Your Health

The bitter truth about green veggies

And what you can do to make them taste better

Green veggies

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2015

You've probably been told to eat your vegetables since you started sitting in a high chair. Clearly, it caused frustration for your parents when you refused.

The question is, why did you refuse?

Well, it might all come down to your genetics and your tastebuds. You may be a low, medium or high bitter-taster.

Tastebuds are sensory taste receptors found on the tongue, throat, and palate. They allow us to appreciate foods that are sweet, salty, bitter, sour or savory. Tastebuds are strongest when we are young. The average person has around 10,000 tastebuds, which regenerate every two weeks. As we age, they tend not to regenerate as often and decrease to 5,000. This is the reason why the elderly sometimes find their food lacking taste and reach for the salt shaker.

A special group of genetically determined receptors detect bitter tastes, meaning that our genes play a key role in determining how bitter our food tastes. High bitter-tasters find most green vegetables very bitter and may therefore dislike them. As a result, they may not be meeting recommendations in Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide to eat a green vegetable every day.

That, of course, would be unfortunate. Most vegetables are nutritious, but the vitamin, mineral, and fibre content in certain vegetables vary, making some of these green vegetables highly nutritious and well worth eating. Many contain antioxidants, which play an important role in health maintenance. They neutralize harmful chemicals called "free-radicals" that cause cell damage in the body and have been linked to protection from heart disease, cancer and eye disease, as well as maintaining the immune system.

So how do we get high and medium bitter-tasters to enjoy these nutritious vegetables? The key to this taste conversion is roasting. When you roast vegetables, some of the carbohydrates convert to sugars, bringing out natural sweetness and making them tasty. Adding spices, sugars, fat or salt to bitter vegetables will also make them more palatable.

There are other ways to help enhance the taste of your veggies. Here are three examples of bitter-tasting green vegetables that contain great nutritional value, and what you can do to make them taste better:

Brussels sprouts: These small, green baby cabbages contain phytochemicals that help eliminate cancer-causing substances. They are a good source of beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin carotenoids and these antioxidant properties may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (a major cause of blindness and visual impairment in older adults). High in vitamin K and with double the amount of vitamin C found in an orange, brussels sprouts also have fibre that lowers cholesterol significantly by binding bile acids.

Preparation tips: Add some olive oil and a pinch of salt to a package of frozen brussels sprouts. Roast for 15 minutes at 375 F. Remove from oven and sprinkle with lemon juice and parmesan cheese. Return to oven for another five minutes. Delicious.

Broccoli: This vegetable is an excellent source of sulforaphane, a phytochemical with powerful anti-cancer properties shown to help protect against breast, lung, prostate, bladder and pancreatic cancers. This tree-shaped vegetable is also chock full of vitamin K, vitamin C, folate, vitamin A and potassium.

Preparation tips: Toss broccoli florets with olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper on a baking sheet. Spread them out and then roast, without stirring, until the edges are crispy and the stems are crisp and tender, about 15 minutes at 400 F. Enjoy.

Kale: This leafy green vegetable is high in lutein, the antioxidant linked to a lower risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. To maintain eye health, we need six to 12 mg of lutein per day. You can find 12 mg of lutein in 1/2 cup of cooked kale, plus 400 per cent of your daily vitamin K and 50 per cent of your daily need for vitamin A.

Preparation tips: To prepare kale, break the leaves from the stalk and then cut out any thick stalk from the leaves. Add to fruit smoothies. You can also try sautéing kale leaves with sliced onion, sliced apple and a hint of curry paste. Another idea is to sauté with fresh garlic and chili peppers and drizzle with roasted sesame oil just before serving.

In menu planning, we often think of meat first, vegetables last, often serving them steamed or raw. But there are tastier ways to prepare your veggies. With a little time and effort, you can learn how to bring out the best in these nutritional treasures. And your whole family will benefit.

Rosemary Szabadka is a public health dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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