In an unprecedented discovery, researchers have identified approximately 500 genes believed to dictate our dietary preferences. This new development emphasizes the role genes play in sensory pathways, such as taste, smell, and texture, and their capacity to alter the brain’s reward response. Researchers utilized the UK Biobank to conduct a phenome-wide association study (PheWAS) that disclosed genes more directly linked to diet than any health or lifestyle factors. These findings present an essential stride toward utilizing an individual’s genetics to establish precision nutrition strategies aimed at improving health or preventing disease.
The Role of Genetics in Sensory Perception
“Some genes we identified are related to sensory pathways — including those for taste, smell, and texture — and may also increase the reward response in the brain,” said research team leader Joanne Cole, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. These findings could potentially create sensory genetic profiles, thereby refining dietary recommendations based on foods that individuals enjoy eating. The PheWAS study was conducted using the UK Biobank, which contains data from 500,000 individuals, to find associations between gene variants of interest and a spectrum of human traits and behaviors, including dietary intake. According to Cole, the foods we choose to eat are majorly influenced by environmental factors such as culture, socioeconomic status, and food accessibility, rather than genetics. Thus, studying hundreds of thousands of individuals becomes crucial in detecting genetic influences amid these environmental factors.
Challenges and Insights in Identifying Diet-related Genes
Finding diet-related genes poses significant challenges, as people’s food choices correlate with numerous factors, including health concerns such as high cholesterol or body weight, and even socioeconomic status. By leveraging computational methods, researchers could segregate the direct effects of genetic variants impacting diet from indirect effects, like a gene influencing diabetes, which necessitates an individual to consume less sugar. This research design was feasible due to the UK Biobank’s comprehensive genetic information and detailed health and socioeconomic data. Consequently, researchers could test individual genetic variants for associations with thousands of traits and eliminate indirect gene variants more strongly associated with other factors, such as diabetes.
Analyzing the Association Between Genes and Food
The analysis revealed around 300 genes directly associated with consuming specific foods and nearly 200 genes linked to dietary patterns grouping various foods together, for instance, overall fish intake or fruit consumption. Cole emphasizes the study showed dietary patterns having more indirect genetic effects, meaning they correlated with numerous other factors, which underlines the importance of studying dietary patterns in context with other environmental factors.
Looking to the Future: From Genetic Information to Personalized Nutrition
With these newly identified diet-related genes, researchers have an opportunity to understand their functions better and to identify even more genes that directly influence food preferences. The research team, led by Cole, is exploring several lines of translational research based on these findings. For instance, they are interested in studying whether personalizing the flavor profile of a diet designed for weight loss using a person’s genetics could improve adherence. Tailoring foods to a person’s genetic predisposition might be feasible in the future. “If we know that a gene encoding an olfactory receptor in the nose increases a person’s liking of fruit and boosts the reward response in the brain, then molecular studies of this receptor could be used to identify natural or synthetic compounds that bind to it,” Cole proposed. The next logical step would be to see if adding one of these compounds to healthy foods makes those foods more appealing to that person.
Sharing the Findings
Joanne Cole will present the findings at NUTRITION 2023, the annual flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, held from July 22-25 in Boston. This study underpins the profound influence our genes could have on our dietary preferences and the potential applications this information holds for precision nutrition. The researchers continue to investigate the newly discovered genes to comprehend their functions and explore ways to influence food preferences further.