Whether you’re a sweet or salty person is in your genes, according to a study.
From cheese to pie, our food preferences have more to do with our DNA than upbringing or cultural differences, researchers have found.
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Edinburgh examined the preferences of 150,000 people for more than 100 foods and drinks.
The team found that there are more than 400 genes that influence our food preferences – and they come in three main groups: high-palatability, low-calorie or ‘acquired tastes’.
But the findings don’t mean everyone falls into one exclusive category—people’s genetics can make them eat foods from all three groups.
But the findings explain why some people crave chocolate and sweets, while others find more joy in healthy eating, and even why Marmite is so polarizing.
Within these three main groups, there are even more genetic quirks that determine whether someone prefers an apple over a banana or milk chocolate over dark chocolate.
A better understanding of what drives people’s food choices could help explain why they find it difficult to make healthy food choices and fight their weight — which they say could lead to better diet plans.
Researchers from Edinburgh University studied how 150,000 people love more than 100 foods and drinks. The team identified that there are more than 400 genetic variants that influence how we taste, enjoy and crave different types. The researchers used their findings to create a map that reveals that there are three main clusters of genetic differences that correspond to up to three food preferences – low-calorie, acquired taste and highly palatable (shown in the graph).
The full food map: Edinburgh researchers have discovered how more than 400 genetic variants mean people like specific foods (list on outer wheel) such as horseradish, crisps and cucumber. While genes are linked to people liking these specific foods, others are linked to enjoying flavors such as spicy, fried and salad vegetables. These foods and subgroups fall into one of three food clusters—acquired tastes (blue), low-calorie (green), or highly palatable (red)
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
The basis of the meal should be potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• The basis of the meal is potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grain
• 30 grams of fiber a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole-grain crackers, 2 thick slices of whole-wheat bread, and a large baked potato with the skin on.
• Have some milk or milk alternatives (such as soy drinks) that are lower in fat and lower in sugar
• Eat beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water daily
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men per day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
Researchers looked at the genomes of 161,625 Britons involved in the UK Biobank – a database of medical and genetic records for half a million Britons.
They also examined responses to a questionnaire about their preferences for 137 different foods and drinks.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, show that there were 401 genetic variants that influenced what participants liked.
Some were associated with enjoying a particular food – such as salmon, porridge, chocolate or fried chicken.
However, others were linked to a preference for a wider food group as a whole – such as oily fish, healthy breakfasts, desserts and fried foods.
A single set of genes appears to cause people to crave calorie-dense and highly palatable foods such as meat, dairy and desserts.
The genetic patterns found in this group – which gave top marks to fish and chips, white bread and fizzy drinks – were also associated with higher rates of obesity and lower levels of exercise.
A second set of genes was associated with “acquired” foods with a strong taste, such as cucumbers, olives or strong alcohol.
Genes linked to preferences for these foods – which also include garlic, avocado and dark chocolate – have previously been linked to healthier cholesterol levels and being more active, as well as being more likely to smoke and drink alcohol.
A third pattern of genes saw people prefer low-calorie foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole foods.
These genes – which cause people to prefer brown rice, wholemeal bread and porridge – have also been linked to enjoying more physical activity, based on previous research.
And there were even genetic differences between the popularity of subgroups of foods within the same category – with specific genetic variants associated with preferences for cooked, raw and stronger-tasting vegetables, as well as hard, blue or goat cheese and wine, vodka or lager.
A partial analysis of the brain scan data revealed that the genes that make people like junk food overlap with genes found in the part of the brain that processes pleasure.
Meanwhile, genes associated with liking healthier foods were more active in the decision-making part of the brain.
Professor Jim Wilson, Head of Human Genetics, University of Edinburgh, said: “This is a great example of applying complex statistical methods to large genetic datasets to uncover new biology.
“In this case, the fundamental basis of what we like to eat is how it is hierarchically structured, from individual items to large food groups.”
Dr Nicola Pirastu, senior manager of biostatistics at the Human Technopole research institute in Milan, said: “One of the important messages from this work is that although taste receptors and therefore taste are important in determining what foods you like, it is actually it’s what’s going on in your brain that drives what we observe.
“Another important observation is that the main distribution of preferences is not between salty and sweet foods, as one might expect, but between highly palatable and high-calorie foods and those whose taste needs to be learned.
“This difference is reflected in the brain regions involved in their pleasure and strongly points to an underlying biological mechanism.”