Do Your Genes Influence What Foods You Like?

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When you think about genes and heredity, you might think about your risk of developing conditions like heart disease, hypertension and cancer. But our genes also affect our preferences for certain foods and flavors.

Your genes can make foods taste worse to you than they do to other people. Genetic differences can also make someone a "supertaster" who can't tolerate the bitterness of certain vegetables, especially the cruciferous variety (like kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage). The good news: Food preferences can change with age and you can learn to like foods you once disliked. 

Food Preferences Explained

Our understanding of how genes influence our taste preferences is still in its infancy. Here's what we know:

  • There are basic tastes: Our taste buds can detect five different tastes —sweet, salt, spice, bitter and umami, that savory "meaty" flavor. Our tongues contain many receptors for each of these tastes.
  • Taste perception relies on the brain: In order to taste a food, information about taste has to reach the brain. There are a number of things that influence those signals, such as how many taste buds we have and whether those taste buds are super attuned to detect bitter foods.
  • Taste is influenced by early experiences: How we experience food at an early age — even in utero and through breastfeeding — influences food preferences. So if you eat something and immediately become ill, you may have an aversion to the food that has nothing to do with genetics.
  • Age can affect taste perception: The number and sensitivity of taste buds decrease with age. So taste perceptions often become more muted in older people.
  • Hormonal shifts can impact taste: Hormones play a role in how we perceive the taste of foods. People who are depressed and anxious, for example, have lower levels of serotonin, which can diminish the brain's ability to distinguish between bitter, sour and sweet.

Learning to Like Certain Foods

Food preferences develop based on a number of factors, and they can change over time and with different taste experiences. Up to 14 percent of people have a genetic mutation that makes cilantro taste like soap, for example. If that's the case, there's not much you can do to make the herb more palatable.

While genetics do play a role in food preferences, it's only one component. If you think you don't like a specific food, don't give up on it. Instead, try some simple adjustments:

  • Increase your exposure: Your taste preferences change over time. You might ditch your childhood favorites like boxed mac and cheese in favor of foods you used to detest (like Brussels sprouts or broccoli). In general, we tend to tolerate bitter flavors better as we get older.
  • Add spice: The main reason people don't like a certain food is because it tastes bitter. Adding different spices can help mask the bitter flavor. Foods that tend to be bitter include cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red wine and coffee.
  • Experiment a bit: Sometimes your perception of a specific food depends on the preparation. Try different cooking methods to see if that makes a difference. Maybe you don't like the taste of Brussels sprouts but roasting them with bacon makes you swoon. Or maybe you can’t stomach bananas because of the texture, but when you whip them into a batter for muffins, you enjoy the sweet flavor.

Still on the fence with regard to more bitter foods? Give these recipes a try and see if it changes your tune:

Most important, don't try to force yourself to eat a food just because it's healthy. There are plenty of ways to meet your nutrient needs without eating foods you don't like.


To discover creative ways to meet your nutrient needs or find a registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is the director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Learn more about Bethany.

Categories: EatWell