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The Surprising Connection Between Genetics and Taste Perception

One might ponder why certain individuals possess an insatiable affinity for spicy cuisines, while others find them intolerable. Similarly, the perception of cilantro varies, with some detecting a soapy flavour, while others regard it as a delightful herb. The elucidation of these queries is rooted in genetic makeup. In this article, an exploration of the enthralling domain of genetics and its influence on taste perception will be undertaken.

The Basics of Taste

Before we dive into genetics, let’s talk about taste. Humans can taste five basic flavours: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savoury). Taste buds on our tongue contain taste receptors that send signals to the brain when they interact with molecules from food (Chandrashekar et al., 2006). These signals are then processed by the brain, which helps us recognise and enjoy different flavours.

Figure 1 - The five tastes and where their respective receptors are located on the tongue.
The Genetics of Taste

Now, let’s talk about genes. Our genes are like instruction manuals that tell our bodies how to develop and function. They are made up of DNA and are passed down from our parents (Genetics, n.d.). When it comes to taste, certain genes determine how our taste buds are formed and how they function.

The Bitter Taste

One of the most studied aspects of taste genetics is the perception of bitter tastes. There is a gene called TAS2R38 that is responsible for our ability to taste a chemical called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). Some people have a version of this gene that makes them very sensitive to bitter tastes, while others do not taste it at all (Kim et al., 2003). This can explain why some people find certain vegetables such as Brussels sprouts extremely bitter, while others don’t.

The Cilantro Conundrum

Another interesting example is cilantro. Some people find the taste of cilantro to be soapy or unpleasant. This is because they have a variation in a gene called OR6A2, which makes them sensitive to aldehyde chemicals found in cilantro (Eriksson et al., 2012). This genetic variation is more common in people of European descent, which might explain why cilantro is less popular in European cuisines compared to Asian and Latin American cuisines.

Figure 2 The Cilantro Conundrum: Does it taste like soap to you?
Sweet and Spicy Preferences

Our preference for sweet tastes also has a genetic component. The TAS1R2 gene is associated with the perception of sweetness. Variations in this gene can make some people more sensitive to sweet tastes (Fushan et al., 2009). This might be why some people have a sweet tooth, while others prefer savoury flavours. Similarly, a preference for spicy foods is linked to the TRPV1 gene. This gene is involved in the perception of heat and pain, and variations in this gene can make some people more tolerant of spicy foods (Caterina et al., 1997). This could explain why some cultures have a tradition of eating spicy foods, as individuals with certain genetic variations might be more likely to enjoy them.

Beyond the Basic Tastes

In addition to the basic tastes, our genes also influence how we perceive other aspects of food such as texture and aroma. For example, some people find the texture of certain foods such as peaches to be unpleasant due to a genetic variation in the gene called PRDM16 (Harms et al., 2014). Similarly, our ability to smell certain aromas, which is closely linked to taste, is also influenced by our genes.

Genetics and changes in taste perception

There is evidence to suggest that genetics can play a role in how individuals experience changes in taste perception in response to diseases or medical treatments. For example, genetic variations in taste receptors can influence how individuals undergoing chemotherapy experience taste alterations. A study by Gamper et al. in 2012 found that variations in the TAS2R38 gene, which is associated with bitter taste perception, were correlated with changes in taste in patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Figure 3 – Painting of taste buds as seen under the microscope by Pinky Satsangi.

Additionally, genetic factors may also play a role in the susceptibility to viral infections that can affect taste perception. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was observed that the loss of taste was a common symptom. Research is ongoing to understand if there are genetic factors that make certain individuals more susceptible to this symptom (Vaira et al., 2020).

Furthermore, certain genetic disorders can directly impact taste perception. For example, individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome often experience alterations in taste perception, which can contribute to abnormal eating behaviours (Butler et al., 2023).

The Future of Taste Genetics

Understanding the genetics of taste perception can have implications beyond just explaining our food preferences. It can also be important for nutrition and health. For example, people who are more sensitive to bitter tastes may be less likely to eat vegetables, which can have implications for their diet and health (Drewnowski & Gomez-Carneros, 2000).

Figure 4 Personalised nutrition.

Personalised nutrition is an emerging field that aims to tailor dietary recommendations based on an individual's genetic makeup, lifestyle, and gut microbiome. Personalised nutrition is particularly intriguing when considering the genetic aspect. Our genes can influence how we metabolise nutrients and how we perceive tastes, which in turn can affect our dietary preferences and nutritional needs (Nielsen & El-Sohemy, 2012). For instance, variations in the gene TAS2R38 can make certain individuals more sensitive to bitter tastes, which might influence their consumption of vegetables (Kim et al., 2003). Genetic testing in personalized nutrition aims to identify these genetic variations, allowing for more tailored dietary recommendations. For example, individuals with a genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance might benefit from consuming lactose-free dairy products. Similarly, those with variations in the gene MTHFR, affecting folate metabolism, might be advised to consume more foods rich in folate (Fenech, 2010).

The Social Aspect

It is also important to recognize that taste preferences are not solely determined by genetics. Culture, upbringing, and social influences play a significant role as well. For example, if you grew up in a family that loves spicy food, you might develop a preference for it, even if your genes make you more sensitive to spice (Verstraeten et al., 2014).

The World of Supertasters

The term "supertasters" refers to individuals who have an unusually heightened sense of taste, particularly for bitter flavours. This heightened sensitivity is primarily attributed to a higher density of taste buds on the tongue compared to the average person (Bartoshuk et al., 2004). One of the key genetic factors involved in being a supertaster is a variation in the TAS2R38 gene, which we mentioned earlier in the context of bitter taste perception (Kim et al., 2003). Individuals with certain variations of this gene are more sensitive to bitter compounds, such as phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Supertasters often find foods such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, coffee, and dark chocolate extremely bitter. Being a supertaster can have both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, supertasters often have a more intense experience of flavours and may derive more pleasure from certain foods. However, the heightened sensitivity to bitterness can make them averse to certain healthy vegetables that are rich in bitter compounds. This aversion can have implications for dietary choices and nutritional intake (Duffy & Bartoshuk, 2000).

Figure 5 - Supertasters: those with enhanced tasting capacities.

Genes play a significant role in how individuals experience the world through taste. From the bitterness of broccoli to the sweetness of chocolate, taste preferences are deeply rooted in one's DNA. However, it’s not solely about the genes – culture, environment, and personal experiences also shape tastes.

Thus, the next time you are savouring a meal, it is worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate the complex interplay between genes, taste buds, and the surrounding environment. Whether you have a predilection for spicy foods, a penchant for sweets, or an aversion to cilantro, it is all part of the rich tapestry that constitutes the uniqueness of human experiences.

Bibliographical references

Bartoshuk, L. M., Duffy, V. B., Green, B. G., Hoffman, H. J., Ko, C. W., Lucchina, L. A., Marks, L. E., Snyder, D. J., & Weiffenbach, J. M. (2004). Valid across-group comparisons with labeled scales: The gLMS versus magnitude matching. Physiology and Behavior, 82(1), 109–114. Butler, M. G., Victor, A. K., & Reiter, L. T. (2023). Autonomic nervous system dysfunction in Prader-Willi syndrome. Clinical Autonomic Research : Official Journal of the Clinical Autonomic Research Society, 33(3). Caterina, M. J., Schumacher, M. A., Tominaga, M., Rosen, T. A., Levine, J. D., & Julius, D. (1997). The capsaicin receptor: a heat-activated ion channel in the pain pathway. Nature 1997 389:6653, 389(6653), 816–824. Chandrashekar, J., Hoon, M. A., Ryba, N. J. P., & Zuker, C. S. (2006). The receptors and cells for mammalian taste. Nature 2006 444:7117, 444(7117), 288–294. Drewnowski, A., & Gomez-Carneros, C. (2000). Bitter taste, phytonutrients, and the consumer: a review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(6), 1424–1435. Duffy, V. B., & Bartoshuk, L. M. (2000). Food acceptance and genetic variation in taste. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 100(6), 647–655. Eriksson, N., Wu, S., Do, C. B., Kiefer, A. K., Tung, J. Y., Mountain, J. L., Hinds, D. A., & Francke, U. (2012). A genetic variant near olfactory receptor genes influences cilantro preference. Flavour, 1(1), 1–7. Fenech, M. F. (2010). Dietary reference values of individual micronutrients and nutriomes for genome damage prevention: current status and a road map to the future. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1438S-1454S. Fushan, A. A., Simons, C. T., Slack, J. P., Manichaikul, A., & Drayna, D. (2009). Allelic polymorphism within the TAS1R3 promoter is associated with human taste sensitivity to sucrose. Current Biology : CB, 19(15), 1288–1293. Gamper, E. M., Zabernigg, A., Wintner, L. M., Giesinger, J. M., Oberguggenberger, A., Kemmler, G., Sperner-Unterweger, B., & Holzner, B. (2012). Coming to your senses: detecting taste and smell alterations in chemotherapy patients. A systematic review. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 44(6), 880–895. Genetics. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2023, from Harms, M. J., Ishibashi, J., Wang, W., Lim, H. W., Goyama, S., Sato, T., Kurokawa, M., Won, K. J., & Seale, P. (2014). Prdm16 is required for the maintenance of brown adipocyte identity and function in adult mice. Cell Metabolism, 19(4), 593–604. Kim, U. kyung, Jorgenson, E., Coon, H., Leppert, M., Risch, N., & Drayna, D. (2003). Positional cloning of the human quantitative trait locus underlying taste sensitivity to phenylthiocarbamide. Science (New York, N.Y.), 299(5610), 1221–1225. Nielsen, D. E., & El-Sohemy, A. (2012). A randomized trial of genetic information for personalized nutrition. Genes & Nutrition, 7(4), 559–566. Vaira, L. A., Salzano, G., Deiana, G., & De Riu, G. (2020). Anosmia and Ageusia: Common Findings in COVID-19 Patients. The Laryngoscope, 130(7), 1787–1787. Verstraeten, R., Van Royen, K., Lica Ochoa-Avilé S, A., Penafiel, D., Holdsworth, M., Donoso, S., Maes, L., Kolsteren, P., & Botbol, M. (2014). A Conceptual Framework for Healthy Eating Behavior in Ecuadorian Adolescents: A Qualitative Study.

Visual references

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Raluca Vințan

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