Do you find broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage too bitter to bear? If you've been begrudgingly choking these veggies down, you might have choked it up to being a picky eater. Turns out, your DNA may be to blame for your persnickety palate.
Indeed, some people inherit a gene variant that makes them super sensitive to bitter compounds in greens like peppery arugula, according to preliminary research to be presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions. And if you have this gene, you're two-and-a-half times less likely to eat veggies than people without it, per the study.
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We get it — if something tastes bad, you don't want to eat it. But here's the problem: Even though bitter greens might be tough to swallow (literally) for those with this specific gene, these veggies supply some seriously sweet health benefits you don't want to miss out on.
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The bulk of bitter vegetables fall under the cruciferous category, which owe their unique smell and flavor to the breakdown of sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates, says dietitian and chef Julie Harrington, RD. Acting as powerful antioxidants, these glucosinolates are linked to reducing inflammation and even fighting cancer. Plus, cruciferous vegetables are low in calories, rich in heart-healthy fiber and packed with folate and vitamins A, C and K, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So, don't let genetics tamper with your taste buds or get in the way of your good health. Fortunately, there are ways to make pungent foods more palatable. Whether you have a bitter-tasting gene or not, these five cooking hacks from Chef Harrington and Ryan Dodge, the executive chef of Life Time's LifeCafe, will help mellow out bitingly bitter flavors to make your veggies mouthwateringly good.
1. Blanch Before Eating
Blanching, which involves briefly boiling foods and then quickly submerging them into cold water, brightens the flavor profile and tames the tartness of raw vegetables, says Dodge. That's because the process denatures certain enzymes in the veggies that make them bitter, explains Harrington.
To really block the bitterness, use salted water when blanching or sprinkle a pinch on your veggies once they're cooked.
2. Add in Acid
Pairing your veggies with other acidic foods — like citrus juices or vinegars — can help offset acrid flavors, says Harrington. For instance, a full-bodied, aged balsamic vinegar can break down even the most bitter of bites. "This is why bitter greens go so good in salads," adds Dodge, who recommends mixing in dried cranberries and nuts for added balance and texture.
3. Stir in Something Sweet
A hint of sweetness can sway your taste buds away from focusing on the tart tastes of cruciferous veggies. Adding honey or a sprinkle of sugar to homemade dressings and vinaigrettes helps counteract the bitterness of greens such as kale, collard greens and swiss chard, says Harrington. Likewise, tossing in naturally sweet foods like dried fruit or roasted squash can temper and balance flavors, too.
4. Whip Up a Cream Sauce
Just about anything tastes better drizzled in a savory cream sauce and cruciferous veggies are no exception. "Adding a cream sauce will add bold flavors and take center attention over the bitterness of the vegetables," says Harrington. Strong, rich cheeses — like fontina or gorgonzola — make the perfect base for a decadent sauce that will tantalize your tongue.
5. Pickle Them
Believe it or not, bitter vegetables tend to pickle well, says Dodge. By combining sugar, vinegar and salt, the pickling process offers you triple the bitterness-blasting power. In addition to simmering down the sharpness, the fermentation process of pickling provides a powerful punch of probiotics, which are great for your gut health.