Why Do Some People Love Broccoli, And Others Hate It?

07/11/2013 08:24 am ET | Updated Jul 12, 2013
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The First Lady would be proud: At Tuesday's Kids' State Dinner at The White House, President Barack Obama told a (kid) reporter that his favorite food is broccoli.

While the veracity of that statement remains up for debate (considering past favorites reportedly included french fries and pork chops), Obama certainly isn't the first president to declare strong feelings for the cruciferous veggie. "I do not like broccoli,'' President George H.W. Bush declared in 1990. ''And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!''

Broccoli has certainly earned its healthful reputation as a superfood, yet its flavor remains more controversial. But why is it that some people simply can't stand the taste, while others love it?

The answer might partly come down to genetics, explains John E. Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at the Pennsylvania State University. While past explanations have focused on the idea of "supertasters," he says that's less applicable to broccoli.

Instead, variations on a gene called TAS2R38 could explain why some people turn their noses up at the green stuff. This gene can affect how people perceive bitterness; a compound called allylglucosinolate is what causes the bitter taste in broccoli. What's more, the variant you have of this gene could explain overall vegetable consumption patterns, not just broccoli, according to Hayes.

An aversion to bitter vegetables might also have evolutionary roots. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007:

Whatever version of TAS2R38 someone has, it's true to say that many people, young and old, don't like vegetables. In evolutionary terms, that makes some sense. Plants produce natural bitter pesticides to protect themselves from being eaten, and sometimes these substances are toxic. No wonder humans have evolved to instinctively avoid very bitter foods. Luckily, the amounts of these natural toxins found in fruits and vegetables aren't harmful to us. (We're considerably larger than the average garden pest, after all.)

Two other compounds could also play a role in turning people off from broccoli. Allylisothiocyanate (AITC) is the compound that gives the vegetable its pungent taste -- it's found in wasabi and garlic, as well, Hayes says, and might be too strong for some people. And dimethyl sulfide is what gives broccoli (and cauliflower and cabbage) that sulfur, rotting-egg smell when cooking, which could turn people off when it comes time for eating.

But while genetics and science can help to partially explain why just the thought of broccoli can make some people gag, a big part of it might come down to simple cooking technique, Hayes says. People tend to boil and overcook broccoli, rendering it mushy and slimy. "You think about that cafeteria lady limp, overcooked broccoli," he says. "Generally in the western culture we don't like things very slimy."

In fact, that's exactly why Obama said he didn't used to like vegetables: "My family when they cooked vegetables, they would just boil them and they’d get all soft and mushy," he said at Tuesday's event.

Indeed, a lot of people are quick to write off vegetables because they found them gross as a kid, Hayes says. But consider a second chance: He suggests steaming broccoli and being very careful not to overcook it, leaving it slightly al dente. Salt can also help to block bitterness in the tongue's taste receptors, so serve with a bit of soy sauce (then wean off it once you get used to the taste).

"Maybe that's what happened with George Bush," Hayes jokes. "Maybe his mother boiled it to death."

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