Mother Nature can be a b$%&*. She loaded vegetables with disease-fighting phytochemicals and then packed them with fiber and water to help you fill up and keep lean, yet somehow neglected to put their taste appeal on par with your favorite junk food. Just rude, really.
Well, in actuality, you may in fact be genetically wired to be a sensitive "supertaster" of vegetables' bitter compounds. (Go to page 3 to see if you're a veggie supertaster.) If genetics aren't the source of your problems, you may instead be one of the poor sods who simply never learned to love his veggies. Whatever the case, we can't force you to stay at the dinner table until you've finished your vegetables—but our 10 tips can help you find ways to sneak more greens into your diet.
1) Shred 'em
Cut up your vegetables and hide them in your food. "Some shredded vegetables that work really well are zucchini, squash and carrots," says Kathleen Zelman, M.P.H., R.D., a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "You can hide them in meat loaf, soups, stews and sauces—anything that you'll cook for a period of time so they'll soften and become incorporated into the dish." Sure, you might feel like the family pet whose pills get hidden in peanut butter; but the point is that you're getting the nutrients your body needs. So, hide away.
2) Eat 'em With Meat
Free amino acids such as glutamate (also known as MSG) help dull the bitterness in certain vegetables. And you thought MSG was just that stuff in Chinese food that gives you headaches and joint pain. Glutamates are present in meat—especially in aged meat, such as pepperoni and aged beef. So, mix chicken with your greens, or stir-fry a vegetable with a low-fat sirloin.
3) Put 'em on Pizza
Fermented foods and some vegetables also contain free glutamates, so pile them on a pizza for a glutamate bonanza that will help you chow down your veggies without any unpleasantness. "Pizza has a tremendous amount of free glutamate," says Paul Breslin, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Bread is fermented, cheese is fermented, and tomatoes and pepperoni contain a lot of free glutamate." When you do get a pizza—which shouldn't be all that often—have the pizza guy pop your vegetables onto a thin crust with half the cheese (and skip the aged meats). You'll cut down on the empty carbs and saturated fat and load up on the disease-fighting phytochemicals.
4) Heat 'em Up
Heating vegetables—either steaming, microwaving or stir-frying—helps dull their bite. In fact, heated vegetables, especially the roasted kind, taste sweet. "Roasting an onion, garlic, or any vegetable makes it taste much better," says Zelman. "The high heat caramelizes it, so it takes on a whole different flavor and texture."
5) Shake on Some Salt
Sprinkle your greens with some sodium, which will also cut the bitterness. "We're still not sure how the mechanism works," says Breslin. "It has something to do with salt interfering with bitter-taste signals getting to the brain." Again, do this in moderation. If you're hypertensive, don't do it at all.
6) Add Some Healthy Fat
According to Breslin, some bitter compounds are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve readily in fat. Try adding a little fat (and we stress a little) to your vegetables by sautéing* them in oil. Olive oil is very low in saturated fats and loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats, so choose it over others. However, for a little variety you can use sesame oil or peanut oil, which are also low in saturated fat—just go easy with these.
How to sauté: Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add two teaspoons of olive oil. (Heating the oil should take about a minute.) Cut your vegetables into uniform sizes so they cook in the same time, and sauté them for about five minutes until they're crisp-tender. Be sure to stir the vegetables, lifting them up frequently, and moving them around the pan.
7) Get Saucy
If you eat tomato sauce on pizza, meatball subs, or spaghetti, ostensibly you're eating vegetables. Since pizza and meatballs don't fall into what we consider health foods, try smothering your skinless chicken or ground turkey breast with tomato sauce. You can even double your veggie intake by mixing some shredded zucchini or carrots into the sauce (the sugar in the marinara will squelch any bitter taste). And don't labor over your own sauce; simple old Prego or Ragu works just as well.
8) Dip Your Chips
Salsas offer a spicy, more palatable way to get your vegetables, says Zelman. Try mixing freshly diced tomatoes with scallions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, black beans, corn, and onions. The free glutamate in the tomatoes will help take the edge off the other vegetables. Scoop up the salsa with some low-fat baked chips or celery, or use it to pour over chicken breast or fish.
9) Be Adventurous
Some vegetables you've never tried may be surprisingly pleasing to your palate. For instance, if you don't enjoy the tang of green peppers, try purple, or red ones, which are far sweeter. Supermarket produce departments offer an increasing variety of exotic vegetables such as baby leeks, daikon, or broccoflower; give them a try.
10) Boot Your Inner Child
As you grow older, your sense of taste grows less discerning, so the vegetables you hated decades ago may not be as offensive in this millenium. If you allow your childhood biases to keep you from getting your greens, you are seriously shortchanging your health. Give vegetables another chance and you may be glad you did.
ARE YOU A SUPERTASTER?
Science separates people into two groups, "tasters" and "nontasters," based on their ability to sense a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide. In the late 1970s, Linda Bartoshuk, Ph.D., a taste researcher at Yale University, began to test people for sensitivity to a similar chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP. Her work revealed a subset of tasters, dubbed "supertasters," who were particularly sensitive to PROP's bitter flavor. In comparisons to nontasters, supertasters tasted more sweetness in table sugar, more bitterness in foods and beverages such as black coffee, and more sourness in fruits.
As luck would have it, the compounds that give vegetables their health benefits lean toward the bitter end of the scale, which makes supertasters more likely to reject them, explains Valerie Duffy, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor in the dietetics program at the University of Connecticut.
The good news is that sensitivity to PROP is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, as supertasters tend to dislike fatty and sugary foods. "Supertasters have lower cardiovascular risks, but at the same time they may have elevated cancer risk because they're not eating all those bitter vegetables," says Bartoshuk.
Here's how to determine if you can fairly call yourself a supertaster.
What you need:
A gummed reinforcer ring (the kind used on loose-leaf paper), blue food coloring, one cotton swab, and a magnifying glass
How to do it:
Put the reinforcer ring on either side of the midline of your tongue, with one side of the ring touching the edge of the tongue. Use the cotton swab to dab blue food coloring in the center of the ring. Remove the ring and, using the magnifying glass, count the pink circles on the blue background of the gum reinforcer ring. These circles are called "fungiform papillae," and they correspond to the number of taste buds.
What it means:
If there are more than 30 circles in the ring, you're a supertaster, which places you within 25% of the population. Having from five to 10 rings means you're a nontaster, and anywhere in between identifies you as a normal taster.