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Comfort Food

Scientific studies of why broccoli and Brussels sprouts taste too bitter to some people but are liked by others have revealed that it's all in our genes: being wary of bitterness enabled the ancestors of some of us to survive.

Researcher Stephen Wooding says that the ability to taste or not taste bitter foods might have played a role in human evolution and may today account for such health-related behaviors as smoking and vegetable consumption. He studied bitter-taste receptors, the tiny receptacles on the tongue that intercept harsh-tasting chemicals from food. Each of the genes for these receptors comes in several forms, and the forms you carry help determine how you perceive bitter-tasting foods.

In the 1930s, scientists discovered differences in the ability of humans to taste a bitter synthetic compound called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC, and they determined that the trait was controlled by genetics. For PTC "tasters," even tiny concentrations of the compound are extremely bitter, while "nontasters" experience little or no taste to the same concentration of PTC.

Wooding says, "In some ways, bitter-taste sensitivity seems to be a trivial trait, but early geneticists recognized that this trait was special, for a variety of reasons. Bitter-taste sensitivity is crucially important in protecting the human body from toxins in the environment. By enabling us to perceive noxious chemicals in potential foods?especially toxins used by plants to defend themselves against herbivores?bitter taste probably helped our early ancestors avoid poisoning."

Even if we are "nontasters," few of us reach for bitter-tasting foods when we need cheering up. When you're feeling sad, you tend to eat more of less-healthy comfort foods than when they feel happy. Researcher Brian Wansink proved this when he asked 38 participants to watch either an upbeat, funny movie or a sad, depressing one, while being offered hot buttered, salty popcorn and seedless grapes. He says, "After the movies were over and the tears were wiped away, those who had watched 'Love Story' had eaten 36% more popcorn than those who had watched the upbeat 'Sweet Home Alabama.' Those watching 'Sweet Home Alabama' ate popcorn and popped grapes, but they spent much more time popping grapes as they laughed through the movie than they did eating popcorn."



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