The Taste Gene, Birds Aren't Mammals

Heymatt: Everybody in my family hates cabbage. And my dad and sister won’t eat broccoli. That got us wondering if taste is genetic. Did I inherit my cabbage hate from my parents? Broccoli’s not my favorite, but I can choke it down. — Mmmm, Carrots, El Cajon

Because taste peculiarities have many applications in the jillion-dollar food industry, just about everything taste- and smell-related has been put through the scientific wringer. Without a profitable application, the science guys would consider your question pointless. But somebody’s been paid a lot to look into this assumption in order to sell us more horrifying frozen dinners.

It’s a pretty sure bet that your family has the bitter-sensitive gene, maybe two of them, which can make you hypersensitive to bitter. The science guys have identified it. That means you can taste the sharp edge in things like grapefruit, raw leafy greens, green tea, broccoli, cabbage, coffee — that kind of stuff. It means that you and a guy who has no bitter-taste gene (a large portion of the population lacks the gene) will get into a big argument at your next wine-tasting when you sense bitterness in the same wine the other guy loves. This gene setup also explains why many little kids won’t touch spinach and its relatives. Luckily, dieticians believe eating experience and food environment can often overcome a genetic taste preference; if you’re bitter sensitive, you might learn to drink coffee by loading in the sugar. But it also means that if you have the patience to keep throwing spinach at your kid, some day he might actually like it.

Sweet taste preference is a little fuzzier, according to the science guys. There is definitely some gene (more likely, genes) that determines how much sweet taste a person can tolerate. The taste testers have found at least one gene in mice that makes them sugar freaks. They’re assuming we have some too, since sweet tolerance varies individually.

Consider yourself lucky you’re not the guy who has to count types and distribution of taste buds on people’s tongues. This is the expression of the various taste genes.

Hey Matt: This week the birds are smarter than you. It is possible that some bird crap corroded the terminals of the MA Smartometer. You stated “They have the highest brain-to-body-weight ratio of any mammals.” As only animals with true hair and give live birth are mammals, your statement is something that a birdbrain would say. — Mark, via email

Dear Matthew: Please report to grandma for discipline. Birds are not mammals, they are of the class aves. — Bill Nagy, San Diego

Hi: Check out the recent stories/research about crows. They learned to use traffic to crack nuts, and some guy has trained them to find spare change! — Martin, visiting from Arkansas

Hey Matt, I was a little surprised by your answer about bird brains. Several years ago I stopped in to visit a friend in Lemon Grove. She was babysitting a cockatoo that displayed the most amazing mix of inquisitiveness, beak and claw dexterity, and moment-appropriate vocalizations that I have ever seen or heard of. While I was there the bird dismantled a computer keyboard, took the arms off a pair of reading glasses by removing the screws, and while my friend napped, removed every button on every piece of clothing she was wearing. The bird was obviously miffed from being ignored during the nap, but also displayed a remarkable IQ. — Jeff, via email

Oy. The Gotcha Gang strikes again. Yeah, yeah, birds aren’t mammals, and I’m not perfect. Well, yes I am. It’s the research elves who aren’t perfect. How many times have I told them not to proofread while skateboarding? As for the clever crows cracking nuts and finding spare change, I’m not surprised. Crows, like humans and apes, actually make tools. They modify sticks or whatever’s around if they think it would help them get at food. There’s a video on the web that shows a crow confronted with a straight piece of wire and a glass jar containing a bit of food attached to a loop of plastic. The jar’s too deep for the crow to dip its beak in and extract the food. It tries with the straight wire, but the loop keeps sliding off. Without losing a beat, the bird bends the wire into a J shape, sticks it into the jar, hooks the plastic loop, and brings out the food. Heck, that bird probably would have gotten better grades than I did in geometry and physics.

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