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Genetics and Taste Buds

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After much research, scientists have concluded that taste as well as eating behaviors of human beings including meal size and calorie intake are controlled by our genes. Studies have found links between genetic makeup and preference for proteins, fat, and carbohydrates.

Do genetics affect your taste buds?

Every person has their own unique food preferences that vary and are shaped by their distinctive combination of three interacting factors: the environment (health, diet and cultural influences); prior experiences with food; and genes, which alter a person’s sensory experience with food.

Food eaten is sensed by specialized receptors located in the nose and tounge. These work like a lock and are highly specific in the nutrients or aromas (aka the keys) they detect. Sweet receptors, for example, detect only sweet molecules and will not detect bitterness.

Each person has about thirty-five receptors to detect salty, sour, sweet, bitter, fat and umami tastes. There are about four hundred receptors that detect aroma. Receptor proteins are produced from instructions encoded in our DNA, with significant variation in the DNA code between each human being.

What foods taste bad because of genetics?

A person’s genes have the ability to make foods taste worse to you than they do to other people. These genetic differences may produce a person who is a “supertaster”.  A supertaster can not tolerate bitterness of certain vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage.

Bitter detecting receptors are much more complicated than the sweet taste receptors.  People have twenty-five receptors that detect different bitter molecules as these evolved in more depth to detect and warn us from eating harmful toxins while we were trying to evolve.

While in the womb, a mother passes on her DNA food preferences, exposing the embreo to different flavors via amniotic fluid. The more flavors a baby is exposed to as a fetus or an infant, the more likely they are to accept those flavors as they are introduced in solid food form.

Repeated exposure to a food often leads to eventual acceptance.  Should a baby make faces or spits peas out the first few times they are eaten it is suggested to keep trying as babies are born with a dislike for bitter tasting foods.  Pediatricians note that it is much harder to overcome a child’s dislike of vegetables or other foods after the toddler stage. So start early!

Some research found that babies with mamas that ate a lot of garlic or anise-flavored foods during pregnancy, were more attracted to those odors after birth.  In parts of Nigeria women are told to not eat meat as it is believed that behavioral traits of the animal will be passed along to the baby. Elsewhere, traditional foods are prescribed because it is believed they will make a mama’s milk thicker or more abundant. This contributes to the effect of passing along cultural flavor preferences long before a child is even able to eat those traditional family recipes.

How do social factors affect food choices?

From a sociological perspective, another factor affecting the choice and selection of foods is ethnicity/social groups. Each group will choose and select different foods because people who belong to certain ethnic groups will have been brought up in a certain style and manner. Meaning, factors such as their outlook and attitude toward life and people, health and even food choices will be greatly influenced by their specific group and are typically instilled at a very early age. Geography also plays an important role. For instance, African and Afro Caribbean groups consume foods which contain a lot of various meats, wheat and rice. Eastern and far eastern groups will consume foods, which contain a lot of various herbs and spices. Typical western groups will consume foods, which are much dryer and plainer than other ethnic groups.

A study recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Food and Nutrition looked at the effects of social norms on eating behavior. Researchers found people ate more food if they were told their peers had eaten more. When they were told their peers were eating healthier foods, they ate healthier.

Eating is often combined with social activity, so it makes sense that the people we surround ourselves with will influence our eating behaviors.

Here are some ways to eat healthily and still have a social life.

  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Challenge a friend (Knowing how much of an impact your friends can have on you, take advantage of working together to achieve goals)
  • Know that people have their own individual nutrition needs.
  • Find other ways to identify with your group.
  • Surround yourself with visual reminders and positive influences.

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