Your sweet tooth could be in your genes

Why do some people struggle to say no to cake while others eat kale with gusto? Researchers are coming closer to solving a part of the puzzle that suggests it could have something to do with our DNA, or more specifically, genes related to taste.

This, in turn, could influence our food choices and health outcomes.


Taste and genes

We’ve all come across people who will eat anything or douse their food with chilli and seasonings while others are super fussy and prefer sweet, bland food. A growing body of research suggests that genetics play a role in these food preferences.

A new US study is the first to look at genes in relation to all the five different tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoury) – and how this influences cardiometabolic health (heart conditions and related diseases such as diabetes).

First, the researchers devised a polygenetic taste score based on genetic variants related to taste that had been identified in previous studies. The higher a person’s score for one of the tastes, the more likely they are to be genetically predisposed to recognise that taste – and thus avoid foods strong in it.

Using population data from more than 6000 adults, the team looked at these taste scores in relation to diet quality and cardiometabolic risk factors.

Sure enough, results showed a correlation between people’s taste scores and their food preferences. For instance, participants with a higher bitter taste score ate less whole grains while those with a higher umami score ate less vegetables, particularly red and orange ones.

They further showed a link between taste scores and cardiometabolic risk factors. For instance, people with a higher sweet score were more likely to have lower triglyceride levels, indicative of better heart health.

The researchers suggest that understanding these genetic predispositions could help health professionals give tailored nutritional advice to increase people’s intake of healthy foods, such as adding a cheesy sauce to make vegetables more palatable.


The bigger picture

Of course, other factors play a role as well. Studies have shown that taste varies with age, sex and oral bacteria as well as genes. Then there’s environmental factors which include what people have been exposed to in the family home, school and social settings.

Importantly, we can influence our taste buds to prefer healthier options. This might take some persistence – it can take ten exposures to a new food before developing a liking for it, and three to six months to start enjoying a healthier diet.

There are other ways to encourage wholesome food intake in aged care, where malnutrition (over- and/or undernutrition) is a significant problem.

Enhancing the flavour and quality of the food is a no-brainer. Other ways to whet older adults’ waning appetites include greater investment in quality food, improving the sensory experience and engaging residential care residents in cooking familiar food.



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