The study by researchers at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, detailed findings that different species had 'specific gustatory adaptation' with regards to nutrition and food choice. Implicit is the suggestion that different people have different tastes, and supports ongoing research in the rapidly emerging field of nutrigenomics, or nutritional genomics.
Nutrigenomics, the study of how nutrients and genes interact and how genetic variations can cause people to respond differently to food nutrients, is still in its infancy but scientists predict that their work could bring about radical changes in how food is grown, processed and consumed, and lead to personalised diets tailored to the genetic make-up.
Dr. Johannes le Coutre, who headed the Nestlé study, told FoodNavigator.com that taste receptors might not only convey taste into the body. "This is pure speculation, but taste receptors might also sense the food and chemicals that pass into the body, an individualised tool that responds to flavours and food.
We believe that maybe there is a measurement of food passing by, that regulates the individual by means of a metabolic evaluation and physiological adjustment," he said.
Taste is a key driver in the €3.2 trillion global food industry and a greater understanding of the physiology of consumers, and their genetic make-up, could lead to strong market advantages.
In the future, nutrigenomics could become a major slice of the buoyant functional foods sector - forecast to double within five years in the UK alone from €1.2 billion to €2.47 billion - as consumers turn to products targeted at their profile. In 2003, sales of functional foods and drinks were estimated to be over six times the value of those in 1998.
But a barrier to growth could be ethical concerns now linked to genetic testing. Governments are already looking at what if any regulations are needed to cover issues in this field, including scientific research, consent, counseling, testing technology and standards, who gets to provide nutritional genomics services, and access to nutritional genomics information.
Under the latest Nestle study, researchers analysed 33 members of the bitter taste receptor gene family in bonobo monkeys and compared their sequences to those of humans and chimpanzees. Bonobos are humans' closest relatives on an evolutionary scale.
The paper, published in this week's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains that despite a high degree of similarity for these genes the three species have remarkable differences, which imply clear functional specialisation regarding taste perception.
"The study details primate bitter taste receptor divergence and shows mechanisms of species specific gustatory adaptation with significance for nutrition and food choice," claim the study authors.
A spokesperson for Nestle said to FoodNavigator.com that this latest research was 'part of a puzzle to better understand the physiology of the consumer,' and that future studies, notably at the gastro-intestinal level, would deepen the findings to 'fully understand these genes'.