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Making Bitter Better

January 13th, 2012 - By Therese Madden

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A new study finds that kids who are sensitive to bitter flavors can overcome the negative taste perception. Researchers found offering a small amount of low fat dip increased broccoli consumption in preschool age children by 80%.


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When I was a kid there were certain vegetables I really didn’t want to eat. I remember thinking, I’m not trying to make this meal difficult, but this asparagus is making me gag. “And I think your experiences are now being supported by basic research. Scientist Julie Mennella, is with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, she studies food and flavor preferences in humans. “What we are finding is that children are more sensitive to bitter than adults. And one of the consequences of being very sensitive could be this gagging reflex.”

Some people are born with more of these bitter receptors than others. For kids with bitter sensitivity certain vegetables are especially, well, yucky. Like broccoli, “broccoli tends to be a bitter tasting vegetable,” says Jennifer Orlet Fisher, an associate professor of Public Health at Temple University. She conducted a study on using dips to help kids with bitter sensitivities learn to like vegetables. She used broccoli as the test vegetable, “we thought well why not start out with a vegetable that could be at the top of the list in terms of vegetable enemies for young children.”

Fisher tested pre-school age children in the Head Start Program. Twice a week for seven weeks the kids were offered raw broccoli as a snack. Some with low-fat ranch dressing, some without. “For the group as a whole, we found that offering dip had really no influence on how much broccoli they ate as a snack over the seven week period.” The kids who tested high for bitter sensitivities however, they ate 80% more broccoli when they had the option of dipping. “So, for kids who have genetic sensitivity to bitter tastes, or seem to be weary of bitter tasting foods, we think that offering low-fat dips could be a way to help kids eat more vegetables.”
Fisher emphasizes, the dip could also be apple sauce, low-fat yogurt or hummus. So, whether you have a bitter sensitive kid or not, liking vegetables is something all children must learn to do. Monell scientist, Julie Mennella again, “it’s part of their biology to be sensitive to bitter tastes. And what we need to do is try to think of strategies to try to give them experiences to learn to like these foods, because we know it is important for long term health.”

Check out Jennifer Orlet Fisher’s study »
Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) at Temple University »

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