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Coffee and beer may not just be an acquired taste, but a genetic one

For many people, there is no beverage more satisfying than a powerfully hoppy IPA or a bold, dark roast coffee. If you ask them what they like about these drinks, you’ll likely get a long-winded answer about the flavor profile of the bean or the seven different kinds of hops used in the brew, but a new study from Northwestern Medicine shows there may be more to it than that.

In this study, published in Human Molecular Genetics, scientist Marilyn Cornelis searched for variations in our taste genes that may explain our beverage preferences. Through collecting 24-hour dietary recalls and questionnaires about how many different types of beverages were consumed by about 336,000 people in the UK Biobank, they could do a genome-wide association study of bitter and sweet beverage consumption.

Surprisingly, the results showed that taste preferences for bitter or sweet beverages are not based on variations in taste genes, but rather the genes related to psychoactive properties in these drinks.

The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drinks,” says Cornelis, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste.”

Cornelis was able to find one variant in a gene known as FTO, which was linked to sugar-sweetened beverages. Individuals with a variant in this gene preferred sugar-sweetened drinks, which is somewhat counterintuitive due to the fact that the same variant was previously linked to a lower risk of obesity.

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

This study also highlighted integral behavior-reward components of beverage choice, and contributes to our understanding of the link between genetics and beverage consumption, as well as the potential problems that arise in people’s diets. Sugar-sweetened drinks are related to a plethora of disease and health conditions, while alcohol intake is linked to over 200 diseases and accounts for about 6 percent of deaths globally.

Understanding how a person’s genetic make-up determines their preference for certain food and beverages may one day help us with better intervention in the diets of those who may be headed for health risks.

To our knowledge, this is the first genome-wide association study of beverage consumption based on taste perspective,” says Victor Zhong, the study’s first author and postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern. “It’s also the most comprehensive genome-wide association study of beverage consumption to date.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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