Science & Technology

Coffee and beer drinking might be a question of genes not just taste

The most comprehensive study into beverage choice ever conducted has revealed that there may be a genetic reason we choose the drinks we do. (Genetic literacy project)
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The most comprehensive study into beverage choice ever conducted has revealed that there may be a genetic reason we choose the drinks we do.

Ever picked up a co-worker’s drink and taken a slip only to spit it out is disgust whilst wondering how anyone could drink something so bitter or so sweet?

Scientist Marilyn Cornelis thinks she has an answer.

Cornelis, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, searched for variations in our taste genes that could explain our beverage preferences.

This was more than just a study on taste preference, however. She believes that understanding why we chose the drinks we do and why they are palatable to some but not others could indicate ways to intervene in people’s diets.

To Cornelis’ surprise, her new Northwestern Medicine study showed taste preferences for bitter or sweet beverages aren’t based on variations in our taste genes, but rather, on genes related to the psychoactive properties of these beverages.

She explains: “The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drink.

“People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste.”

The study, published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics, highlights important behaviour-reward components to drink choice, thus adding to our understanding of the link between genetics and beverage consumption — and the potential barriers to intervening in people’s diets, says Cornelis.

Sugary beverages are linked to many diseases and health conditions and alcohol intake is related to more than 200 diseases and accounts for about 6 per cent of deaths globally.

Cornelis and her colleague Alan Kuang did find one variant in a gene, called FTO, linked to sugar-sweetened drinks. People who possessed this altered gene — a variant previously related to lower risk of obesity — surprisingly, preferred sugar-sweetened beverages.

Carrying the can: is altered FTO responsible for our drink choices?

During the study, beverages were categorized into a bitter-tasting group and a sweet-tasting group. Bitter included coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, beer, red wine and liquor. Sweet included sugar-sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages and non-grapefruit juices. This taste classification has been previously validated.

Beverage intake was collected using 24-hour dietary recalls or questionnaires. Scientists counted the number of servings of these bitter and sweet beverages consumed by about 336,000 individuals in the UK Biobank. Then they did a genome-wide association study of bitter beverage consumption and of sweet beverage consumption. Lastly, they looked to replicate their key findings in three U.S. cohorts.

Cornelis says: “It’s counterintuitive. FTO has been something of a mystery gene and we don’t know exactly how it’s linked to obesity. It likely plays a role in behaviour, which would be linked to weight management.”


Victor Zhong, the study’s first author and postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern adds: “To our knowledge, this is the first genome-wide association study of beverage consumption based on taste perspective.

“It’s also the most comprehensive genome-wide association study of beverage consumption to date.”H

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