Whether you prefer a Café Latte or a diet soda may actually depend on how the drink makes you feel, rather than how it tastes, a new study finds.
This idea contradicts what scientists previously thought: that our taste genes determined why we preferred one drink over the other.
A team of researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago found that the taste preferences for bitter or sweet beverages aren’t based on variations in taste genes, but rather in genes that are involved with emotional responses. The results of the study are published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.
“The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drinks,” said Marilyn Cornelis, co-author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste.”
The team created two categories, a bitter-tasting group and a sweet-tasting group. Bitter included coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, beer, red wine and liquor. Sweet included sugar-sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages and non-grapefruit juices.
They then provided questionnaires to about 336,000 individuals asking them to report what they ate and drank over the past 24 hours. The study participants were recruited from the U.K. Biobank — a pool of research participants who contribute to studies on the long-term effects of genetics and the environment on the development of disease.
The scientists were surprised when they found that the adults made their beverage choices based more on mental reward than they did taste. In fact, many of the participants cited that they chose coffee or sodas in the morning because they liked the euphoric feeling that the caffeine provided or preferred alcohol because of its calming effect.
The study highlights important behavior-reward components to beverage choice and adds to our understanding of the link between genetics and beverage consumption — and the potential barriers to intervening in people’s diets, Cornelis said in a statement.