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The Link Between Cravings and Your Genes

Have you ever craved a piece of cheese and thought “I must be low on calcium or iron”? While evidence shows there may be a link between craving a certain food and nutrient deficiencies it is likely more complex than that. What about continuing to eat a certain food even though you know that they are unhealthy? Maybe you are wondering why you hate the taste of cilantro or seem to always reach for sweets when snacking. Research suggests that our genes actually have an influence on our taste preferences, cravings, and food choices. Understanding this connection may actually help us stick to diets and better personalize nutrition. 

Why do we eat what we eat?

Simply put, our food choices are related to what foods we purchase and eat. Underneath that simple definition lies a complex set of interrelated biological, physical, and emotional factors. These include hunger, access, budget, culture, heritage, dietary preferences, dietary restrictions, and so forth. Our genes actually impact how we perceive and experience food on a sensory level. Additionally, our genes may influence our food consumption patterns. 

The biology of taste

Our sense of taste evolved to allow us to evaluate what we eat and drink and make sure it was safe for consumption. Bitter flavors often signaled the presence of toxins while sweeter flavors indicated that a particular food was acceptable. As humans continued to develop so did our taste and taste preferences. Similarly, humans also developed food aversion during this time, especially if they became ill after consuming a specific food. However, today when we are purchasing our food from grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and so on, we can be reasonably sure that it is not poisonous or harmful for the majority of the population. If our food systems have been modified to reduce harmful risk related to the foods we eat, what is driving our food preferences today?

When we eat food specialized receptors in the tongue and nose sense unique flavor and aromatic compounds. These receptors are highly specialized to bind to specific nutrients or compounds. In addition to taste receptors, certain ion channels also play a role in taste perception. As you consume a meal or food, your brain receives and processes this information to form a flavor profile. Flavor is further influenced by how we perceive texture, temperature, and viscosity. 

While the human tongue has over 100 receptors, human taste can be distilled down to the basic 5 taste qualities of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory). Our receptors as well ion channels are assembled based on instructions found within our DNA code. Research suggests that differences in our genotypes can account for a large degree of difference among individuals and their perception of taste. How we perceive taste can also further influence our food choices. Individuals who dislike bitter compounds are more likely to add sugar to their coffee to reduce bitterness or may not eat as many vegetables due to the bitter compounds commonly known as PROP and PTC. Individuals who prefer umami flavors are more likely to select food higher in fat and protein. While preferring sour flavors may guide you towards eating more citrus fruit, having a sweet tooth may increase the amount of sugary beverages or candy you consume. Our genes have also been linked to whole foods and food-related attributes such as our preference for cilantro or coriander, our sensitivity to asparagus metabolites, and whether we like coffee. However, due to the complex sensory mechanisms our genes do not have as great of an impact. 

What are you craving to eat?

The bottom line, your genes may have a bigger impact on your food choices than you think. Having an understanding of what drives our taste perception from the basic level of DNA all the way to our social surroundings presents an innovative perspective of how to tailor a personalized diet or eating program for an individual and their unique needs. Combining genetic data that not only tells you how you should eat but also what foods you will find acceptable or pleasurable can create healthy diets that not only help you tackle your health goal but can help you stick with it. 

What’s Next?

The first step to understanding how your genes respond to food is taking a DNA test. GenoPalate offers a DNA testing kit as well as an option to upload DNA data if you have already done DNA testing services such as 23andMe and Ancestry. Your DNA data is translated into nutrition and food recommendations, so you can eat smarter. Soon GenoPalate will also be offering an eating behavior panel with action tips to help you better understand why you make certain dietary choices and tips on what you can do. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to health. It’s important to know where these differences exist and where to begin making changes. Our genetics can give us clues to these differences and provide us insight on our personalized dietary needs.


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