Candy or Chips? An Analysis of Taste Preferences and Why it Matters to Your Health

By Madison Wright

24 June 2019

A woman looking at a vending machine

Have you ever wondered why some people choose candy as a treat while others prefer a bag of chips? Every day, we all make choices about which foods to consume – choices that are usually based on which foods we like, and which foods we don’t. But why do we have such different tastes in food?

Researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences recently investigated what drives the differences in our taste preferences.

“Taste is an important driver of our food choices, and our food choices have a number of potential long-term consequences that influence our health,” says Prof. David Ma, a nutritionist who studies the complex interactions between lifestyle and health.

Ma and PhD student Elie Chamoun wanted to know if an individual’s sensitivity to different tastes plays a role in whether or not they like certain foods.

Over 50 adults were recruited from the University of Guelph campus to participate in a series of taste tests involving six types of taste: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, umami (savory or “meaty”) and fat. Ma and Chamoun used the results of the tests to determine the relationship between taste sensitivity (the minimum amount of a certain taste that can be detected), and suprathreshold sensitivity (the maximum taste intensity that can be perceived) and preferences for that particular taste – in other words, how much a person “likes” that taste.

They found that sensitivity was negatively linked to preference for some tastes, but not all. For example, the more sensitive someone was to salt, sweet and umami tastes, the less that person preferred those same tastes. Interestingly, there was no correlation between sensitivity to fat and sour and a preference for those tastes.

Ma and Chamoun’s initial study focused on healthy adults, which will help launch future studies on taste preferences in children.

“Research has shown that below the age of six is when good and bad eating behaviours become instilled, and these behaviours continue on into adulthood,” explains Ma. This means that developing effective strategies to improve eating habits in young children is likely to lead to healthy habits that carry into adulthood and reduce the risk of obesity.

That’s one of the goals of the Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS), a large cohort study that Ma helped launch in 2014. Researchers involved with the GFHS are following families with young children for 20 years, looking at different ways to help them improve their diet, physical activity and sleep habits – all of which can contribute to positive, long-term health outcomes.

As part of their work with the GFHS, Chamoun and Ma have already discovered that genetics plays a role in the taste preferences of adults and children alike. Says Ma, “If you have the ‘bitter gene’ then you are sensitive to the bitter taste and likely do not like cruciferous vegetables, such as brussels sprouts and broccoli, which makes eating these vegetables more difficult. However, if we know who has the bitter gene then we can devise strategies for families, such as providing them with recipes that mask the bitter taste or change it in such a way that makes it more pleasing.”

The Ma lab plans to dive deeper into the genetics of taste to better understand taste preferences in children and how they can be factored into intervention strategies to promote long-term health.

“We are still in the early days of understanding the role of taste in our health, but the future is really interesting and promising. Those working in the health field will hear more and more about taste in the future,” says Ma.

 

This study was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

 

Read the full study in the journal Chemical Senses.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.