Whether you’re a sweet or salty person is in your genes, according to a study.
Researchers have found that our preference for foods, from cheese to pie, has more to do with our DNA than upbringing or cultural differences.
In the largest study of its kind, researchers at the University of Edinburgh analyzed the preferences of 150,000 people for more than 100 foods and drinks.
The team identified that there are more than 400 genes that influence our food preferences, and they fall into three main groups: highly palatable, low-calorie or ‘acquired tastes’.
However, the findings don’t mean everyone falls into an exclusive category: people’s genetics can make them like the foods of all three groups.
But the finding explains why some people crave chocolate and sweets, while others enjoy healthy food more, and even why lunch boxes are so polarizing.
Within these three main groups, there are even more genetic quirks that decide whether someone prefers an apple to a banana, or milk chocolate to dark chocolate.
A better understanding of what drives people’s food choices could help explain why they find it hard to make healthy food choices and struggle with their weight, which could lead to better diet plans, they said.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh analyzed the preferences of 150,000 people for more than 100 food and drink products. 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 develop a map that reveals that there are three main clusters of genetic differences that match up to three food preferences: low-calorie, acquired taste, and highly palatable (shown in the graph)
The full food map: Edinburgh researchers explained how more than 400 genetic variants mean people like specific foods (listed on the outer wheel), such as horseradish, chips and cucumber. While the genes are related to making people like these specific foods, others are related to the enjoyment of flavors, such as fried vegetables and salads. These foods and subgroups fall into one of three food groups: acquired tastes (blue), low-calorie (green), or highly palatable (red).
HOW SHOULD A BALANCED DIET BE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Meals based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains
• 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 grain bread and a large baked potato with the skin on.
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (like soy drinks) by choosing lower-fat, lower-sugar options
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated and spreadable oils and consume them in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• 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
The researchers analyzed the genomes of 161,625 Britons involved in the UK Biobank, a database of medical and genetic records of half a million Britons.
They also analyzed questionnaire responses about their preferences for 137 different foods and drinks.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, show that there are 401 genetic variants that influenced what the participants liked.
Some were related to enjoying a specific food, such as salmon, porridge, chocolate or fried chicken.
But others were linked to a preference for the wider food group as a whole, such as fatty fish, healthy breakfasts, desserts and fried foods.
A set of genes appears to make people 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, have also been linked to higher rates of obesity and lower levels of exercise.
A second set of genes was linked to “acquired” strong-tasting foods such as cucumbers, olives or strong alcohol.
Genes linked to a preference for these foods, which also include garlic, avocados 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 gene pattern saw people prefer low-calorie foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole foods.
These genes, which made people prefer brown rice, whole-grain bread and porridge, have also been linked to higher levels of physical activity, according to previous research.
And there were even genetic differences between subsets of foods within the same category, with specific genetic variants linked to a preference for cooked, raw, and stronger-tasting vegetables, as well as hard, blue, or goat cheese and wine, vodka or beer.
A subanalysis of the brain scan data revealed that the genes that made people like unhealthy foods overlapped with genes found in the part of the brain that processes pleasure.
Meanwhile, genes related to healthier foods were more active in the decision-making part of the brain.
Professor Jim Wilson, head of human genetics at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This is a great example of applying complex statistical methods to large genetic data sets to reveal new biology.
“In this case, the underlying basis of what we like to eat and how it is hierarchically structured, from individual items to large food groups.”
Dr Nicola Pirastu, senior director of biostatistics at the Human Technopole research institute in Milan, said: “One of the important messages of this paper is that although taste receptors and therefore taste are important in determining what foods you like, it’s actually what’s going on in your brain that’s driving what we observe.
“Another important observation is that the main preference divide is not between salty and sweet foods, as might be expected, but between highly palatable, high-calorie foods and those for which a taste must be learned.
“This difference is reflected in the brain regions involved in their taste and strongly points to an underlying biological mechanism.”
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