Here's Why Brussels Sprouts Really Do Taste Less Bitter Now

Years of good, old-fashioned plant breeding have helped make this unfairly-disliked veggie tastier.

For many of us who grew up with Brussels sprouts at the dinner table, especially around the holidays, we may remember them as a bitter, unpleasant veggie with a less-than-appetizing scent. Despite their long-held status as the vegetable kids love to hate, Brussels sprouts have become something of a culinary superstar over the last decade. They are almost de rigueur for trendy restaurant menus, and demand for them has shot up so fast that growers have been hard-pressed to keep up. Much of their meteoric rise in popularity has to do with a major makeover of their flavor to be more appealing to adults and picky kids alike.

Sauteed brussels sprouts in a pan on a wooden surface
Jason Donnelly

While it's true that your taste buds change over time, and that the way you prepare Brussels sprouts makes a difference, the ones you may have been served as a kid likely had higher levels of various chemical compounds known as glucosinolates. These are what give sprouts—and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, and cabbage—a bitter flavor. Scientists believe these compounds help make the plants less appealing to insects and other creatures that try to eat them.

That's certainly the effect they seem to have on many humans, but interestingly, not everyone has the genes for tasting that bitterness from glucosinolates (much like the fact that cilantro tastes like soap to some people but not others). If you didn't mind loading up your plate with sprouts as a kid and have never noticed any bitterness, you may have your DNA to thank for that. But even if you are able to detect that bitter taste, there's good news for you, too. Most of the Brussels sprouts available in grocery stores today are ones that have lower levels of those off-putting chemicals.

Not to worry, these aren't Frankensprouts produced through gene splicing and dicing between completely unrelated species. Instead, the better-tasting varieties came about through years of painstaking traditional plant breeding. As NPR recently reported, after Dutch scientists identified exactly what made these veggies bitter in the 1990s, seed companies in the Netherlands began searching through their extensive collections of older varieties of Brussels sprouts for ones that have a lower concentration of glucosinolates.

Once the most promising varieties were identified, plant breeders crossed them with newer varieties that had other desirable characteristics such as higher yields and excellent disease resistance. The resulting varieties have proven popular with both farmers and chefs, and ultimately anyone who eats them.

If you haven't given these veggies a try in a few years, go ahead and order a Brussels sprouts appetizer next time you're out to dinner. You'll likely find them to have a mellow, almost nutty flavor, no matter which genes you have. You could also pick up a bag at the grocery store and try roasting them yourself (tossing in a little bacon doesn't hurt, either). Even if they've tasted unpleasant to you in the past, they might just become your new favorite veggie now that the bitterness has been bred out of them.

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