It’s no secret that taste preferences vary wildly across the world’s population. And there’s as many reasons for these differences as there are cultures. What you grow up eating, what foods are made available to you, and social stigmas all go into forming taste preference. But perhaps the most significant variable – which is just now beginning to be teased out in the laboratory – is genetics.
For bitterness alone, there are 43 genes that encode proteins that produce the sensation. Individual mutations to any of these can give rise to a wide range of different reactions to the same chemical components of a steaming dish put in front of their owners.
In a recent study, researchers from Penn State University were interested in identifying which genes and mutations might be responsible for the different ways people react to artificial sweeteners. The particular substance studied here is known as acesulfame potassium, and you won’t know it by any other name like Splenda. Instead of standing alone, it is often used in conjunction with other zero-calorie sweeteners, appearing in more than 4,000 products around the world.
The only problem is that a lot of people hate its taste. They find it too – you guessed it – bitter.
In the experiment, 108 people were genetically sequenced to identify mutations in the 43 genes that encode bitterness for the human tongue. They were then asked to rate the bitterness of acesulfame potassium on a general labeled magnitude scale. As expected, a few mutations seemed to be responsible for at least some of the difference of opinion of its taste.
Common alleles – or different mutations – to the genes TAS2R9 and TAS2R31 were implicated in particular. While not as impressive on their own, when statistics on both were combined, they could account for 13.4 percent of the variance in perceived bitterness. And while this may not seem like a lot, it’s quite the chunk when compared to all the other variables that can go into forming an opinion on taste.
As science continues to uncover the genetic basis for our differences in appreciation for Coke Zero, I’m sure there will be no shortage of funding from the food industry. Who needs a functioning government to figure out how to sell more products to an overweight world?
The paper, “Bitterness of the Non-nutritive Sweetener Acesulfame Potassium Varies With Polymorphisms in TAS2R9 and TAS2R31,” was published by John Hayes, Penn State assistant professor of food science and director of the sensory evaluation center, along with Alissa Allen, John McGeary, and Valerie Knopik.