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Can't Stand Broccoli? It May Be Your Genes!

Is it possible that one's distaste for broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables is inherited? Yes, according to a report in a recent issue of Science News. Referring to it as the "yuck factor," the article notes that some scientists have concluded that 25 percent of Americans are "supertasters"--persons with a genetically determined dislike of bitter compounds found in many vegetables.

Although such information may seem trivial, it may help parents of picky eaters find ways of getting their kids to eat more vegetables. And it is not trivial to those responsible for the public health, who recognize the importance of fruits and vegetables in preventing many cancers. Dr. Adam Drewnoski, director of the nutrition program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, fears that lack of attention to this inherited yuck factor could seriously affect the National Cancer Institute's effort to lower the country's cancer rate.

The first clue that humans differ in taste sensations was discovered more than 65 years ago as the result of a laboratory accident, when dust from a newly synthesized chemical compound, PTC (phenylthiocarbamide, a.k.a. phenylthiourea), was inadvertently inhaled by two lab workers. One of them commented that it had a terrible taste, while the other tasted nothing. Subsequent family studies over the years determined that the ability to taste PTC is an inherited trait.

Some 20 years ago, a team at Yale University began studies with a similar chemical, 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP), a thyroid medication. At first the results were similar to those for PTC, with some finding it terribly bitter, while others failed to taste anything. As time went on, however, the researchers found that the population could be divided into three groups: 25 percent who taste nothing when given a solution of PROP and water, 50 percent who notice some bitterness, and 25 percent who find it extremely bitter--the supertasters.

These studies then led to determining if the acute sensitivity of supertasters influenced their choice of foods. The most recent study, appearing in the August American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, involved the use of naringin, a substance responsible for the bitter flavor of grapefruit juice--and thought to be a preventive factor in some cancers. The supertasters were more likely than others to report that they disliked grapefruit, whereas they had no problem with orange juice, which contains no naringin.

A study in the June 5 Nature suggests that salt is a natural bitter blocker. Says Dr. Paul Breslin of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, salt seems to do two things. First, it imparts a desirable salty flavor. Second, it "changes the character of foods so that some of the bitterness is suppressed," he says. "In many cultures it's common to salt fruit," a practice that enhances the sweetness by offsetting any bitterness. And cooking vegetables, rather than eating them raw, helps tone down the bitter flavor.

Despite sound scientific evidence that fruits and vegetables contain many natural chemicals that lower the risk of cancer and heart disease, a recent USDA survey found that only one third of American adults eats the recommended five servings per day. Whether inherited taste sensitivity is a significant factor is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is the importance of doing whatever needs to be done to prepare fruits and vegetables in a way that will make them more palatable to those who shun them.

Determining one's supertaster status is easily done by counting the fungiform papillae on the tongue. Just dip a Q-tip into some blue food coloring and swab it on a small portion of your tongue. Then count the tiny round blue structures that appear in a half-inch circle (about the size of a notebook paper reinforcer). If 25 or more, you're a supertaster; if only a few, you're a nontaster. Or ask a medical friend to test your reaction to a drop of PROP solution.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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