Why kids hate Brussel sprouts and other taste insights

Why do kids tend to hate ’em? Because Brussel sprouts are bitter, and kids generally don’t like bitter tastes. It’s not their fault. Human aversion to bitter and sour (generally a heightened gag reflex) is a survival instinct since most toxins taste that way, too. On the other hand, sweetness typically indicates that something is safe to eat, so children are born with a preference for sweets.

What we like to eat changes over time. As we age, we realise that even though something tastes bitter or sour, it won’t kill us, and we learn to enjoy it. When we’re older, we lose some of our olfactory sensitivity — we can’t smell as well. Humans need smell to experience flavour, which is different than taste (minty, for example, is a flavor but not a taste). We also lose taste buds with age.

With our senses diminished, we’ll probably begin adding sugar and salt to our food, to heighten the flavour. In fact, there’s a theory that the reason many especially “big”-tasting wines in recent years have won awards is that wine critics are getting older and finding subtle flavours harder to sense.

If someone is unable to detect flavours at all, he may have a taste disorder, which can be caused by a tongue injury or brain damage. Or it could be a problem with smell. The channel that separates the mouth from the nose allows us to smell retronasally (literally, behind our nose) and is crucial for enjoying most complex flavours. That’s why food seems flavourless when we have a stuffy nose.

People who have a lot of papillae — the bumps on our tongue, most of which house our taste buds — often find flavours overwhelming. They’re “supertasters,” and as such they add cream to their coffee and order food mild instead of spicy. Subtasters, on the other hand, have low papillae density and prefer their chicken wings “atomic.”

Individual taste, however, isn’t simply about papillae; it also has to do with our buds’ ability to detect different molecules. Although our brains can recognise the same five tastes — bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami (savoury) — the suite of chemicals that can trigger those signals varies from one person to the next.

Alexander Bachmanov, a geneticist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says that humans carry a range of 20 to 40 genes dedicated to bitter taste receptors.

Different sensitivities to bitter tastes probably arose from evolutionary pressures in different parts of the world. Most toxic plants taste bitter, and nomadic groups that came into contact with a variety of plants would have, over time, developed a variety of receptors. People from malaria-infested parts of the world tend to carry a gene that makes them less sensitive to some bitter compounds, specifically those that contain cyanide. Researchers speculate that cyanide, ingested at low levels, fights malarial parasites while leaving the host unscathed.

Juyun Lim, a sensory scientist in Oregon State University’s Department of Food Science, says that we have a natural aversion to bitterness and certain odours: “Most people don’t like beer the first time they try it.”

Are you a supertaster?

To find out, put blue food colouring on your tongue. Blue dye doesn’t stick to taste papillae, so if your tongue doesn’t get very blue, you’re probably a supertaster. The bluer it gets, the greater the chance you are a subtaster. MoreTabasco, please!

Source: Popular Science