Like Coffee? You May Be Genetically Wired That Way

Desiree Burns
November 17, 2018

People on either end of the coffee spectrum might think of the other, are you seriously tasting what I'm tasting?

Then they looked to see if people sensitive to one or more of these substances drank more or less coffee than people who were not sensitive.

Previous studies have found that people taste bitter flavours like caffeine, quinine and an artificial substance called propylthiouracil differently according to the types of taste receptor genes they have.

But a new study suggests people's sensitivity to that bitter taste plays a role in how much coffee they drink.

"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".

The findings showed that those who were more sensitive to the bitterness of caffeine-determined by the presence of certain genes-drank more coffee, but less tea (possibly because they were too busy drinking coffee).

The new research, published in Scientific Reports, is based on two datasets: an Australian study of 1757 twins and their siblings, which isolated the taste receptor genes that influence our perception of bitter tastes, and data from 438,870 participants in the UK Biobank, a research initiative that collected genetic information from more than 500,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales.

In this new study, we examined the consumption of coffee and tea in a large Biobank cohort of more than 400,000 men and women aged 37 to 73 in the United Kingdom for whom we also had data about their bitter receptor genes. As you might expect, the researchers thought higher sensitivity to bitterness would make people less likely to consume these drinks.

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Meanwhile, those who enjoyed a strong, bitter taste when consuming caffeine were more likely to be heavy coffee drinkers (more than four cups a day).

When there is a need for caffeine, "super-tasters" of quinine and PROP could choose tea over coffee because they tend to be more sensitive to overall bitterness.

The team also found people sensitive to the bitter flavors of quinine and of propylthiouracil avoided coffee.

How could this be?

Cornelis said the findings for tea were harder to explain, but might in part be down to heavy coffee drinkers tending to be very light tea drinkers. The association with the stimulant is enough to over-ride an adaptive aversion to the taste.

"Bitter taste perception is shaped by not only genetics but also environmental factors", he said. Our tastes can and indeed likely will change over our lifetime. People who have a greater genetic disposition to tasting the bitterness of caffeine, for instance, appear to be heavier coffee drinkers.

"The same was true for red wine, with people who didn't like PROP-rich foods also less likely to pour themselves a glass of red", Mr Ong said.

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