Retrain your taste buds to love veg by stealth

You know fruit and veg are good for you, and you know you should eat more of them — the problem is the taste. If that excuse sounds familiar, you’re not alone: taste is one of the most common reasons people in clinic give me for not eating more fruit and veg.

The negative perception surrounding taste probably goes a long way to explain why, in the UK, most people eat on average only about three-and-a-half portions of fruit and veg a day.

My husband, who is a GP, was also not convinced by fruit and veg when we first met. Then I worked my ‘science’ on him — and I hope it will work for you, too.

But before we get into the science, it’s worth noting that anything can taste bad if it’s not prepared properly. Think about a rubbery, dry, overcooked steak.

So yes, some of the secrets to eating more fruit and veg lie in how we prepare them — there is a world of difference between boiled Brussels sprouts and a creamy pesto loaded with Brussels sprouts, walnuts and Parmesan cheese.

You know fruit and veg are good for you, and you know you should eat more of them — the problem is the taste. If that excuse sounds familiar, you’re not alone: taste is one of the most common reasons people in clinic give me for not eating more fruit and veg, writes Dr Megan Rossi (pictured)

Our taste buds can evolve so that you actually enjoy fruit and veg. Not convinced? Remember how as a child you hated the taste of coffee? The chances are that now you can’t start the day without it

Now to the science behind manipulating our taste preferences. I say ‘manipulating’ because our taste buds can evolve so that you actually enjoy fruit and veg. Not convinced? Remember how as a child you hated the taste of coffee? The chances are that now you can’t start the day without it.

And it really doesn’t take long to ‘retrain’ our sense of taste, either — our taste buds, essentially a group of taste receptor cells, regenerate every ten days or so.

Indeed, a 2019 study from Belgium found that just two weeks of eating more fibre-rich veg reduced people’s desire for sweet, salty and fatty foods — and they reported enjoying veg more.

You possibly won’t be surprised by now to hear me say that bacteria also play a role.

In this case, it’s our oral microbiota — the microbes, including bacteria, fungus and even some viruses, that live in our mouths.

Just as microbes ferment grapes into wine (and into a wealth of mouthwatering aromas), they do similar things with food in our mouths.

Did you know?

The calorie details listed on food labels are not as accurate as you have been led to believe.

For example, take almonds, which research shows provide 30 per cent fewer calories than stated.

I’ll explain what is going on in next week’s column.

Almonds, research shows, provide 30 per cent fewer calories than stated

Many of the different flavours of wine are not just down to the different grapes but to the types of microbe doing the fermenting.

Similarly, it’s the difference in our oral microbes that probably explains at least some differences in taste perception between people. Different mouth microbes produce different aromas when we eat the same food, such as veg.

The good news is that, through diet, we can alter what lives in our mouth and, therefore, some of the flavours produced.

This reinforces what I see in clinic time and time again: changing our diets changes our flavour preferences, too.

The bottom line is that even if you don’t currently enjoy the flavour of fruit and veg, you will. You just have to make a start! And if that means sneaking them into your diet for the first few weeks, until your taste buds come round to the idea, I’m all for it.

But what about the cost of fruit and veg? It’s another common barrier that stops people eating more of them — and when processed food is so cheap, and the cost of living is skyrocketing, fresh produce can seem expensive.

The ways around this include buying in season (and if you can, buying in bulk and then freezing).

And don’t snub frozen fruit and veg — they are packed with nutrients as they are snap frozen when picked. Cut-price produce at the end of the day is still packed with fibre and nutrients. In some cases, it may contain more nutrients than when it hit the shelf. Research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that levels of anthocyanins (plant chemicals with antioxidant powers) increased in blackberries as they went from underripe to overripe.

And don’t forget tinned tomatoes, olives, pickles, artichokes and beans and pulses (but check the label for no added sugar or salt).

You’ll notice that I’m not saying ‘you must get your five-a-day’.

That’s because the more important message is diversity — trying to expand the range of plant foods you eat, because that way you’ll get the widest possible range of polyphenols, the plant compounds with antioxidant powers (which help fight disease and help you feel and look great — yes, polyphenols have been linked with reduced facial wrinkles, too).

Here are some tasty ways to add extra fruit and veg without noticing the difference in flavour. Trust me, they work!

Smoothie lover? Add a few florets of frozen cauliflower (you can get them precooked and frozen in most supermarkets). They are rich in sulforaphane, which has proven anti-cancer benefits (in animal studies). It will also give the smoothie a delicious creamy texture — and you won’t even taste it.
No stew or casserole should be complete without adding one more veg. Make a habit of adding any bruised or wilted veg to save your wallet and the environment.
For mac ’n’ cheese lovers: mash a cup of cooked butternut squash into the sauce. As well as providing fibre, beta-carotene in the squash supports immune function.
Add a tin of lentils to a Bolognese mix — the family won’t even know! (For extra disguise blend the lentils first.) This will give the meal a hit of prebiotics, which ‘good’ gut bacteria love to feed on.
Grate half a courgette into an omelette or scrambled eggs — it won’t affect the eggy joy.
When baking muffins, grate in a carrot and reduce the fluid by about 1/3 cup. The extra fibre can help lower the blood sugar spike.
On Friday-night pizzas (whether you order in or make your own), slice on a fresh tomato for some added skin-loving lycopene and vitamin C.
For spaghetti carbonara, halve the cream and blend in an equivalent weight of tofu (available from most supermarkets). Tofu, made from fermented soybeans, contains phytoestrogens, which are linked with lowering breast cancer risk — and provides a lovely silky texture.
Add a cup of frozen veg or half a tin of lentils to your next Indian takeaway for an extra 6g of fibre. After a few months of training, my husband does this automatically. Proud wife moment.
Grate a carrot and crumble walnuts into your porridge for a delicious carrot-cake flavour, as well as added fibre and omega 3s for heart health.
Replace half the oil or butter in your next cake with cooked apple, using equivalent weight.
Add a burst of flavour and fibre to your next summer salad with some goji berries, cranberries or pomegranate seeds.

As well as sneaking in extra fruit and veg, each serving of these pancakes will provide around 6g fibre (a fifth of your daily needs).

Makes 8 (SERVES 2)


3 large eggs
1 ripe banana (approx 100g)
50g porridge oats
100g cooked sweet potato
Oil of your choice, for frying


Place the eggs, banana, porridge oats and sweet potato in a blender. Blitz for 1-2 minutes until smooth and a little foamy on top. Next, heat a large frying pan with olive oil on a low heat, then spoon in around 60ml of batter per pancake. Cook over a low heat for 2-3 minutes or until the top of the pancake starts to bubble and dry round the edges — it’s now ready to be flipped. Cook on the other side for a couple of minutes. Enjoy with toppings of your choice.

Ask Megan

I read with interest your recent column where you suggested avoiding sugar-free chewing gum because of the sugar alcohols found in it. I usually have a sugar-free chewing gum after meals because I have type 2 diabetes. What would you recommend instead?

Tiam Poh, by email.

If you suffer from bloating, then avoiding sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol is worth trying for two weeks to see if your bloating improves.

This is because sugar alcohols aren’t very well digested in our upper gut, and as a result the bacteria ferment them in our lower gut, which can produce extra gas.

Instead of chewing gum, I’d recommend quickly brushing your teeth after meals. Chewing gum can also increase some peoples’ appetite by stimulating their gastric juices.

So if you find yourself hungry within a few hours after meals, avoid chewing gum and see whether you notice a reduction in your appetite.

However, if bloating isn’t an issue for you and it’s not having a negative effect on your appetite, then chewing gum that contains sugar alcohols is absolutely fine (many plant foods, such as sweet potato and asparagus, contain these, too) and can help inhibit the growth of cavity-forming bacteria.

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