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Genetics and Taste Buds

By Nicole Tamarov

With the diverse and abundant amount of food people all over the world consume, we often attribute our opinions of different foods to personal preference and culture, while much of this preference actually arises as a result of the influence of genetics on our taste buds. It has been found that differences in taste receptor genes across species of vertebrate animals lead to variations in behaviors related to taste and taste sensitivity. These differences affect our perception of different foods and could be attributed to physiological and epigenetic sources, as well as environmental variations.

Research has been conducted regarding sweet, savory (umami), bitter, and salty taste receptors and the fact that certain people have genes that code for receptors that are more sensitive to certain compounds (i.e. bitter compounds) due to the different alleles that are present for each of these receptors. In a study conducted with mice, it was found that mice with the TasIr3 allele correlate with the intake of sweet foods. Researchers of this study observed the peripheral taste nerves of these mice and determined that mice with the low-preference level of this allele had less of an extreme nerve firing response.

Despite the variations among taste preferences and sensitivities, humans tend to be consistent in terms of general taste. For instance, the preference, or lack of preference, for the concentration of certain types of foods are defined by similarities in our genetic codes. Umami is typically characterized by the taste of monosodium glutamate and has been found to be an indicator of amino acid content in food and preference for it varies depending on context. Saltiness and sourness are typically favored in smaller concentrations rather than larger ones.

So the next time you indulge in a slice of pizza, or chew on a piece of sour candy, remember that your love for these foods exists thanks to your genes.

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