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

4 Mins read

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 knownto 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.

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