By Annie Murphy Paul, published on September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on November 19, 2015
Maybe George Bush was just a supertaster. Armchair psychoanalysts
made much of his avowed hatred of broccoli--was it a regression to
childhood? A revolt against Bar's cooking?--but the former president's
preference may actually be genetic. Scientists have found that about 25
percent of the female population (men have not yet been studied) exhibits
a heightened sensitivity to bitter flavors, like those found in cabbage,
brussels sprouts, grapefruit juice--and broccoli. A test to identify
these so-called "supertasters" has been available for decades, but the
inherited aversion to bitterness remained merely a curiosity. Then
researchers discovered that many such tart fruits and vegetables contain
antioxidant flavonoids, compounds thought to help prevent cancer.
Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the human nutrition program at
the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, decided to study
the relationship between bitterness-sensitivity and diet. Supertasters,
he found, disliked more sharp and bitter foods than regular tasters.
People who avoid eating such foods, he notes, won't benefit from
flavonoids' protective effect--and popping vitamins won't help, since
many antioxidants aren't available in supplement form.
So what's a supertaster to do? Adding salt, sugar, or fat to bitter
veggies can mask their flavor, but don't do much for a healthful diet.
And while long cooking can take the edge off a vegetable's sharp taste,
it can also leach out its nutrients. Supertasters can take comfort,
however, in the changes in taste preferences that customarily come with
age. "Younger people are more driven by taste, and less by health
concerns," Drewnowski says. "By the time you get to 70-year-old women,
they all swear they love broccoli."