It’s a fact of growing older that Brussels sprouts don’t taste quite as gross as you remember. While maturing tastebuds may have something to do with this change of heart, it’s also apparent that the taste of Brussels sprouts has genuinely changed in recent decades.
Brussels sprouts are a human creation. You won’t find these little leafy things growing anywhere in the wild because they are the product of centuries of selective breeding, just like many of the vegetables you find in today’s supermarkets.
Ancestors of the sprout are thought to have originated in ancient Rome, but they likely took on the form we recognize today around the late Middle Ages in Belgium (hence the name Brussels sprout).
However, the cultivation of Brussels sprouts underwent a major revolution around just 60 years ago, which farmers argue was the start of their bad reputation.
“In the late 1960s, our industry switched over to mechanized harvesting, which required a plant that would mature fairly evenly over the entire stem,” Steve Bontadelli, a Brussels sprouts farmer, told MEL Magazine in 2021.
“The Sakata seed company developed the first plants that would mature evenly, and they were beautiful and green with lots of production, but they were horribly bitter, and we turned off an entire generation,” he added.
In the face of mechanized agriculture, Brussels sprouts picked up that unpleasant tang that so many grew to detest. The once-beloved vegetable fell from grace and became the butt of all jokes around the Christmas dinner table.
By the 1990s, the Big Sprout industrial complex had had enough and started to look into ways to Make Brussels Great Again. A study published in 1999 by scientists from the seed and chemical company Novartis managed to pinpoint the specific compounds that gave Brussel sprouts their undesired bitterness: two glucosinolates called sinigrin and progoitrin.
This helped to prompt a number of seed companies to sift through gene banks to look for old varieties of vegetables that happened to have low levels of the bitter chemicals, according to NPR. These less bitter varieties were then cross-pollinated with modern high-yielding ones, aiming to get the best of both worlds: a better-tasting product that could be cultivated on an industrial scale. After years of patience, they eventually produced a crop that was both tasty and economically viable.
And just like that, the former glory of Brussels sprouts was restored, shifting this vegetable from a culinary pariah to a prized side dish.
Despite the valiant efforts of scientists to restore the pleasant flavor of sprouts, however, there’s some evidence to suggest that hatred of the vegetable is hardwired into some people.
Genetics plays a huge role in your tastes. Taste receptors are produced from instructions encoded in our DNA and there is significant variation in the DNA code between individuals. This includes at least 25 receptors that detect different bitter molecules and can impact the flavor of certain vegetables.
One of these receptors is taste receptor 2 member 38, a protein that’s encoded by the TAS2R38 gene that controls the ability to detect a bitter compound called propylthiouracil. If you have this gene, there’s a higher chance you’ll dislike bitter green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
So, if you think Brussels sprouts have improved in recent decades, it’s not your imagination. However, if you remain a die-hard sprout detester, then there’s a good chance you can blame the DNA passed down from your mom and dad.