Do Genetics Affect Taste Buds?

Everything Michigan

Do Genetics Affect Taste Buds?

April 23, 2024 Blog Culture Food 0
private chef genetics dietary

If you came from my family of origin, the answer is an outstanding and emphatic yes! Yes genetics affect how we eat and what we think tastes good. In fact, if you are someone in our family and you happen to dislike any of the old-world Sicilian recipes from our great grandmother, you might be shunned. Seriously.

For example, I happen to have diverticulitis which by technical definition from the Mayo Clinic is, “When one or more of the pouches become inflamed, and in some cases infected, that condition is known as diverticulitis (die-vur-tik-yoo-LIE-tis). Diverticulitis can cause severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea and a marked change in your bowel habits,”.

Basically, I cannot eat seeds from vegetables or fruits, nuts and popcorn. And if you know the ingredients in the family sauce, there are seeds. Let’s put it this way, if I can afford it, once my kids are grown and flown, the first thing I am going to do is hire a private chef in Michigan (where we live just outside of Detroit in the suburbs). I will need someone who can cater to my dietary needs, while sticking to my family roots.

Here are some of our ingredients we use when making the Ventimiglia/Zerilli family sauce:

  • One can of tomato puree
  • One can of stewed tomatoes
  • One can of tomato paste
  • Oregano (enough until it smells right)
  • Basil (enough until it smells right)
  • Lots of garlic (enough until it smells right)
  • Onion (enough until it smells right)
  • Bay leaves (enough until it smells right)
  • Crushed red pepper (enough until it smells right)
  • Two pounds of meat (could be a combo of ground beef, veal, Italian sausage or ground pork)

Notice all those tomato ingredients? Well, they are the culprit of my chronic stomach issues growing up in a Sicilian-American family where there is always a pot of sauce in the refrigerator. My poor mother took it personally when I would say I did not want to eat sauce because it gave me a stomachache. She’d say, “How come you can eat Mexican food but not eat your family’s sauce?!”

Well, we discovered later why, and she modified the sauce by taking out the stewed tomatoes and the tomato paste. It helps but to this day, I still struggle with stomach issues when eating the family sauce.

So, to answer the question, after a lot of research, science has concluded that yes, taste as well as eating behaviors are dominated by our genes. These studies have found links between genetic makeup and preference to proteins, fat and carbohydrates. Oh, those carbs and us Italians!

What role do genetics play in the taste system?

Working in the marketing arena in southeast Michigan, I have been privileged to hang out with some of Michigan’s best food photographers and eat for free all the delicious food left over. That is, as long as it hasn’t sit under the lights for too many hours! Unfortunately though, I have missed out on being able to take copious amounts of leftovers home because the dishes always have seeds or nuts in them! While my genetic taste buds enjoy every type of food, from all countries across the globe, my colon does not. I digress.

Each person has their unique food preference which varies and is shaped by our distinct combination of three interacting factors:

  1. Environment (health, diet and cultural influences)
  2. Prior experiences with food
  3. Genes (alter a one’s sensory experience with food)

Food eaten is sensed by specialized receptors located in the nose and tongue. 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 different because of genetics?

You know why some people can’t stand the taste of kale or broccoli no matter how hard they try? Well, you can blame it on the genes! There are even some people who are “supertasters” thanks to their famiglia, which makes them super sensitive to bitterness in certain foods.

And hey, did you know that what your mom ate while pregnant can influence your taste preferences too? It’s true – those prenatal flavors can stick with you for life, and go either way too. For example, when I was pregnant with my youngest son, I could not get enough eggs, I would eat them all day, every day. That embryo is now in his mid-teens and he absolutely dislikes eggs with a passion! On the other hand, I drank lemonade like it was going out of style while pregnant with him. Today, he loves lemonade just like his mama!

Moral of the story? If you want your kids to love veggies, start ’em young and don’t give up – even if they scrunch up their faces at first. You might just be raising the next top chef in the family!

Social factors that influence 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 contains 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 healthy 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.
Do genetics affect taste buds?

In conclusion, genetics indeed play a significant role in shaping our taste buds and food preferences. From sensitivity to bitterness to inherited taste aversions, our genes dictate more than we may realize. Coupled with environmental and social factors, understanding these influences can help us make informed choices for a healthier and more enjoyable eating experience.