Remember that time as a child when you simply couldn’t eat broccoli? Maybe this memory takes place a little later in life, continuing into adulthood?

For me, it was kale. A few years ago, even though I desperately wanted to integrate this superfood into my diet, I simply couldn’t eat the stuff. It was far too bitter. That all changed with a food sensitivity test. I discovered I had slight intolerance of spinach and I was unable to get over my dislike for romaine. With this knowledge, I simply forced myself to consume small amounts of kale on a routine basis. Now, I can’t get enough of the stuff!

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Turns out, taste buds are reprogrammable, meaning, if you really want to, you can work towards enjoying those harder to palate veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and, my mountain to climb, kale, and one day actually enjoy them.

In fact, recent studies have focused on how our taste buds work in conjunction with proteins in our saliva to develop certain tastes. These studies could have a long-lasting impact on changing our society to eat more veggies and less animal product. For many people, eating vegetables on a regular basis is not something that sounds appealing based on the current American diet, which is rich in processed foods, harmful vegetable oils, and added sugar. The problem is that all of these ingredients disrupt the natural efficacy of our taste buds and mask their ability to recognize natural sweetness in raw fruits and vegetables.

So, how do we go about reprogramming our taste buds to enjoy veggies? What does science say? Let’s take a deeper dive into taste buds, saliva, and getting our buds to love plant-based foods!

How Your Taste Buds Work

When it comes to the enjoyment of food, you generally rely on two major components: your taste buds and your saliva.

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The taste bud is a “small organ located on the tongue … that functions in the perception of taste,” organized in groups of taste receptor cells of between 50 to 150. On the inside, these taste receptor cells connect “with afferent sensory neurons, nerve cells that conduction information to the brain” relating the taste of your food to your brain. Yet, you don’t simply have one or a few taste buds. In fact, humans on average have between “2,000 [to] 8,000 taste buds, implying that there are hundreds of thousands of receptor cells” telling your brain about what’s in your mouth.

So, if you’ve got thousands of taste buds, what’s saliva all about?

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Saliva is as integral to taste and, even more important, for digestion, as taste buds are. Saliva is the “watery and usually somewhat frothy substance produced in the mouths of some animals,” such as humans. This substance is produced in salivary glands and is 98 percent water, “but it contains many important substances, including electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds and various enzymes.” When it comes to digestion, saliva is a critical element. It moistens food for easy swallowing and provides enzymes to break down starches, which means that “digestion of food occurs within the mouth, even before food reaches the stomach.”

Taste buds recognize flavor and transmit a like or dislike to the brain, while saliva is the laborer, breaking down and readying the food for your esophagus and stomach. A tandem team that drives the entirety of a positive or negative eating experience.

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The Science Behind Reprogramming Your Taste Buds

So, you don’t like broccoli? Maybe you have a hatred of Brussels sprouts? Possibly, like me, you just can’t stomach kale? Would you consider attempting to reprogram your taste buds to get these incredibly nutritious foods into your diet?

Recent research has found that our taste buds are actually more malleable than we previously thought. Basically, our “dietary likes and dislikes aren’t ingrained in our DNA” and can actually naturally change or be changed over time and through exposure.

Yet, have you ever wondered why cruciferous or bitter foods are almost universally hard to eat?

Turns out that the bitter taste “typically serves as a warning sign; as in, if something tastes bitter, then it might be poisonous,” which means your taste buds are simply attempting to protect you. While this is truly an amazing aspect of your taste bud function, it also means that you are missing out on a wonderfully nutritious plant-based food.

So, how do you go about reprogramming your taste buds to recognize certain bitter flavors as not only safe, but actually beneficial Eat them often.

Look at it as a form of therapy for your taste buds in which you routinely expose them to a specific flavor. In doing so, scientists have discovered that you can actually change “proteins in saliva that affect how we perceive the taste of food.” In fact, in the study at the University of Buffalo and published in Chemical Senses, once your mouth has accrued a taste for bitter via a change in these proteins, the “bitter tastes like water.” Essentially, you won’t necessarily perceive bitter as bitter anymore in that particular food item.

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The Role of Processed Foods in Reprogramming

It’s easier said than done. Forcing yourself to eat unpleasantly flavored food is a very, very high mountain to climb. This is especially true when it comes to the Standard American diet that is rich in harmful veggie oils and added sugar. These components have the ability to dampen your taste bud’s ability to actually taste natural and rich flavors. For instance, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, and butternut squash are all naturally sweet, yet put that beside a slice of cake with a cup of cane sugar and you won’t even be able to recognize sweet. In fact, some people may even recognize these foods as slightly bitter.

Knowing these two key factors — eating bitter foods is naturally difficult versus added sugars and veggie oils reducing the authenticity of taste bud perception — there are a few things you can do to aid your reprogramming goal.

First and foremost, reducing the consumption of processed foods (in particular those rich in added sugars and veggie oils) will help your taste buds begin to recognize the natural sweetness and flavors in raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables. This is a great place to start! On top of that, you can help to make those bitter foods taste just a bit less bitter with the aid of herbs, spices, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and coconut and olive oil. Basically, increase the sensory enjoyment of bitter veggies in order to trick your taste buds into liking them!

Palatable Veggies for Reprogramming

When it comes to integrating those hard-to palate, bitter veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, it’s all about gearing up your taste buds with more palatable veggies first. One of the biggest issues when it comes to switching to a primarily unprocessed and plant-filled diet is sugar. Almost all packaged foods are riddled with preservatives — which means salt and added sugars — both of which affect our ability to taste “real” or “natural” sugars that are present in many vegetables.

First, try cutting out added sugars — cane sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar, fructose, etc. — which will give your taste buds the ability to adjust to natural sugars. Then, add a bit of healthy fat to your vegetables, such as extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and other coconut products, nuts, seeds, and avocado.

After you’ve prepped, begin your reprogramming slowly and with easier to palate veggies before working your way up to the bitter champions!

Squashsquash dish

Spaghetti Squash With Lentil Marinara/One Green Planet

For most of us current veggie eaters, it’s probably almost impossible to think of someone disliking squash. Butternut, pumpkin, and acorn squash are so tender and sweet. Spaghetti squash is savory. Zucchini, crookneck, and delicata are all exemplary absorbers of flavors and fill out a veggie dish quite nicely. Yet, for many people who aren’t vegetable eaters, those who eat primarily processed foods filled with sugars, and even some veggie eaters who haven’t acquired the taste, squash is a big N-O. Due to the wide range of varieties offering different tastes, flavors, and textures, squash is one of the best foods to begin your taste bud reprogramming. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that squash is rife with vitamins and minerals!

Squash is also incredibly diverse when it comes to culinary explorations. It’s a wonderful meatless recipe option, — such as this Spicy Pumpkin Chili — as a pasta replacement, — such as this Spaghetti Squash With Lentil Marinara — to thicken soups and stews — such as this Kabocha Squash and Red Lentil Soup — or as a sweet and savory treat that’s also super healthy — such as this Maple Roasted Acorn Squash.

Bell PepperSanta Fe Roasted Stuffed Peppers With Spicy Cashew Mozzarella

Santa Fe Roasted Stuffed Peppers With Spicy Cashew Mozzarella

These are my all-time favorite naturally sweet vegetables to snack on. For non-veggie and processed food eaters, bell peppers are generally relegated to pizza toppings and yet these wonderfully crisp and satisfying vegetables are particularly wonderful when consumed on their own and completely raw. Bell peppers are rich in vitamin C — an essential vitamin and antioxidant that staves off sickness, battles high blood pressure, improves iron absorption, and can boost immunity —  as well as vitamin B6, E, A , K1, folate, and potassium. Plus, they are rich in natural sugars making them a sweet treat to help you switch up your taste bud preference!

If raw veggies simply aren’t your cup of tea, no worries! Try integrating bell peppers into simple recipes such as easy 15-Minute Tofu Scramble, this protein-rich Chickpea Salad, or this flavor-packed Curried Potatoes and Bell Peppers. Looking to integrate bell peppers into your next dinner party? Try this more elaborate Santa Fe Roasted Stuffed Peppers With Spicy Cashew Mozzarella recipe!

ArugulaArugula and Strawberry Salad with Cayenne Lemon Vinaigrette

Arugula and Strawberry Salad with Cayenne Lemon Vinaigrette/One Green Planet

Focusing on naturally sweet vegetables is a great starting point, but at some point, you’ll need to start getting down and dirty with those bitter greens! Luckily, this can be a really positive experience when you choose the right ones. For instance, while kale is a superfood that should be part of everyone’s diet, it’s also one of the hardest to swallow if you’re unaccustomed. The same goes for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. So, where to start? How about arugula? Arugula has a very subtle sweet undertone, which is always helpful, yet the true delight comes from its spicy bite! As a leafy green, arugula is packed full of nutrients including calcium, potassium, folate, and vitamins C, K, and A.

When starting out with a bitter green, integrate it with some of your favorite natural sweet ingredients such as this Arugula and Strawberry Salad with Cayenne Lemon Vinaigrette. Another great tip is to mix your bitter with filling savory ingredients such as healthy fats like in this avocado-based Arugula Pesto and Zucchini on Rye Toast recipe or this olive oil-rich Spring Pea and Arugula Pasta Salad recipe.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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