Imagine a world in which healthy food tasted delicious, and unhealthy food made us gag. On Halloween, kids would fill their pails with cauliflower. Dairy Queen would sell quinoa Blizzards. At cocktail parties, everyone would jostle over the crudités.
Such a lovely dream. Problem is, modern humans are stuck with caveman taste buds. When our ancestors roamed the savanna, their tastes were in harmony with what they needed to eat to stay alive. Humans evolved to like sugar because it’s in fruit, which is high in nutrients and fiber and calories. Humans evolved to like salt because the body needs salt to retain water. Fat helped our forerunners survive famines. But then, sadly, we figured out how to extract sugar from plants and put it in Frappuccinos, and how to take salt from mines and add it to Doritos. And, in large quantities, sugar, salt and fat are not good for our bodies at all.
So we have two choices: We can wait a few million years for evolution to catch up. Or, we can try to game the system by tricking our taste buds into liking the nutritious stuff.
For the past few months, I’ve been writing a book about my quest to be the healthiest person alive. And frankly, it’s been killing me. The siren call of processed foods is just too strong. I need help. So I’ve turned to an unexpected source: the junk-food makers themselves. The processed-food industry spends millions of dollars every year studying just how to push our gustatory buttons. Why not hijack their findings and apply their secrets to healthy food? Maybe I can learn to love, or at least tolerate, cruciferous vegetables—broccoli and brussels sprouts, but also collard greens, kale and all the other bitter greens I’ve been avoiding since childhood.
I consulted food developers and nutritionists and came up with a plan for reprogramming my taste buds.
Healthy Eating Tip: Go for the Crunch
“We are drawn to texture and contrast, which is why we love crunchiness,” said Barb Stuckey, who works for the food-development company Mattson. Stuckey knows whereof she speaks: She has helped create new snacks for clients like General Mills and Frito-Lay, and she has written a fascinating new book called Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good.
Stuckey cites a study in which subjects wore headphones while sampling Pringles potato chips. If the volume of the crunch was artificially cranked up, the tasters rated the chips as crisper and fresher. We are a gullible species.
So crucial is crunchiness that Stuckey’s lab has a machine that pokes chicken wings and egg rolls to see how much pressure it takes to puncture them. (The crunchier the food, the more pressure required.)
How to prepare the perfectly crunchy broccoli, then? Happily, one chef in New York City—Craig Koketsu at the restaurant Park Avenue Winter—is already on the case. He has devised a side dish called Broccoli & Cheetos.
“I wanted to have a textural element to the cheese sauce for the broccoli,” Koketsu said when I called him. “I tried to crisp Parmesan, but it got chewy. So I had a runner go to the bodega and buy a bag of Cheetos.” He sets broccoli on a creamy pool of cheese sauce that he makes with Gouda and Parmesan, then sprinkles crushed Cheetos on top. “The Cheetos really resonate with people. Along the way, though, we’ve gotten our fair share of haters who said we were making healthy food unhealthy.”
But it’s better than eating no broccoli at all.
On a Saturday evening, my wife and I followed Koketsu’s recipe and prepared some homemade broccoli with Cheetos. We spent a good five minutes squeezing and pounding the bag, reducing the Cheetos to pebbles. When I took my first bite, the dish short-circuited my brain. It was confusing, this mash-up of good and bad. It was like watching an Ingmar Bergman movie starring Adam Sandler.
First, the Cheetos overwhelm you with their salty immediacy, then the broccoli sneaks up behind them. But once I got over the weirdness, I couldn’t stop eating the dish, and neither could my wife. I loved the snap, crack and pop of it. The two of us finished the “serves six to eight” portion in 20 minutes.
Perhaps that means the recipe is actually too successful. Overeating isn’t good for you, after all. Fortunately, one of my health advisers, a man who endorses an extreme low-calorie diet, pointed out that you can create Cheetos-like crunchiness without resorting to artificial, orange-colored food. He suggested trying sunflower seeds. So, for several days, I went on a sunflower seed binge, adding them to my salads and sprinkling them on top of my salmon. It lacked the addictive fat and salt of real junk food, but the sunflower seeds did make eating more fun—like popping the bubbles in plastic wrap.
Healthy Eating Tip: Find Your Sweet Spot
Broccoli is one thing, but I’ll need stronger ammunition to battle my bête noire: brussels sprouts. “Brussels sprouts are definitely one of the most polarizing vegetables out there,” Stuckey tells me. “When I make them, I caramelize the hell out of them.”
But isn’t turning brussels sprouts into green candy defeating the purpose? Stuckey disagrees. She cites an Arizona State University study involving cauliflower and broccoli dipped briefly in sugar water. “Adding approximately 20 percent sugar not only resulted in higher pleasantness scores, but also changed the subjects’ attitudes toward the vegetables in the future—they liked unsweetened cauliflower and broccoli better from that point forward. Think of sugar as training wheels for the appreciation of bitter vegetables, not as cheating.”
That night, I caramelized the hell out of some brussels sprouts. I stirred together the sprouts, garlic, walnuts, olive oil, a dash of salt and two tablespoons of brown sugar.
I could taste the brussels sprouts, but the flavor was faint and muffled, like a clock radio stuffed under a heap of pillows. Mostly, it tasted like the sugar-roasted walnuts my grandmother used to leave out in silver dishes.
I made the dish five days in a row, each time lowering the amount of brown sugar, hoping to wean myself from it entirely. Each day, the brussels sprouts’ bitterness asserted itself more. But I was dealing with it. In fact, oddly, I found myself liking the dish better when the bitterness and the sweetness had a wrestling match in my mouth.
But the final, sugar-free brussels sprouts were just too bitter for me. I guess I need some training wheels, even if they are small.
Healthy Eating Tip: Trick Your Tongue
I move on to my sneakiest trick yet. For some time now, I’ve been hearing about a mini-phenomenon called the “miracle fruit.” This is a small, red West African berry—officially called Synsepalum dulcificum—with an unusual talent: For an hour after you eat one, sour foods will taste sweet. Scientists have discovered that a protein in the fruit binds to the sweet receptors in the tongue; the protein changes shape when exposed to acids, turning on those sweet receptors. Homaro Cantu, an avant-garde chef in Chicago, offers a miracle-fruit tasting menu at his restaurant Ing; in New York and elsewhere, fans of the berry throw “flavor tripping” parties.
I ordered five berries from muse.mberry.us, and they arrived by overnight mail. Miracles don’t come cheap: $32, including shipping.
My wife and I each popped a berry. It wasn’t bad, a bit tart, with hints of strawberry and raspberry. We chewed, swallowed, then waited for our tongues to rearrange. I poured us some lemon juice, and we clinked glasses.
I braced for the sting. It didn’t come. I felt like I was drinking store-bought lemonade loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. “I feel quite macho drinking pure lemon juice,” my wife said. We tried oranges next—they tasted like Jolly Rancher candies. Hummus tasted awful, like soggy marzipan. And cauliflower? “It almost tastes like vanilla,” my wife said. “It’s certainly not bitter.”
The miracle fruit worked, at least for us. Unfortunately, unless I make a fortune as the CEO of a processed-food conglomerate, I can’t afford a miracle every day. These berries will have to be an occasional dinner-party treat. On an ordinary weeknight, I’ll stick with my new menu: slightly sweetened, high-decibel vegetables.
AJ Jacobs’s book Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection comes out in April.