The taste for special foods is in our genes

Summary: Scientists have identified more than 400 different genes associated with people’s liking for different foods, including avocados, chili, fatty fish and more.

A source: University of Edinburgh

The reasons why people like certain foods and turn their noses up at others have a lot to do with their culture and even their sense of taste… and their genes play a role, a new study finds.

Scientists have identified hundreds of genetic variants—differences in people’s genetic makeup—that are linked to their liking of certain foods, including anise, avocado, chili, steak, fatty fish, and many others.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh and Human Technopole in Milan studied the preferences of more than 150,000 people for 137 different foods and drinks in the largest genetic study of food.

They found 401 genetic variants that determined which foods the participants liked. Many of these variants affected more than one food-loving trait, and some affected only one particular food.

For example, some genetic variants were linked to liking only salmon, while other groups of variants favored fatty fish or all fish in general.

Using questionnaires and genetic analysis, the team developed what’s called a “food map”—showing how similar genetic variants affected participants’ appreciation of food groups and specific tastes.

The map shows three major clusters of foods that share a similar genetic component.

One group consists of high-calorie and very tasty foods such as meat, milk and desserts; another group consists of foods with a strong taste, called “bought” including alcohol and spicy vegetables; The third group includes low-calorie foods such as fruit.

health qualities

The researchers found that the three food groups shared genes with health-related properties.

For example, highly palatable foods are affected by the same genetic variants associated with obesity and low levels of physical activity.

A preference for fruits and vegetables is influenced by the same variants associated with high levels of physical activity. And a greater preference for “conventional” flavors is genetically linked to a healthier cholesterol profile and higher levels of physical activity, as well as smoking and alcohol consumption.

However, the team was surprised to find genetic differences between preferences for the same food category. For example, they expected that genetic variants for liking vegetables would be consistent across all types of vegetables, meaning that people who liked one vegetable would like them all.

Instead, they found weak correlations between genes associated with cooked and salad vegetables and genes associated with stronger-tasting vegetables such as spinach and asparagus.

brain samples

Finally, the team found little correlation between genes associated with high-calorie foods and the other two groups, suggesting that there are independent biological processes underlying the preference for highly palatable foods.

MRI scans found a correlation between the part of the brain involved in pleasure and genetic variation associated with highly palatable foods, while low-calorie and strong-tasting foods were associated with areas of the brain associated with decision-making.

Experts say that by better understanding what drives people’s food choices, their research could lead to the development of healthier and more acceptable foods, improved dietary interventions and drugs to help treat obesity.

Scientists have identified hundreds of genetic variants—differences in people’s genetic makeup—that are linked to their liking of certain foods, including anise, avocado, chili, steak, fatty fish, and many others. Image is in the public domain

The study was published Nature Communications.

“This is an excellent example of applying complex statistical methods to large genetic data sets to uncover new biology, which in this case reveals the fundamental basis of our preferences for eating and its hierarchical structure from individual items to large food groups,” says Professor Jim Wilson.

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“One of the important messages from this paper is that while taste receptors and thus the sense of taste are important in determining which foods you like, what’s actually going on in your brain drives what we perceive,” says Dr. Nikola Pirastu.

“Another important thing is that the main division of preferences is not between sweet and savory foods, as expected, but between very pleasant and high-calorie foods and foods that need to be learned to taste. This difference is reflected in their preferred regions of the brain and suggests an underlying biological mechanism.”

This is genetic research news

Author: Press service
A source: University of Edinburgh
The connection: Press Office – University of Edinburgh
Photo: Image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
Sebastian May-Wilson et al: “Large-scale GWAS of food preference reveals genetic determinants and genetic associations with distinct neurophysiological features”. Nature Communications


Abstract

Large-scale GWAS of food preference reveal genetic determinants and genetic associations with distinct neurophysiological traits.

We present the results of a food preference GWAS performed on 161,625 UK-Biobank participants. Likeability of 139 foods was assessed on a 9-point scale.

Genetic correlations combined with structural equation modeling revealed a multilevel hierarchical map of food preferences with three main dimensions: “High Taste,” “Purchased,” and “Low Calorie.”

The highly palatable dimension is genetically uncorrelated with the other two, suggesting that independent processes favor high-reward foods. This is supported by genetic associations with MRI brain markers that show distinct associations.

Comparisons with the corresponding food consumption traits show high genetic correlation, and the trait shows twice as much heritability. GWAS analysis identified 1,401 significant food preference associations that showed significant agreement in direction of effect with 11 independent cohorts.

In conclusion, we have constructed a comprehensive map of the genetic determinants of food preference and associated neurophysiological factors.

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