A sweet tooth is just as genetic as asthma, says researcher

Sweet foods meant life-saving vitamins and minerals in the early human landscape. That landscape has been swamped with unhealthy sweet foods today.

About 50% of our preference for sweet food and drinks can be attributed to genetics, about the same level of heritability as certain personality traits and asthma, according to a food sensory scientist.   

Professor Hely Tuorila of the University of Helsinki, told attendees of the recent International Sweeteners Association (ISA) conference in Brussels that her team’s research on twins formed a now generally accepted body of science suggesting sweetness perception and preference is innate, not learnt. 

Professor Tuorila told FoodNavigator that although this may mean policy makers would be fighting a losing battle if they hoped everyone would stop consuming all sweet food and drinks, this did not mean that these habits were set in stone.

Nature-nuture

She said in early human evolution this preference for sweet foods was an in-built mechanism to help humans choose foods with vitamins and minerals, yet now proved problematic as we are surrounded by unhealthy sweet foods.

She said she had been part of a team behind four research papers establishing this genetic link, one of which looked at the difference between the sweet and salty taste preferences of identical and non-identical twins, but added: “We don’t know which genes. That would be a huge job.”

Fighting a losing battle?

She said this would mean that giving up sweetness could be innately be more difficult for some people. However she added: “This is one factor amongst many.”

“We have a lot of genetic variation. If our personality is to be, let’s say, aggressive, our parents would try to teach us not to be."

She said this genetic link should not be taken as an excuse to eat indulgent foods. “We can live without sweetness, but it may be difficult because of its biological, psychological, and social role in our lives."

Discussing the possible role of artificial sweeteners within government and food industry initiatives on obesity she observed: “They of course have the role that they can satisfy the craving without calories.”

She acknowledged a sense of sweetness was not the same for everyone, but that said, “Sucrose is our 'golden standard' it’s what we’re used to and what we’ve had since childhood.” 

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