WASHINGTON - Poor baby carrots. They are so good for you, yet they don't stand a chance of tempting your taste buds over more-scrumptious snacks like chips and pretzels.
Psychologists are trying to level the playing field. They want to improve the experience of eating healthy foods by determining how growers can breed them to taste better.
Linda Bartoshuk, a pioneering researcher at the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste, has started with the tomato. She has done studies to learn which compounds in the tomato enhance palatability and which lower it.
What the studies produced "was a road map to making a tomato taste better," Bartoshuk said. "The goal is to grow the plants so you produce more of the good stuff" and less of the bad.
Bartoshuk discussed her ongoing work today (Aug. 4) at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Washington.
Tomatoes may never make your mouth water as your favorite snack does.
"We can't tell you if that's a big enough effect to make them compete with, let's say, barbecue ribs. My guess is no," Bartoshuk said.
"It would be very hard to achieve the degree of devotion that people have to high fat foods," Bartoshuk said.
But Bartoshuk said making healthy foods taste better certainly can't hurt. "We need to do everything we can" to assist Americans in making healthy food choices, she said.
A better tomato
Other attempts to tinker with the taste of fruits and vegetables have been hampered by an improper assessment of the way food tastes, Bartoshuk said.
"One of the reasons that we have failed to do things better in the food world is that we've been measuring things incorrectly," Bartoshuk told MyHealthNewsDaily in an interview before her presentation.
For instance, with the tomato, scientists learned that some volatile compounds, even in high concentrations, don't produce strong taste sensations, which makes them a smaller part of the tomato's taste than thought.
For their studies, Bartoshuk and colleagues grew 80 varieties of tomatoes and measured their chemical components. Then they had 100 people taste and rate the samples.
"Some volatiles, the more you had, the more it was liked," while in other cases the reverse was true, Bartoshuk said.
"We can see what we can change to make the tomato better," Bartoshuk said.
Bartoshuk's lab is now working on improving the tastes of strawberries and blueberries, she said.
Another factor that has held back taste research is that not everyone experiences taste in the same way, Bartoshuk said. This means you can't compare people's subjective ratings of taste. Her previous work identified "supertasters," who have a denser collection of taste buds than others do and experience taste more intensely.
To get around these differences, Bartoshuk and her colleagues ask study participants to compare the taste of food to something unrelated to taste, such as the loudness of a sound.
Bartoshuk said people's concept of the ideal tomato would be different for different groups — for instance, women generally like tomatoes to be sweeter.
While she doesn't anticipate that growers will cultivate tomatoes specifically for, say, women or supertasters, it might be possible to grow foods that suit the palates of people in different countries. In this respect, cultivating foods would be similar to the way beverage companies alter the flavorings of their products depending on the country, she said.
Pass it on: Psychologists are working to improve the tastes of fruits and vegetables to make them more palatable.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.