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Coffee fans love the bitter taste of caffeine, tea lovers loathe it

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Australian-led research used data from the UK Biobank to link genetic variants associated with the perception of three bitter substances — caffeine, quinine and propylthiouracil [PROP] with people's preferences for drinking tea, coffee and alcohol. They found those who were more sensitive to the bitterness of caffeine drank more coffee, but less tea. But for both the other bitter variants, the effect was the opposite. Those who were more sensitive to quinine and PROP drank less coffee, but more tea. For alcohol, people who were more sensitive to PROP hit the bottle less, but the other two variants had no effect. These genetic differences may help determine whether we are tea or coffee drinkers, they suggest.

Journal/conference: Scientific Reports

Organisation/s: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, The University of Queensland, Queensland Brain Institute

Funder: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the University of Bristol, UK Medical Research Council, UK National Institute of Health Research, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the American Heart Association, the Australian Research Council.

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Bitter taste perception may influence coffee drinking

How people perceive bitter substances — which is associated with having a certain set of genes — has an impact on whether their preferences of coffee, tea or alcohol, according to a study in Scientific Reports.

Jue-Sheng Ong, Liang-Dar Hwang and colleagues analysed genetic variants associated with the perception of three bitter substances — propylthiouracil [PROP], quinine and caffeine — to evaluate the effect of bitterness perception on the intake of coffee, tea and alcohol in a sample of more than 400,000 UK Biobank participants.

The researchers found that a higher sensitivity to the bitterness of caffeine (determined by the presence of certain genes) was associated with increased consumption of coffee, whereas higher sensitivity to the taste of PROP and quinine was associated with lower consumption of coffee. Higher sensitivity to the bitterness of caffeine was also associated with a higher likelihood of being a heavy coffee drinker. The inverse was found for tea intake, where higher sensitivities to PROP and quinine were associated with higher intake, but higher sensitivity to caffeine was associated with lower intake. For alcohol, a higher intensity of PROP perception resulted in lower consumption, whereas higher perception of the other two compounds had no clear influence.

The findings suggest that differences in bitter taste perception resulting from genetic differences may help to explain why some people are coffee drinkers while others prefer tea.

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