Whether you crave salty dishes or snack on fruit, your genes may influence the food choices you make. Gaining a better understanding of how this varies from person to person could one day lead to bespoke food plans that help people make nutritious choices by taking into account their genetic preferences.
“Dietary intake is influenced by so many other factors – like socioeconomic status, culture and disease diagnoses – that teasing apart the direct genetic component from the environmental or indirect genetic components intrigued me,” says Joanne Cole at the University of Colorado.
Cole and her colleagues have previously identified 814 regions in the human genome that are associated with various aspects of a person’s dietary intake, including how much fruit, vegetables, meat and fish they eat.
The team wanted to better understand if these regions directly or indirectly influence a person’s food choices. “For example, genes that impact diabetes risk may also be associated with dietary intake due to disease management changes, like eating less sugar, and not because the gene is directly influencing someone’s eating behaviour,” says Cole.
The researchers carried out a so-called phenome-wide association study for the 814 regions. This involves taking a single genetic variant and scanning it for certain traits – such as taste preferences, eating habits and health conditions – to see if there is an association. Each region was scanned for more than 4000 traits, using data from around 500,000 participants of the UK Biobank study.
From this, the researchers identified 481 regions in the genome that appear to directly affect dietary intake through flavour perceptions and preferences. The work was presented at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston, Massachusetts. Some of the foods and drinks that are most affected by these genes include salt, water, fish, alcohol and fruit.
“Consumers report flavour as the primary driver of food choice, therefore, identifying how different people experience different flavours may be the key to personalised nutrition to improve healthy eating,” says Cole.
“I’m focusing now on identifying these sensory genes involved in dietary intake and understanding how different people with different gene versions of these taste and smell receptors have different pleasure and reward activation in the brain. The goal is to make eating healthier easier for different people and I think flavour is key.”