The taste of broccoli

Broccoli is widely recognized for its antioxidant, ant-inflammatory and detoxifing properties. A regular consumption of broccoli can decrease your risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It can also protect you from certain types of cancer.

Broccoli contains more Vitamin C than an orange and is an excellent source of bone-strengthening calcium. A single cup of broccoli provides 180 milligrams of calcium, which is 18 percent of an adult’s recommended daily intake. It’s also an excellent source of Vitamin K, iron, potassium, folate and fibre.

Broccoli has earned its reputation for being one of the healthiest food around. And yet, many people can’t stand the taste. Why are there children who refuse to eat it and parents who struggle to make them eat it?

The answer seems to come down to three things: genetics, science and family. According to John E. Hayes, our genes may determine if we like broccoli or not. Variations on a specific gene (called TAS2R38) may be the reason why some people don’t like the taste of broccoli. In other words, when some people bite into broccoli, somewhere in their DNA, there’s a gene that is telling their body that the plant tastes bitter.

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Yellow flowers blooming in a broccoli head.

From a scientific perspective, inside the plant there’s a compound called allylglucosinolate that gives broccoli that bitter taste. Just as a rose has thorns to protect itself from predators, broccoli—the plant-vegetable that makes pretty yellow flowers—has its own chemical defense against predators. It’s a defense against anything that might eat it. In other words, broccoli has compounds that are good for us, but it also has a defensive bitterness to keep us away.

Many plants and vegetables produce bitter compounds to protect themselves from being eaten and some of these compounds are toxic. That is why bitterness is often a signal that something is poisonous. We are biologically sensitive to bitterness and so we learned to avoid dangerous and toxic plants. Luckily, the chemicals released in the vegetables that we eat are not harmful; we can all eat broccoli! However, some people have retained a heightened sensitivity to the bitterness.

While genetics and science can partially explain why some people like or don’t like broccoli, family and culture are also influential. When you think about it, many plants and vegetables taste bitter. Therefore, people had to learn to like them to survive. If some adults like a bitter food, like broccoli, then it may be because their parents and grandparents ate it and, over time, they’ve learned to like the taste.

For young children, bitter foods like broccoli may taste awful. However, when a child has been repeatedly encouraged by family members to eat it, a child can grow into liking it. Julie Mennella refers to “plasticity”—the human ability to develop a taste for food that you’re not biologically programmed to love. Dr. David Katz makes the case for taste bud rehabilition by saying: “If we stick with a food for a while, we tend to like it more and more as it takes on all the reassuring comforts of home.”

On average, a young child has to eat a food eight or nine times before the taste becomes familiar enough to be comfortable with it. So, if your child has been spitting up broccoli, don’t get discouraged; children are generally more open to new flavors than adults are. And, if you’re an adult who doesn’t like broccoli, remember that some of your favourite foods were the ones that you hated when you were young.

The way we cook and present food can also help us enjoy the foods that we’re biologically programmed to hate. With broccoli, boiling it until it is soft or mushy may not appeal to everyone. If you don’t like it raw or soft, try steaming, grilling or frying broccoli. Try spicing it up with herbs, garlic or sesame seeds or serving raw broccoli with a dip.

There are many ways to enjoy broccoli. Here’s an easy-to-make broccoli frittata that I sometimes make for brunch. All you need is a skillet. Enjoy!

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Broccoli frittata

Broccoli Frittata

Makes 4 servings

Level:  Very easy

Ingredients

2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped broccoli florets

1 small hot red pepper deseeded (or half a sweet red pepper) – finely chopped

6 free-range eggs

2 tbsps green chives – finely chopped

A handful of fresh flat parsley leaves – finely chopped

1/2 tsp sea salt

Some freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Method

Preheat oven to 220°C

In medium-size skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the broccoli and pepper for a few minutes until slightly softened or al dente. Mix the eggs in a bowl until just blended. To the eggs, add the chives, parsley, salt and pepper and 1/2 the cheese. Pour the egg mixture over the broccoli and peppers in skillet. Cook over medium heat, lifting the edges with spatula to allow uncooked egg to the bottom. Repeat this until just set but still moist on the surface. Sprinkle top with remaining cheese. Make the handle of your skillet ovenproof by wrapping it in foil. Place in oven (under broiler), to lightly brown the top – for a minute or until desired consistency. Cut into wedges and serve with a green salad.

Variations:  Add any of the following: shredded raw spinach (sautéed only until heated), sliced mushrooms, diced green pepper, tomato, chopped cooked poultry or seafood.

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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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