Sweetness perception could vary with ethnicity: Study

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sugar

Researchers claim to have discovered a particular gene variant that could affect sweetness perception among different ethnic groups, raising the possibility of more targeted flavor profiling of foods.

The study, from Givaudan and the National Institute of Health, showed that carriers of the gene were less sensitive to sweetness, and that carriers (with this lower sensitivity) were more common in Asian and African ethnic groups than in Europeans.

While it has previously been noted that response to bitter flavors varies between populations, this is the first time a similar genetic difference has been suggested for sweetness perception. The authors say that the discovery could help food and beverage manufacturers target their products, and inform discussion of racial health disparities within regions.

Large sensitivity difference

The study took a group of 144 people, 92 of whom described themselves as European, 37 Asian and 15 African, and analyzed their sucrose sensitivity through comparison of various sucrose solutions. They saw differences of up to 16 percent. This data was then set against a wider analysis of the worldwide distribution of sweetness taste receptor genes.

Although the study sample could be seen as relatively small, its principal investigator of molecular biotechnology Jay Slack told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “It may be small compared to the other studies that you read about but the changes in sensitivity differences are large.”

Informing product development

Slack suggested that for food and beverage manufacturers, the main interest in this difference would be in the composition of sensory panels and in creating more geographically targeted marketing.

“Obviously when companies do product development they are taking products to consumers and our data would show that there is difference in sweet taste receptors. It might help companies to fine tune their tasting panels,” ​he said.

Principal investigator of sensory research, Christopher Simons added: “These differences are found globally. From the point of view of food and beverage marketers, it would be wise to look at where products are most likely to be accepted.”

Slack said that it is already recognized that different ethnic groups tend to enjoy different foods and food manufacturers are already targeting their marketing in different ways to different groups. “I think they are already doing that,” ​he said. “This is just another bit of information.”

Obesity implications

Ultimately however, the researchers hope that the study will be used to help inform discussion of behavioral differences and their role in the global obesity epidemic.

“The next step is to establish what the behavior differences are,”​ said Simons. “We need to ask: What’s the impact?”

He suggested that if people are more taste-sensitive to carbohydrates, their gut could also be more sensitive to carbohydrates.

As for why the differences exist, the authors offer a suggestion based on evolutionary changes.

“We hypothesize that the ability to taste sugars at lower concentrations was one of the critical factors for human survival in cold geographical regions,”​ they wrote.

Therefore, evolutionary pressure led to high sweet sensitivity gene variants becoming more prevalent in nontropical regions.

Source: Current Biology

Vol. 19, 1–6, August 11, 2009, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.06.015

“Allelic Polymorphism within the TAS1R3 Promoter Is Associated with Human Taste Sensitivity to Sucrose”

Authors: Alexey A. Fushan, Christopher T. Simons, Jay P. Slack,

Ani Manichaikul, and Dennis Drayna.

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