It's not Only Your Tastes that Change

When I was a kid, I noticed that a whole lot of the books I read featured kids complaining about the taste of broccoli. They hated it. It was so bitter and disgusting! The worst vegetable ever.

The reason it stood out to me was that I didn’t hate broccoli… In fact, it was one of my preferred vegetables. I didn’t understand why all these kids hated broccoli. When I asked my parents about it they told me that maybe the authors knew lots of kids who didn’t like it so they made their characters like them. They said it was to try to make sure the characters were relatable.


But that didn’t explain why all these kids seemed to hate this vegetable that I liked… Eventually I started to think maybe I was just a really good kid who liked vegetables. A good boy.

I work in the agriculture industry now and I know a little better.

Even so, it didn’t occur to me until very recently that maybe I wasn’t a Good Broccoli Boy. Maybe the broccoli those (imaginary) kids were eating was different to the broccoli I was eating.

I asked a few of my friends in the business of growing vegetables about it. They’re also a decade or two older than me. They confirmed that when they were kids, broccoli was bitter and, they said, “disgusting”. Like all battle scarred kids, they told me my childhood must’ve been much easier with the lovely sweet varieties we have now.

It seems really obvious to me now, but it turns out that we’ve been systematically breeding things like bitter tastes out of our food. Consumers prefer sweeter broccoli, so breeding programs create sweeter varieties. Slowly but surely that’s all you can buy. It has been happening for a long time.

I have been wondering about whether this is a good thing. Sweeter broccoli tastes better, but what else has changed about it? My concern with this is that we humans are really good at making changes to things without considering all the consequences of our actions. We want a sweeter broccoli so we just select for the sweeter varieties. Things like health impacts are often only considered in the marketing of our food rather than back at the pre-breeding and breeding stage. I’m wondering what the impacts of this sweeter broccoli are - has anything been lost along the way?

The author of this opinion piece in the New York Times from 2013 has similar concerns to me:

Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients [compared with non-domesticated plants], which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there’s some great conspiracy here. I’m not suggesting that it’s somehow morally better to have worse tasting food. Why wouldn’t we try to make our food taste better? This reduction in phytonutrients isn’t on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t having an effect or that it doesn’t matter. The reason this happens is that phytonutrients tend to have a bitter flavour, which we tend to try to breed out, thus lowering the phytonutrient content. We also have tended to focus on foods that are energy dense to support a strenuous lifestyle. We’ve bred those foods to be more starch, oily, or sugary over time, seemingly at the expense of other advantageous compounds.

This isn’t even necessarily a problem with industrialised agriculture - recent sophisticated breeding is only a faster version of what we’ve been doing for a long time. From the same opinion piece:

The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

Phytonutrients are distinct from the vitamins and minerals in food. They’re chemical compounds found in plants, often unique to that particular plant. We know of over ten thousand phytonutrients so far and we discover new ones all the time. We don’t know what all of them do, but it is clear that eating a lot of different plants is good for us. Some of the things we know phytonutrients do are:

  • scavange free radicals as antioxidants
  • help with DNA repair
  • influence hormone function
  • help fight pathogens
  • lower inflammation

Some of them work by mildly stressing the cells in the body and causing them to get stronger. That process is called hormesis - like a microscopic workout!

Phytonutrients are pretty important. So it’s concerning that the plants we eat for food seem to contain less of them than other plants.

Were the people who foraged for these wild foods healthier than we are today? They did not live nearly as long as we do, but growing evidence suggests that they were much less likely to die from degenerative diseases, even the minority who lived 70 years and more. The primary cause of death for most adults, according to anthropologists, was injury and infections.

If the variety and number of phytonutrients available in food was so much higher than it is today, it’s little wonder that degenerative disease was less common.

But the problem with all this is that it doesn’t really matter for us day to day. How can you have any impact on this? How can you make a difference to something that started ten thousand years ago?

Given the complexity of how phytonutrients, how little we understand about how they work, and how little impact you can have on past events; all you can do is try to eat a variety of plants and lots of them. There are some plants around that have kept a relatively high phytonutrient content for various reasons, but it’s hard to say that those specific plants are better to eat than others. For example, herbs like parsley and rosemary have been valued for their strong flavours and thus have kept a high phytonutrient content despite being domesticated. So, adding lots of fresh herbs to a meal could be a good thing to do.

While this stuff is certainly interesting and is a good example of how bad humans are at understanding the impacts of our interventions in the world; it changes little about how I’d recommend you eat. Eat as many vegetables at every meal with a variety of vegetable choices and cooking methods. I don’t want you to spend time worrying about phytonutrients in your food.

If you liked this article, let me know in the comments below! Is there a vegetable you've noticed has changed in your lifetime? Brussel sprouts anyone??