Ever wonder why some people don’t like Brussel sprouts or strong, dark coffee? Some people love a good, dark roast, cup of coffee – and Brussel sprouts and cabbage taste just great.
It turns out there is a lot of variation in the way people perceive different tastes. For example: I can detect stevia in just about anything you try to hide it in — it has a terrible after taste to me. I’ve tried multiple brands and they are all terrible! But friends claim that stevia is just great and use it in everything. It turns out that I am genetically more sensitive to the bitter taste of steviol, which a lot of people can’t detect.
In genes where there is a lot of common variants, it is often the case that the variety of phenotypes, or traits, from the variants are an advantage to the population as a whole.
So why is it an advantage to have differences in our taste receptors? Having part of the population able to taste a bitter toxin and warn of the danger is vital, while also having others who scarf down Brussels sprouts lets the community as a whole know that a bitter, but healthy, food is good to eat.
Here’s an example:
One of the substances that some people can detect, at extremely low concentrations, is aristolochic acid, a toxin found in certain plant seeds. In Eastern Europe, the plant tends to grow as a weed in fields, contaminating crops and causing kidney disease in those who ate the toxin. There is a 50-fold difference in people’s ability to taste aristolochic acid, although researchers are still trying to untangle the effects of taste ability vs the effect of the sensitivity of the gastrointestinal receptors on the disease-causing aspects of the toxin. Needless to say, it would be an advantage to have someone in the village that can warn you that the crop is contaminated!
We all know that we taste food in our mouth, but it turns out that these same receptors are also found in the gastrointestinal tract, in the airways, and in the urinary tract. New studies are coming out all the time on the various functions that these ‘taste’ receptors perform in the body.[study][study]
TheTAS2R gene family, containing 43 different genes, is responsible for various bitter taste receptors, while the TAS1R family (just two genes) is responsible for sweet and umami tastes. Salty and sour taste receptors are still being sorted out, and it turns out we also have taste receptors for fat.
Linked to the taste of bitter in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress, chard, ethanol, and PROP. [ref][ref] Non-tasters, or people who generally can’t detect the bitter taste, eat more vegetables, on the whole, when compared to tasters. [ref]
The TAS2R38 protein has recently been found to be expressed in adipose (fat) cells. Interestingly, people who are obese tend to have a lot more TAS2R38 in their fat cells compared to lean people. [ref]
Dietary intervention studies with a goal of increasing vegetable intake find that people who are able to taste the bitter compound in broccoli, etc are unlikely to increase their intake of vegetables, even when they are encouraged to do so. On the other hand, people who can’t taste the bitter or are intermediate tasters did increase their vegetable consumption when encouraged to do so to prevent cardiovascular disease. [ref]
Check your genetic data for rs713598 (23andMe v.4 and v.5):
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Associated with the taste of beta-glycorpyranoside [ref], which is in ethanol, bearberry, bacteria in spoilt or fermented foods, and willow bark (salicin). [ref] There have been studies looking into the link between TAS2R16 gene variants and colon cancer, pursuing the idea that either a variation in vegetable intake would affect cancer risk or a variation in the amount of natural salicin compounds eaten would affect colon cancer risk (aspirin being preventative in colon cancer for some). The studies done so far though haven’t been able to make that connection. [ref]
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Linked to being able to taste quinine, which is the bitter taste in grapefruit and tonic water. [study]
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Stevia taste receptor — as well as absinthe, aristolochic acid, fishberries, and Hoodia Gordonii.[ref] [ref] There is a polymorphism (rs2234001, covered by AncestryDNA but not 23andMe) that causes some people to detect stevia as bitter, some as only sweet, and some as sweet with a bitter aftertaste. You don’t really need a genetic test for this one, though, since you can just taste some stevia and know whether you think it is sweet or bitter or both.
Of those who can taste bitter, some have a much strong perception of the bitter taste based on the rs3741843 variant. [ref]
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Sweet taste receptor for which variations are estimated to produce about a 16% difference in variability of sweet taste perception. This receptor also plays a role in umami taste as well, along with another gene. [ref] A study found an increase in kid’s cavities linked to those who have a decreased sensitivity to the taste of sugar, perhaps due to eating more sugar to reach the same perception as those without the variant. Scientists are still sorting out the reason why and how the change in the taste receptor protein is also altering insulin secretion. [ref]
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If you know that you should be eating more broccoli and Brussels sprouts (or other vegetables!) but instinctively steer away from them, try hacking your taste buds with different recipes. Try adding fat (butter, olive oil) or herbs that you like.
The research on colon cancer and diseases associated with vegetable intake really don’t show that people who eat fewer vegetables due to different taste receptors are at a greater risk. So instead of trying to force a change in consumption, instead focus on getting high quality, whole foods that you do naturally want to eat.
TAS2R receptors are located in the cells lining the gastro-intestinal tract. While they don’t signal the taste of food to the brain, like the receptors in the mouth, the intestinal receptors do cause a reaction when activated. Some cause intestinal motility to change. Researchers have looked at this both from the point of view of having eaten a bitter substance, and in animal studies where the bitter compounds are placed into the stomach, bypassing the mouth. Certain molecules increase gut motility, and certain bitter molecules cause the release of hormones that influence satiety.[ref]
“Bitters”, or herbal combinations that are very bitter, have long been used to flavor alcoholic drinks that are served either before or after a meal. Bitters have also been used as digestive aids.
Originally published, May 2015. Updated 2/2020.