Why I don’t like ‘bitter’ foods: The science of taste

Coffee, olives and mustard seeds...all too bitter

I wasn’t too picky of an eater as a kid, but I did have an aversion to onions, green bell pepper, tomato, beets and a few other things that I have since grown to love. There are some foods, though, that no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot stand the taste of. Olives, grapefruit, capers and mole, for instance, are listed on our About Us page as things I do not like. Chef Mike Odette gave me a hard time about this. He said being a chef and hating certain foods was like being a painter and not liking red.

I wanted to figure out why I didn’t like the foods I didn’t like (coffee, most things that are pickled, certain salad greens like radicchio, mustard and others). Earlier this year I realized that all these things are generally considered bitter. But there had to be something that made them extra intolerable to me.

So I did some internet research and checked out four books at the library about taste. I soon learned that there was a scientific reason that certain foods made my taste buds tingle in unhappy ways.

Turns out my TAS2R38s are more perceptive than those of people like my mom who love olives, grapefruit and coffee. TAS2R38s are taste receptors involved in tasting bitter substances. About a quarter of the population are non-tasters who cannot pick up on bitter compounds at all. Another quarter are supertasters to whom all tastes are perceived much stronger. They are more sensitive to the texture of foods, spice, carbonation, and of course, bitter flavors. The rest of the population are simply tasters, people who can taste things that are bitter, but may or may not be totally averse to them.

I’ve determined that I am in the middle, but I lean toward supertaster status when it comes to bitter foods. I found a list of foods that contain bitter molecules, and soon everything started to make sense:

  • Coffee – Never liked it. I recently tried some again and could pick out the parts that I did like, the sweetness of the sugar, the smoothness of the cream. Then…bleghh…bitterness stomping on the back of my tongue.
  • Unsweetened chocolate – I love dark chocolate more than milk chocolate so this didn’t seem right, but then I remembered how much I dislike mole, sauce made from unsweetened cocoa. My parents make me try their mole every time they order it. I’ve tasted it at some of the best Mexican restaurants in LA, but every time it makes me grimace. Apparently, dark chocolate is sweetened just enough to counteract the bitterness of the cocoa.
  • Bitter melon – I haven’t tried this Asian fruit, but I can only imagine that I wouldn’t like it. I’m picky when it comes to regular melon. My brother can eat all the way down to the rind, but I want to spit out even the tiniest bit of white on a watermelon.
  • Beer – There are very few beers that I can tolerate. These would be things like Corona (Mexican pale lager great with lime), Blue Moon (Belgian style wheat great with an orange slice) and Pure Blonde (Australian pale lager). But I find most beers, and alcohol in general, too bitter to enjoy.
  • Grapefruit – Grapefruit contains narangin, which is what makes it different from oranges or lemons. The only time I can bear grapefruit is with salt, as my mom sometimes ate it. I recently learned that salt can modify or neutralize bitterness.
  • Olives – As mentioned, I find olives really gross. End of story.
  • Plants in the Brassicaceae family (also known as cruciferous plants) – This includes mustard, and explains so much. I’ve never cared for mustard. I don’t like things that are pickled, and pickling spices usually include mustard seed. I don’t like capers, and capers contain glucocapparin, aka mustard oil. Obviously I don’t like mustard greens either. (Dandelion greens, escarole, endive and radicchio are also known
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    to contain bitter compounds.) Wasabi falls in the Brassicaceae family too, and I’ve never liked that either. It’s not the spiciness, it’s the bitterness that bothers me.
    But it is interesting that some of my favorite vegetables are also in this family. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, turnip and rutabaga. Clearly there is a connection between those plants. Whatever it is that makes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts different from mustard, and whatever makes turnips and rutabaga different from wasabi is what makes me able to enjoy those vegetables over the others.

  • Quinine – This extremely bitter alkaloid is found in tonic water, which I can’t handle at all.

This subject has become so fascinating to me. Did you know you can figure out who is a taster, nontaster or supertaster often by looking at their tongue? Based on discussions we figured my roommate Hannah is a supertaster, my friend Kat is a nontaster and I’m a taster. When we looked at each other’s tongues, it became obvious. Kat’s tongue was smooth, mine speckled and Hannah’s especially bumpy.

Learning more about this has gotten me thinking about how we enjoy food. Beyond personal and cultural tastes, there are genetic differences in how people perceive flavor. This is partly why I don’t follow recipes exactly. Who is to say that 1 tablespoon is the right measurement? (Though baking is a little different because of the reactions that have to occur.) There is just so much variation, which is why I often give estimates in my recipes. I hope that people who try them have the sense to change things according to their own tastes.

But what does this mean for chefs? Are the best chefs tasters or nontasters? Wouldn’t it be great to get Thomas Keller, Jacques Pepin, Eric Ripert and others to stick out their tongues for us so we could find out?

Wanna know more? Check out The Psychology of Eating and Drinking, Making Sense of Taste and Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor.

15 Replies to “Why I don’t like ‘bitter’ foods: The science of taste”

  1. i followed the link to your post from foodgawker because i hate coffee, olives and mustard. then you went on to list more foods i don’t like, thanks for sharing your research. i have a question for the expert though… how can i hate coffee for its bitterness, but i love a strong cup of black tea?

  2. I love science and I love food. I’m often sad when friends have the mutation where the dislike cilantro (tastes like soap). I have my own food aversions, but I’ve always chalked them up to pickiness…maybe I should do some research!

  3. Holy Cow! We have nearly identical lists of food dislikes – even down to the broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts, etc. exceptions.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

    Any explanation as to why I think raisins are of the devil?

  4. Katy — I haven’t seen anything about why you might like coffee but not tea. I love tea, but I usually add honey and a little milk. I would guess that you are not a supertaster because supertasters are very sensitive to caffeine. There must be something chemically different in coffee that your taste buds are reacting to that they don’t pick up on in tea.

    Zahavah — Cilantro is one of those polarizing foods, too. I didn’t used to like it when I was a kid, but I was never one of those people who could notice the tiniest bit of it. Now I really like it.
    I think there are a few reasons why people don’t like certain foods. Some of it is nature, as I explained, but a lot of it is nurture. Some people don’t like “the idea” of certain foods. These are picky people who don’t grow out of their childhood selectiveness. I think another problem is that a lot of people haven’t had really good versions of some foods. If you’ve only had certain vegetables canned or frozen, or overcooked, of course you might not like them. I love to make asparagus and brussels sprouts in ways that show people how delicious they can be (as long as they’re not supertasters.)

    Tara — Another theory I have about the broccoli, cauliflower and brussels spouts is that I grew up eating them. I don’t think I ever disliked the taste really, but it probably helped that they were regularly in my house, cooked in different ways, etc. Question, do you prefer the stalk or the flower of broccoli?
    As for raisins, that might be one of those things that has more to do with your associations with the food than its chemical composition. Are grapes ok for you? Do you like other dried fruits? Do you hate golden raisins as well?

  5. It all makes sense now. I think all the foods I hate are on this list. I love lots of them too, so I’m not a supertaster. Thanks for this post.

  6. I guess I’m so odd, I cant get enough of bitter foods, and like all of the things you listed are on my favorite food list!

  7. Interesting. I like the salty spanish green olives but can’t stand the black ones. I also don’t like beer. I’m not a coffee drinker (unless it has lots of sugar and milk). I’ve never tried the salt trick with grapefruit. I usually dip it in lots of sugar. Well, not anymore. I’m on meds that mean no more grapefruit and am cutting sugar from my diet.

    Don’t like mole. While I’ve learned to put mustard on my hotdog in general I can’t stand pickled anything. Not pickles. Not cabbage.

    I also love broccoli and cauliflower. And spinach, which can be bitter.

    Hmmm. I have a smooth tongue. That makes me a non-taster. Right?

  8. Wow, thanks for making me feel less alone in the world! I definitely am sensitive to bitter. I cannot stand the taste of coffee, beer, grapefruit, olives, mustard, unsweetened cocoa, etc! I also think I’m rather sensitive to spicy foods. A little spice is just way to much for me. Even little bits of green peppers in my mom’s jambalaya leaves my mouth burning for hours!

    There was an experiment I did in biology in high school where we each were given a little piece of tissue paper that had had a certain substance put on it. For each one, certain people couldn’t taste anything other than paper while the same substance would produce horrible bitterness for others (me) and some would taste only a little bitterness. It turns out that a lot of it is genetic. My dad has very similar tastes to me, but my mom, it seems, is the exact opposite. She loves coffee, grapefruit, mustard, and olives. It’s all very interesting.

  9. I think I may be a supertaster. I can’t stand any kind of beer and most wines (especially red wines), coffee, root beer, ginger ale, unsweetened ice tea, teas in general, even sparkling water.

    Foods I don’t like include grapefruits, cilantro (can’t STAND it), olives (can taste even a little rind of it buried underneath stuff on a pizza), mustard, or lemons. I hate accidentally biting into an orange rind when I’m trying to get the peel off as well. Bitter tastes are just horrible or tastes of carbonation (without something to cover it, like the sugariness in Coke/Sprite/etc).

  10. I found this doing research for a genetics class. I think I may have your answer and it has nothing to do with bumps on your tongue. Much simpler than that actually. All the foods you mentioned have one thing in common – they are bitter! Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) affects a person’s ability to taste bitter. In other words, you were born with the TAS2R38 gene which allows you to taste bitter. 🙂 Quite a much more interesting conversation starter now. 🙂

  11. I think I may be a supertaster too. The stuff I really hate, like quinine, grapefruit, and beer (alcohol in general really), is bitter foods. BUT I like slighty bitter chocolates, I only eat dark chocolate, I like coffee flavoured chocolate, and I drink iced coffee with milk and so on. Pure coffee doesn’t smell that good, haven’t got around trying it.

    I love sour tastes like lemon, lemon iced tea, not too sweet, my favourite! Don’t like low quality, crap tasting cheap tea though… I drink the slighty pricier stuff with a taste!

    The odd thing though, is that I like olives. A lot. Been eating them my whole life. Maybe that’s why?

    I can generally eat anything (I would love to show you my blog of all the crap I taste, but it’s in Norwegian. Translators just f* up everything.), but grapefruit? I’ll run through fire to avoid it. Tasted gin and tonic first time? I’d sacrifice my first born.

    I did read somewhere that too sweet flavours could be a problem as well – I have never liked overly sweet stuff. I can tell the difference between high fructose corn syrup (we don’t have to much of that in Norway/Scandinavia, thankfully!), and sugar, even though both are sickly sweet for me.

  12. This is super interesting. Great write up! Definitely makes me less judgmental of my MIL who will not eat any of my salads – “too bitter!” I’m also getting somewhat obsessed with this topic.

  13. Sources? Citation? I have a PhD in biophysics from MIT and can assure you what you mentioned is unfounded. I have never found any reference showing that what you said is true. That being said, you’re sources probably belong in the fiction section of the library.

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