of broccoli.
A study published back in 2014 looked at how variations in hTAS2R38 might affect vegetable, fruit and sweet food consumption in Finnish adults, and the results weren’t good for broccoli haters.
Those with two copies of the bitter sensitivity allele (known as homozygotes) consumed fewer vegetables than those without the bitter sensitivity overall. Even worse, the amount of sweet foods they consumed was higher in those with two copies of the bitter sensitivity allele as well.
“Individuals perceive foods differently, and this may influence their patterns of food consumption,” the researchers wrote. “This study showed that the hTAS2R38 taste receptor gene variation was associated with vegetable and sweet food consumption among adults.”
But there is a genetic reason why bitter sensitivity might have been evolutionarily important.
The bitter stuff in broccoli are compounds that some plants produce to deter garden pests. These compounds can also show up in toxic plants.
That doesn’t mean broccoli or Brussels sprouts are at all toxic. Although the bitter compounds are found in both toxic things and some vegetables, the bad taste is just a side effect.
I don’t find broccoli bitter, it’s just gross?
Well, you might be suffering from badly cooked vegetable syndrome. We admit that’s definitely not a real illness, but many people don’t like certain veggies because of the way they were cooked for them as kids.
When you overcook broccoli it gets mushy and pretty disgusting - even for people who usually like the taste.
To cook the perfect broccoli, make sure to steam it, and leave it slightly firm. If you don’t like it still, that’s okay, but you might find it’s more enjoyable than you remember.