• The findings suggest that differences in bitter taste perception resulting from genetic differences may explain why some people choose coffee, tea or alcohol. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
A new study reveals how genetic differences explain whether you perceive alcohol, coffee or tea to taste bitter.
By
Yasmin Noone

16 Nov 2018 - 8:30 AM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2018 - 9:13 AM

To find out whether or not you’re genetically wired to like the taste of alcohol, you need ask yourself one question: do you think Brussels sprouts taste bitter?

An author of a new study, linking our genes to how we perceive bitter substances, explains that your answer to the Brussels sprouts question will determine whether or not you naturally – and genetically – find the taste of alcohol to be bitter.

The Australian-led study, published in Scientific Reports today, demonstrates that people who are genetically predisposed to have the bitter taste receptor – propylthiouracil (PROP) – will experience a higher sensitivity to bitterness.

So when they sample Brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens and alcohol, they’ll get an intensely bitter flavour and will probably dislike the initial taste.

“From this study, we showed that if you have the PROP receptor, you perceive alcohol to be more bitter and you may end up drinking less alcohol." 

The study found that a higher intensity of PROP perception results in lower alcohol consumption.

“From this study, we showed that if you have the PROP receptor, you perceive alcohol to be more bitter and you may end up drinking less alcohol,” paper co-author, Dr Daniel Liang-Dar Hwang, tells SBS.

“It also means you will taste the bitterness in Brussels sprouts. But if you don’t have the PROP taste receptor, you won’t find Brussels sprouts bitter.”

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Dr Liang-Dar Hwang explains that culture may play a part in determining whether we are genetically wired to have PROP receptors.

“The PROP gene, if you have it and think that Brussels sprouts taste bitter, has a similar prevalence across Europe and Asia.

“Overall, around 30 per cent of people [in these regions] don’t have this bitter taste receptor and 70 per cent of people may have it.”

Higher caffeine sensitivity was also linked to an increased risk of being a heavy coffee drinker, consuming more than four cups of coffee a day.

The reason why you prefer coffee or tea

The study, led by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, also looked at quinine and caffeine receptors, and their genetic link to the way we taste coffee and tea.

Researchers analysed one genetic sample of data with more than 1700 Queenslanders of European ancestry and a second genetic data set from 502,650 participants living in the UK, aged 37–73 years.

Overall, they concluded that a higher sensitivity to the bitterness of caffeine was associated with increased consumption of coffee.

Higher caffeine sensitivity was also linked to an increased risk of being a heavy coffee drinker, consuming more than four cups of coffee a day.

“Basically, if you have the quinine and PROP genes, you have a stronger sensation of bitter tastes and that is connected with how you taste tea and alcohol."

The opposite was observed for tea – those who were sensitive to caffeine drank less tea. Big tea drinkers were also more sensitive to quinine and PROP.

“Basically, if you have the quinine and PROP genes, you have a stronger sensation of bitter tastes and that is connected with how you taste tea and alcohol,” says Dr Liang-Dar Hwang.

The findings suggest that differences in bitter taste perception resulting from genetic differences may help to explain why some people choose coffee, tea or alcohol.

“Our results reveal that bitter perception is causally associated with intake of coffee, tea and alcohol, suggesting a role of bitter taste in the development of bitter beverage consumption,” the study reads.

However, explains Dr Liang-Dar Hwang, if someone is born with a preference for coffee or a bitter aversion to alcohol, they can still learn to like certain tastes by being repeatedly exposed to it.

“Don’t blame your genes if you don’t like coffee,” he says. “Even though we have shown that there is a genetic link to liking coffee, tea and alcohol, it is not everything. Even if you have these genes, you can still learn to like different foods or drinks.

“Our tastes change over time and you can learn to like certain drinks and foods, even if your genes tell you that you hate it.”

 

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