The surprising gene that affects your “taste” for broccoli

I don’t often write about “super foods” because a truly healthy diet incorporates a variety of foods. Not just one type of food…even if it is “super.”

With that said, broccoli definitely deserves a spot on any list of “super foods.” It has remarkable nutritional value. And we know that eating broccoli clearly helps protect you against cancer and other diseases.

So why doesn’t everyone eat their broccoli, like good boys and girls?

The answer actually has very little to do with your table manners. And quite a bit to do with your taste genes. I’ll explain more about that interesting point in a moment. But first, let’s take closer look at why broccoli truly is a “super food”…

Broccoli first rose to the top of cancer-prevention lists as early as the 1920s and the worldwide surveys of the British Empire Cancer Campaign. Research in the ensuing years continued to underscore broccoli’s cancer-prevention potential.

In the mid-1980s, my research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) confirmed that eating broccoli does indeed help reduce cancer risk. But for a different reason than what everyone at NCI wanted to believe.

You see, prior to my research, NCI scientists believed beta-carotene was the Holy Grail when it came to cancer prevention. But broccoli isn’t rich in beta-carotene. So how did it help prevent cancer, my colleagues and I wanted to know.

We discovered that other carotenoids, such as lutein, and nutrients, such as indoles and isothiocyanates, are key. Research shows that these phytochemicals reduce your risk of developing most major cancers, including breast, bladder, colon, ovarian and prostate cancers. (Lung cancer is an exception. But as I’ve said before, we simply haven’t studied lung cancer adequately, due to the government’s biased, politically based research policies.)

And you can extend broccoli’s anti-cancer properties even further by preparing it with tasty spices such as horseradish, mustard and wasabi. These all contain the enzyme myrosinase.

Beyond cancer, new research shows that eating broccoli has benefits for arthritis and bone health; blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and heart health; the nervous system; vision; depression; skin repair; digestion; and the immune system.

Perhaps taking a cue from the original British Empire Cancer Campaign, researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK found that sulforaphane in broccoli prevents arthritis in lab animals. This compound acts as an anti-inflammatory. And it slows down decomposition of joint cartilage. This finding supports my long-standing recommendation that management of arthritis pain should not start with drugs and surgery. It should begin with natural approaches that control inflammation and let your joints repair themselves.

For the brain, broccoli is a good source of the B vitamin folate. And its high levels of vitamin B6, as well as folate, help prevent heart disease and stroke.

Broccoli also contains lots of healthy fiber. This supports digestion, prevents constipation, and sweeps out toxins from the intestinal tract.

Broccoli also contains the carotenoid lutein. (I helped discover this finding with my colleagues at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Lab.) This nutrient is important for vision and eye health. And it even helps prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

And let’s not forget about vitamin C. When we first started our research in the mid-1980s, a striking finding was how high broccoli is in vitamin C. Per serving, it has even more vitamin C than an orange. But despite all the evidence, NCI did not want to talk about vitamin C. They believed two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling had given vitamin C a “bad name.”

Recently, British horticulturists at the Institute for Food Research in Norwich, England, developed a new variety called “Super-broccoli” that promises even greater benefits than regular varieties. But don’t worry. This variety of broccoli isn’t genetically modified. Rather, it’s a traditional cross between a British and a Sicilian variety. Look for this super-broccoli in the grocery store. It’s been available in the U.S. since the end of 2011.

If broccoli has so many clear benefits, why aren’t more people eating it? Even former President George H. W. Bush famously refused to eat it.

Apparently, he’s not just a picky eater. According to new research, your taste (or distaste) for broccoli actually has a lot to do with your genes.

In high school biology class, you probably remember putting PTC (phenyl-thio-carbamate) taste strips on your tongue. A single gene determines your PTC taste sensitivity. Some people have this taste sensitivity. And some people don’t. So, some of your classmates could taste the bitterness on the strip back in high school. And some couldn’t.

But this PTC discovery has major implications that go well beyond your simple 10th grade biology experiments. Anthropologists have found that PTC sensitivity actually has a major impact on diet.

For example, native peoples of the Andes who could not detect the bitter taste (lacked the gene for PTC taste sensitivity) ate more plants with bitter compounds, like broccoli.

But there’s still more to the story…

Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at University City Science Center, University of Pennsylvania, recently found that specific genes tell your taste buds to build a chemical receptor to detect the presence of bitter plants.

So, if your genes tell your taste buds to build this receptor, chances are you’re more likely to reactive negatively to the bitter vegetable…and leave it sitting on your plate.

Indeed, taste sensitivity is a big issue. In fact, people with different gene expressions can differ in their taste sensitivities by four orders of magnitude. In simpler terms, one person may be 10,000 times more or less sensitive to a taste than another person. And the difference depends entirely on their genes.

The French always said, “chacun son goût.” In English, we translate this to mean, “to each his own.” But translated literally, it means, “each has his own tastes.”

Very true. Very true indeed.

Even if you carry a higher sensitivity to the bitterness in broccoli, all is not lost. You can still “train” your taste buds to be more accepting of the bitterness. You just have to keep eating it!


1. “Human bitter perception correlates with bitter receptor messenger RNA expression in taste cells,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013; 98(4):1136-43