When you go out for drinks with friends, you probably assume that a sip of whiskey burns just as much in your friend’s mouth as it does in yours. As it turns out, that may not be the case. A new study has found that certain genes related to flavor may influence how much a person likes or doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. The researchers looked at three genes, two related to the flavor of bitterness and one related to burning sensation. The genes were chosen because they had previously been found to be related to alcohol consumption, but how exactly they were involved was unknown.
Because of their relationship to taste, researchers surmised that the genes may be influencing how a person perceives the taste of alcohol. To find out, they brought in a group of participants and had them sample a solution that was 16% ethanol. The participants then rated how bitter and “intense” they found the alcoholic drinks. Their ratings of bitterness and drink intensity were then compared to the versions of the bitterness and burning genes they carried.
Variation in one bitterness gene, TAS2R38, was predictive of a person’s perception of how bitter they found the taste of alcohol. Variation in the other bitterness gene and the sensory gene was related to how “intense” the person rated the taste of the drink. This research is the first to show that gene variants in certain taste receptors could change how alcohol tastes to a consumer.
While the authors haven’t yet had a chance to see whether these gene variations are related to alcoholism, they point out that bitterness has typically been a flavor that tells us not to eat something. This is because poisonous foods are typically bitter tasting and picking up this flavor has historically helped us avoid foods that could be poisonous. As a result, those with flavor receptors that make alcohol more bitter in flavor may be less likely drink because they find the taste unpleasant. Likewise, those without the receptor may enjoy drinking more because it doesn’t leave a bad taste in their mouths. The same may be true of intensity, with those who have a stronger burning sensation less likely to enjoy drinking.
The researchers point out that this isn’t the whole story. While a burning sensation is unpleasant for some, others who enjoy spicy foods clearly have no problem with it. In addition, social and personality factors can heavily influence a person’s propensity for drinking in certain situations. With all that said, the research reminds us that each person experiences flavor slightly differently. It also gives us insight into how some of the genes associated with substance abuse and addiction may have real, tangible effects in the way a person experiences the world around them, which may provide clues as to how better help these individuals in the future.