Taste is all in the mind
Whether people prefer bitter or sweet beverages, such as coffee or cola, depends more on how they make them feel than their taste, research suggests.
Northwestern University Scientist Marilyn Cornelis searched for variations in taste genes that could explain people’s beverage preferences. Instead, she found that preferences are based on genes related to the psychoactive properties of these beverages.
“People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste,” explained Cornelis, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
In the study, beverages were categorised into two groups: one bitter-tasting group which included coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, beer, red wine and liquor; and a sweet-tasting group which included sugar-sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages and non-grapefruit juices.
Scientists collected 24-hour dietary questionnaires from 336,000 individuals in the UK Biobank and counted the number of servings of these bitter and sweet beverages consumed.
The study — which is claimed to be the first genome-wide test for bitter or sweet beverage preferences — highlights important behaviour-reward components to beverage choice and adds to our understanding of the link between genetics and beverage consumption.
Alcohol intake is related to more than 200 diseases and accounts for about 6% of deaths globally. Understanding taste preferences could indicate ways to intervene in people’s diets, but Cornelis said these results highlight the potential barriers associated with this approach.
She found people with a variant in the FTO gene preferred sugar-sweetened beverages, which was surprising considering it was previously related to a lower risk of obesity.
“It’s counterintuitive,” Cornelis said. “FTO has been something of a mystery gene, and we don’t know exactly how it’s linked to obesity. It likely plays a role in behaviour, which would be linked to weight management.”
The paper is published in Human Molecular Genetics.
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