One of the things I have noticed in recent years is the revival of old vegetable varieties. Jerusalem artichokes, baby turnips, and parsley roots have all made their comeback into German cuisine and are now more popular than ever.
But it’s not just the Germans who rediscover their love for vegetables that they have once frowned upon. Apparently, Brussel sprouts and kale are both trending in the UK and the US. Both are vegetables that used to receive a lot of hatred for their distinct bitter notes.
And I’m sorry to tell you that it’s probably not your palate that has grown in recent years to appreciate bitter flavors. There’s almost no bitterness left in today’s Brussel sprouts. About 80 % of the global Brussel sprout market is dominated by the agrochemical company Syngenta.
Syngenta takes pride upon itself for the development of super mild-tasting Brussel sprout hybrids which are apparently very popular among younger customers. The development of milder tasting Brussel sprouts dates back to the early 1990s. It was probably not your mothers cooking method that made them bitter and unpleasant to eat. The Brussel sprouts which are commercially sold nowadays have almost nothing in common with homegrown varieties or the Brussel sprouts cultivated on a large scale 20 years ago.
I don’t want to go into the details about secondary plant metabolites as this topic would fill an entire book by itself. The bitter taste of Brussel sprouts primarily comes from a group of secondary plant compounds called glucosinolates. These serve primarily the purpose to fight off leaf-eating enemies such as insects, pigeons, or deer.
But glucosinolates don’t just fight off leaf-eating enemies. They are also very beneficial to our health. They are present in all varieties of Brassica vegetables (eg. kale, broccoli, cabbage, mustard). Glucosinolates and their breakdown products are known to be potent anticarcinogenics. However, as you might have guessed by now, we have reduced their health benefits significantly over the last 15 years through selective breeding.
Taste isn’t a priority in the food industry
Syngenta claims that we as customers prefer mild and bland vegetable varieties. But it’s not just Syngenta. Almost any company in the food industry will tell you this. Taste isn’t one of their priorities. Their main goal is to produce a cheap and reliable product that can compete in an oversaturated mass market.
The big players want to educate your palate to appreciate bland foods with astonishingly high amounts of sodium, sugar, glutamate, and artificial aromas. It’s easy to standardize and season an industrial product with sugar and aromas.
Take orange juice for example. Most companies extract the fresh juice and then evaporate all the liquid to achieve an orange juice powder or concentrate. This powder can then be shipped across the world and bottled in the intended country of sale. You might be surprised, but the orange juice powder has little to no taste. A lot of aroma compounds are volatile and will be evaporated during the drying stage. Of course, the evaporating aroma compounds can be recondensed and saved. They get added back to the final product in the end. But not without any further treatment. The evaporated aroma compounds get standardized with other natural and artificial aromas so that the product will later taste how “real” orange juice is supposed to taste.
If you would bottle and sell unadulterated, fresh, and non-pasteurized orange juice it wouldn’t last very long and it would taste different every time. That’s a disaster for the industry. Products need to taste the same all year round.
Take tea for example. Tea leaves are harvested all year around. But have you ever noticed a difference in taste depending on the season in any commercial brand? No. And you will never. The industry blends high-quality tea leaves from the prime harvesting season with low-quality tea leaves from the offseason to produce a standardized product. They don’t aim for the best possible but the most consistent taste.
Variety in the taste of locally grown produce is the nightmare of the food industry. They want a bland canvas that can be seasoned in a standardized manner with aromas, sugar, salt, and msg. That’s how you create consistency. A customer that is once dissatisfied by the taste won’t buy the product again even though it might taste different the next time.
Why some customers detest bitterness while others don’t
Now, let’s get back to bitter foods. I stumbled across an interesting review of Italian scientists. They concluded that the level of bitterness perceived by a consumer can be modulated through:
- Information on health benefits
- and elements within their environment (eg. music)
Prominent examples of bitter foods are extra-virgin olive oil and Brassica vegetables. Italian customers are accustomed to their bitter taste. It’s appreciated by them because they know what to expect and their palate has evolved to find their bitter-tasting compounds attractive. But the more people get exposed to vegetables eliminated from bitterness they tend to avoid bitter foods in the future.
Our palate evolves and can drastically differ depending on our diet. That’s why recipes always tell you to season to taste with salt. If you often eat high-sodium restaurant food your palate might have grown to appreciate salty foods. If you then try to reduce your sodium intake at home, your food will suddenly taste bland. It will take some effort to reduce the amount of sodium and sugar in your home-cooked food. But once your palate gets accustomed to a lower amount, the food will taste just as good if not better than before.
Typical traits of consumers who tend to appreciate bitterness in foods are:
- Openness to new foods: People who eat a broad range of foods often develop a preference for bitter-tasting foods.
- They are female: Yes, women tend to enjoy bitter-tasting foods more than men.
- They know about the health benefits: That’s psychology. If you think a food is good for your health, you will enjoy its taste more and notice less bitterness.
Customers don’t always prefer the less bitter-tasting product as industry claims
Interestingly, another study by the same team of Italian scientists who published the review discussed in the last paragraphs is called: Are all consumers averse to bitter taste? They fed three different kinds of pesto to customers, the only difference being the degree of bitterness.
There was no clear winner in this contest. Even though the customers admitted that they preferred the taste of the mild variety a little more, they rated the bitter pesto as the most expensive one. They assumed that the bitter taste was a sign of high quality and ranked the bitter pesto as the healthiest. And as you might know by now, a perceived health benefit can lessen the perceived bitterness and make the food more enjoyable.
Bitter food compounds can make you feel pleasure because of their favorable metabolic effects. Once your body experiences positive health effects from bitter-tasting compounds it will develop a tolerance for it. Your body will adapt to enjoy once repulsive foods to reap their health benefits. Many scientific studies even claim that the removal of bitter-tasting compounds from our diet has led to a sharp increase in civilization diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer.
The next time you eat kale or Brussel sprouts, pay attention to their flavor. Practice mindful eating. Do they taste bitter? How would you characterize their taste? The probability is high that you’re eating a mild-tasting product that has all of its bitterness and health-promoting compounds removed. Do the same with olive oil. If it has no bitterness and doesn’t “burn” a little on the back of your throat you’re consuming a subpar product. Buy artisanal products from a small farm and taste again. A whole new world of flavor might open up to you. Not every product will be uniformly bland. Each artisanal food has its own distinctive taste and health-promoting effects.