A Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) Berghofer study has found a person’s perception of bitterness, which is determined by their genes, could dictate if they prefer coffee or tea, and if they drink a lot or little.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, analysed bitter taste perception genes using data from more than 400,000 participants. QIMR Berghofer collaborated with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in the United States on the study.
“You’d expect that people who are particularly sensitive to the bitter taste of caffeine would drink less coffee,” says senior author Marilyn Cornelis, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The opposite results of our study suggest coffee consumers acquire a taste or an ability to detect caffeine due to the learned positive reinforcement elicited by caffeine.”
QIMR Berghofer PhD student Jue Sheng Ong, who co-led the study, says they found people with genes that made them more able to taste the varied types of bitterness in either caffeine, certain vegetables or quinine preferred different beverages.
“Coffee, tea and alcohol are widely consumed drinks that have a bitter taste, and have been found to have beneficial and adverse health effects. We identified that people who tasted the bitterness in caffeine were more likely to love coffee and drink more of it,” Jue Sheng says.
“People who were less able to taste the bitterness weren’t as keen on coffee.On the other hand, if you were genetically predisposed to taste the bitterness in brussels sprouts, then you were more likely to prefer a cup of tea over coffee.”
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The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Statistical Genetics research group, Associate Professor Stuart MacGregor, says showing the link between taste perception and consumption could provide more opportunities for future research.
“It improves our understanding of people who are big drinkers of alcohol or coffee and opens the door to new research into treatments,” Stuart says.
“We know that there are lots of factors which affect how and why people drink certain things, but this study highlights the importance of taste genetics on our drinking habits. We are now looking to expand the study to evaluate if bitter taste genes have implications on disease risks, and we’ll try to also explore the genetic basis of other taste profiles such as sweet and salty.”