Oh, to have been born loving broccoli instead of chocolate! Truth is, your DNA alone doesn’t dictate what you like (and don’t like).

To a degree, taste preferences are hard-wired. Across cultures, people generally prefer foods that taste sweet and dislike bitter ones—which makes evolutionary sense. Sweetness is associated with foods that provide energy needed for survival (e.g., mother’s milk). Bitterness often signals the presence of a toxin. How much a person prefers sweet, and dislikes bitter, tastes depends partly upon the number of taste buds and the type of taste receptors he or she inherits. “We know that some people live in a more ‘pastel’ taste world and others, a more ‘neon’ one,” says Valerie B. Duffy, professor of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut.

One of the most studied genetic factors affecting taste involves one’s ability to detect bitter compounds. Some people inherit genes for taste receptors that are acutely sensitive to bitterness. Other people, born with genes for receptors that make for less-intense taste experiences, often aren’t able to detect subtle bitter compounds. One can gauge a person’s bitterness sensitivity with a simple test: a slip of paper containing a small amount of a compound known to stimulate bitter-sensing receptors is placed on the tongue. The taster perceives bitterness only if his receptors are the sensitive kind.

I had a chance to see this for myself during Dr. Mennella’s presentation. She asked each of us in attendance to “taste” a paper strip and raise a hand if we detected bitter. I slipped the paper into my mouth and shot my arm high into the air. It was as if someone had dumped a spoonful of dandelion root—one of the bitterest substances on earth—on my tongue. Scanning the room, I was amazed. Some of my colleagues were grimacing like me, but others looked as if they were waiting for something to happen. “What?” their faces said. “I don’t taste a thing.”

Next: A Built-In Aversion to Bitter »

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