Our taste for “weird and wonderful” foods, including chili, is in our genes, a study shows

Our taste for “weird and wonderful” foods, including chili, is in our genes, a study shows

Whether it’s chicken vindaloo or a taco loaded with jalapenos, many people struggle when it comes to spicy food.

Now, a study has shown that our love for certain foods, including chilies, has to do with more than just culture or even taste buds.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh say our genes also play an important role.

In the study, the team identified hundreds of genetic variants linked to a preference for certain foods, including aniseed, avocados, chilies, steaks and oily fish.

“Although taste receptors, and therefore taste, are important in determining which foods you like, it’s actually what’s happening in your brain that drives our observation,” said Dr. Nicola Pirastu from Human Technopole, Milan, an author of the study.

A study has found that our love for certain foods, including chilies, has more to do with culture or even taste buds. Instead, researchers at the University of Edinburgh say our genes also play an important role (stock image)

The researchers used their findings to develop a map showing that there are three main clusters of genetic differences that correspond to up to three food preferences - low-calorie, acquired taste, and very palatable (see chart).

The researchers used their findings to develop a map showing that there are three main clusters of genetic differences that correspond to up to three food preferences – low-calorie, acquired taste, and very palatable (see chart).

Three main food groups

The study found three main groups of foods that share a similar genetic component:

1. Tasty, high-calorie foods like meat, dairy, and desserts

2. Strong-tasting “acquired” foods, including alcohol, chili, coffee, and wine

3. Low-calorie foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole foods

In the study, researchers used questionnaires and genetic analysis to rate 161,625 participants’ preferences for 137 popular foods and drinks, including beef, beer, bread, chicken, red wine, chili and tea.

Their analysis revealed 401 genetic variants that influenced what foods the participants liked.

Many of the variants affected more than one food preference. For example, some genetic variants were associated only with salmon consumption, while others increased liking for fish in general.

Based on the results, the researchers created a ration map that showed how the participants’ preferences for certain food groups and certain flavors were influenced by genetic variants.

The map showed three main clusters of foods that share a similar genetic component.

The first group consists of delicious, high-calorie foods like meat, dairy, and desserts.

The second group consists of strong-tasting “acquired” foods, including alcohol and spicy vegetables like chilies.

Researchers created a ration map that showed how participants' preferences for certain food groups and certain flavors were influenced by genetic variants.  The map showed three main clusters of foods that share a similar genetic component

Researchers created a ration map that showed how participants’ preferences for certain food groups and certain flavors were influenced by genetic variants. The map showed three main clusters of foods that share a similar genetic component

In the study, researchers used questionnaires and genetic analysis to rate 161,625 participants' preferences for 137 popular foods and drinks, including beef, beer, bread, chicken, red wine, chili and tea

In the study, researchers used questionnaires and genetic analysis to rate 161,625 participants’ preferences for 137 popular foods and drinks, including beef, beer, bread, chicken, red wine, chili and tea

And the third group includes low-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables.

These three food groups also share genes known to be associated with different health traits, according to the researchers.

The high-calorie foods are influenced by the same genetic variants associated with obesity and lower physical activity, while higher preference for fruits and vegetables is influenced by the same variants associated with higher physical activity.

Meanwhile, higher liking for “acquired” tastes is associated with healthier cholesterol profiles, higher levels of physical activity, and higher odds of smoking and drinking.

However, the researchers were surprised to find genetic differences between the preferences of food subgroups within the same category.

For example, they found a weak relationship between the genes linked to cooked vegetables and salad greens and the genes linked to stronger-tasting vegetables like spinach and asparagus.

“The main division of preferences is not between savory and sweet foods, as one might expect, but between highly enjoyable and high-calorie foods and those that require learning to taste,” said Dr. Pirastu.

“This difference is reflected in the regions of the brain involved in their preference and strongly suggests an underlying biological mechanism.”

The team hopes the findings could help design healthier foods, improve nutritional interventions, and possibly even lead to drugs to help people lose weight.

Professor Jim Wilson, Personal Chair of Human Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This is a great example of applying complex statistical methods to large genetic data sets to uncover new biology, in this case the underlying basis of what we do like to eat and how it is structured hierarchically, from individual items to large food groups.’

CAPSAICIN: THE COMPOUND THAT MAKES CHILLIS SPICY

A substance called capsaicin gives chilies their unmistakably hot, peppery taste.

There are 23 known types of capsaicinoids, all of which are believed to come from the pulp of the chili pepper.

It’s actually not a taste that creates the warm feeling on the tongue and mouth, but a reaction to pain.

A pepper’s heat is determined by the genes that regulate the production of capsaicinoids, and less hot peppers have mutations that slow down this process.

The molecules have known nutritional and antibiotic properties and are used in painkillers and pepper spray.