Preliminary research found associations between taste-perception genes and diet quality. Key TakeawaysTaste-related genes may play a role in food choices and the risk of certain heart and metabolic diseases.Participants who have a stronger sense of bitter flavors consumed fewer bitter-tasting foods, such as cruciferous vegetables and
Genetics might affect your eating habits and your risks of certain diet-related diseases.
Specifically, the genes that determine how strongly you can taste bitter and savory flavors may influence your overall diet quality, while the genes that are related to sweetness matter more for your heart and metabolic health.
Julie E. Gervis, MS, a PhD candidate in biochemical and molecular nutrition at Tufts University, presented preliminary findings from a new study at the American Society for Nutrition conference this week.
She said that healthcare providers could leverage these findings to make personalized dietary recommendations that can help reduce the risk of developing certain chronic diseases.
“We know many people struggle to make healthy food choices, but we also know that many people don't know why they struggle,” Gervis told Verywell.
Gervis and her team started by identifying genetic variants for the five tastes—bitter, sweet, umami, salty, and sour. The researchers then created a "polygenic taste score" to determine the level of perception for each taste. A higher score equates to a stronger sense of that flavor.
They found that a high bitter taste score was associated with consuming fewer bitter-tasting foods, such as whole grains, alcohol, and cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, kale, arugula). However, the researchers did not measure whether a higher score in a certain taste represents aversion. In theory, if someone dislikes bitter vegetables, a dietitian could suggest sweeter alternatives such as butternut squash and corn,
"Understanding why you make a food choice is going to be more empowering for behavior change than understanding simply what food choice you should be making," Gervis said.
This study was one of the first to examine how taste-perception genes may affect dietary choices and cardiometabolic health. Its results could add to the growing field of precision nutrition.
Precision nutrition, or personalized nutrition, is a budding field in nutrition science. Instead of the current standard of population-wide dietary recommendations (like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025), precision nutrition would offer individualized dietary advice based on a person’s unique genetic makeup, lifestyle habits, food preferences, and gut microbiome.
Many nutrition researchers are focused on advancing the precision nutrition field. Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health pledged $170 million to the Nutrition for Precision Health study which is aimed at using artificial intelligence to personalize dietary advice.
Gervis said in her presentation that most precision nutrition research has focused on genes that influence biological responses to food, instead of important drivers of food intake, such as taste.
However, before researchers can confirm that these findings are valid associations, the study needs to be peer-reviewed and replicated. Gervis also said future studies must look at diverse populations because taste and flavor preferences are influenced by our culture, not just our genes.
"It's important to characterize how taste relates to diet in many different populations," she said. "Once we have that broader understanding, that's when we can start to make more widespread conclusions to then make specific recommendations."
For now, we are still far away from being able to ask our dietitian or nutritionist for "a customized advice" based on our measurement of taste perception, Gervis added. "We have a lot more work to do until we get there," she said.
Personalized nutrition is a relatively new field and, while there are many companies offering precision nutrition services, many experts warn that these are ahead of the science. More studies are needed before healthcare providers will be able to offer accurate, individualized dietary advice based on genetics and microbiomes.