On the trail of genetic gastronomy

If I told you that our diets were shaped by our environments, would you be surprised?  If I said that what we ate was shaped by what we liked, would you be surprised by that either?  I should think the answer is no to both questions.  But still, thinking as a neuroscientist the question becomes: what is the neurological basis for why we like the food that we do?  Why do some people enjoy cilantro and some think that it tastes of soap?

It’s clear that our diet has shaped our evolution – just look at the relatively recent emergence of lactose tolerance in European populations.  It is a small leap to assume that the recipes we use may shape how we taste as well – and thus how we experience the world.  A news article in Nature explores the science of taste and recipes:

The Silk Road offers a potential paradise for such genetic exploration. The route traverses massive mountain ranges such as the Pamir and the Tian Shan in central Asia and passes through pockets of the nomadic tribes who originally populated the region, as well as ethnically diverse groups descended from traders who settled en route, often near the roadside inns called caravanserais. These populations did not tend to share their genes, but they did share recipes. Cuisines are remarkably similar along much of the Silk Road — variations on tandoor breads, noodles with vegetable or mutton sauces, and dried or fresh fruit. This means that differences in food preferences between groups are likely to be down to variations in genes rather than in dietary cultures, making them even more appealing to the geneticists…

The scientists have already identified eight variants in known genes, including one for an ion channel involved in sensing spicy-hotness, which are associated with a taste for particular foods. And they have found that variants of the gene for the TAS1R2 protein, part of a sweetness receptor, are associated with a strong liking for vodka and white wine…

There may be bigger scientific stories hiding in the data. Gasparini says that the team is seeing an emerging association in Tajikistani populations between an olfactory receptor gene and both sensitivity to bitter tastes and a tendency to mistake smells. If the finding holds up, it will be the first demonstrated genetic link between smell and taste perception, and it could help to explain how signals from different senses combine to sculpt individual food preferences.

One thought on “On the trail of genetic gastronomy

  1. Pingback: You eat what you are « neuroecology

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