Taste Buds vs. Genes – How Genes Affect Taste
From sweet tooths to spicy food haters, everyone has unique flavor preferences that affect how they eat. Taste is a fundamental sense that helps us detect chemical substances in food, preventing us from ingesting toxins and steering us toward the nutrients we need. While the tongue is often credited as the primary taste organ, there is more to it than tastebuds. Science suggests that genetics dictate how people perceive flavor.
How Does the Sense of Taste Work?
The top and sides of the tongue are covered in visible bumps called papillae containing tastebuds. Each tastebud consists of various cells, some of which have proteins called taste receptors on their surface. Taste receptors bind with chemical compounds in food and send sensations to the brain, allowing us to detect salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami flavors.
The nose also plays a role in flavor perception, detecting a food’s aroma and sending nerve impulses to the brain that contribute to the overall sensation of taste. Proteins called TRP channels in the mouth and nose can detect hot and cool sensations, often contributing to spicy or minty tastes.
Although everyone has the same types of taste receptors, genetics dictate their sensitivity to various food compounds, allowing some people to taste flavors more intensely than others.
Supertasters vs Non-Tasters
The first person to connect genetics and taste perception was chemist Arthur Fox in 19311 when he noticed his colleague could taste a bitter chemical he could not. This event sparked further research, and scientists soon discovered that genes control the number and sensitivity of various taste receptors on the tongue.
People sensitive to strong flavors are often called “supertasters” and typically have more taste receptors for bitter, sweet, and spicy flavors on their tongues. “Non-tasters” have fewer taste receptors and are typically less picky about what they eat. About 40 – 50% of the population2 are considered average tasters who perceive all flavors moderately.
Genetics and the Five Basic Tastes
The first research into how genetics affects taste was centered around bitter flavors. The TARS2R gene family dictates how we perceive bitterness, often determining whether someone enjoys foods like broccoli, cabbage, coffee, rosemary, olives, mustard, and alcohol. While some bitter flavors warn of potential toxicity, most bitter foods are unmistakably nutritious.
Three genes from the TAS1R family are responsible for our perception of sweet flavors in food. Humans and some animals are most attracted to sweet foods because sweetness indicates the presence of sugar (glucose), our primary energy source. Some studies show that non-tasters are more likely to consume excess sugar, which can have adverse health effects over time.
Umami is the fifth basic taste that allows people to perceive savory and meaty flavors, helping the body detect protein in food. Two of the TAS1R genes that detect sweetness are also responsible for detecting umami flavors on the tongue. A person with the umami-tasting gene may be more likely to enjoy a high-protein diet.
Salty and Sour
Although genetics control people’s sensitivity to salt, taste receptors do not control the perception of salty flavors, unlike the other four tastes. People perceive saltiness through sodium channels on the tongue that stimulate serotonin production in the brain. Researchers have yet to discover the exact science behind the sour taste sensation but believe it may be similar to salt perception.
No matter how you perceive taste, sophisticated flavor profiles appeal to any taster. Advanced Biotech is passionate about flavor and supplies high-quality flavorings and fragrances to the food and beverage industry. Please contact us for more information.