Your taste genes might determine what you like to eat and your health
- There is a distinct correlation between metabolic diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease.
- Researchers from Tufts University presented evidence that a person’s genetic disposition toward specific food tastes may impact their overall food choices, ultimately affecting their overall cardiometabolic health.
- Researchers hope their research will help healthcare providers offer personalized nutrition guidance to patients in the future.
There is a distinct connection between diabetes and heart disease. Diabetics are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke.
Because of this correlation, much research is now centering around a person’s cardiometabolic health, which refers to both heart conditions and metabolic conditions such as diabetes that affect a person’s metabolism.
Previous studies have examined the impact of different lifestyle modifications such as diet, exercise, and sleep on improving a person’s cardiometabolic health.
Now, researchers from the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University suggest a person’s genetic preference toward different tastes may impact their overall food choices, resulting in an influence on their overall cardiometabolic health.
The researchers presented the study at Nutrition 2022, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.
How does our sense of taste work?
A person’s ability to taste different foods and beverages starts with the taste buds located on their tongue. On average, the human tongue has between 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds. On the tips of each taste bud are taste receptors. These help a person distinguish between five main tastes:
Past research has looked at how a person’s sense of taste impacts their risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes and how obesity in turn impacts taste.
Taste-related genes and cardiometabolic health
For this new research, Julie E. Gervis, a doctoral candidate in the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University and the lead author of this study, said they wanted to look at why people find it difficult to make healthy food choices, and therefore increase their risk for diet-related chronic diseases.
They also wanted to examine why people do not always eat what is good for them but eat what tastes good to them.
“We wondered whether considering taste perception could help make personalized nutrition guidance more effective, by leveraging drivers of food choices and helping people learn how to minimize their influence,” she told MNT.
“And since taste perception has a strong genetic component, we wanted to understand how taste-related genes were involved,” she added.
First, the researchers used prior data from genome studies to identify genetic variants related to the five basic tastes. From there, they developed a tool called the polygenic risk score, which they also dubbed the ‘polygenic taste score’.
The higher the score for a specific taste, the more the person is genetically predispositioned to recognize that taste.
Then, Gervis and her team examined data — including polygenic taste scores, diet quality, and cardiometabolic risk factors — from over 6,000 adult participants of the Framingham Heart Study. Cardiometabolic risk factors included waist circumference and blood pressure, as well as triglyceride, cholesterol, and glucose levels.
The researchers found a correlation between a person’s polygenic taste score and the types of foods they chose.
For example, the research team documented those with a higher bitter taste score consumed almost two servings less of whole grains each week than those with a lower bitter taste score. And those with a higher umami score ate fewer vegetables, especially red and orange ones, than those with a lower umami score.
They also found links between polygenic taste scores and certain cardiometabolic risk factors.
For example, researchers reported participants with a higher sweet score tended to have lower triglyceride levels than those with a lower sweet score.
Personalized nutrition guidance
When asked how these findings might aid healthcare professionals in providing nutritional guidance to patients with diet-related diseases, Gervis said that as these findings are preliminary, the next step is to replicate these findings in independent cohorts to confirm their validity.
“My hope is that clinicians will be able to leverage our understanding of how taste-related genes impact food choices, to provide more effective personalized nutrition guidance,” she explained.
“For example, if individuals who are genetically predisposed to have high bitter perception eat less whole grains, it might be recommended that they add certain spreads or spices, or choose other types of foods that better align with their taste perception profile.”
— Julie E. Gervis, lead author
Gervis said their ultimate goal was to help people understand why they made certain food choices, and how they could use this information to equip them with more control over their diet quality and cardiometabolic health.
MNT also spoke with Dr. Lee M. Kaplan, director of The Obesity, Metabolism & Nutrition Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and director emeritus of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center.
He said if the results can be reproduced in follow-up studies, assessing people’s polygenic scores for taste activity could allow healthcare providers to identify people who would benefit from counseling to overcome these biological differences.
“I would like to see that the polygenic scores used in this study are associated with differences in biological activity of the taste receptors themselves,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan added that it would also be helpful to see these findings reproduced in other populations, and whether “the apparent biological differences in food preferences that lead to dietary changes and increased cardiovascular risk are able to be overcome by nutritional counseling that aims to counteract these effects.”
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