You sip piping hot black coffee, no sugar. Your cubicle neighbor pops open an ice-cold can of soda. You both sigh at the rush of caffeinated euphoria. It’s time to start the day.
The drinks you’re drawn to may have nothing to do with your taste buds, as much as you think you love the flavor of a hoppy IPA, the smokiness of a dark roast coffee, or the tongue-tickling sweetness of a citrus soda.
No, according to researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago, your drink preferences may be the result of the “reward” you feel when you drink them.
A team of scientists with the Feinberg School of Medicine wanted to better understand taste genes and how they explain beverage preferences.
To do this, they asked more than 335,000 individuals in the UK Biobank — a pool of research participants who take part in studies that look at long-term effects of genes and the development of disease — to account for their drink consumption in 24-hour dietary recalls.
Drinks were divided into two categories: bitter beverages, which include grapefruit juice, coffee, tea, beer, liquor, and red wine; and sweet beverages, which include sugar-sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages, and non-grapefruit juices.
The researchers then used those drink classifications to conduct a genome-wide association study with people who gravitate toward bitter beverages and with people who prefer sweet beverages.
To their surprise, the genome study results indicated beverage preferences had nothing to do with taste genes, which is what they originally expected to discover.
Instead, the study revealed that what you prefer to drink — bitter or sweet beverages — is related to the psychoactive properties those drinks deliver when you consume them.
In other words, you’re drawn to certain beverages for the way they make you feel, not for the way they taste.
“The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drinks,” Marilyn Cornelis, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement. “People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste.”
And if you don’t like certain flavors, or if sipping on a stout feels more like punishment than reward, that may be because your brain doesn’t interpret it as a treat.
“There are reward centers in the brain that light up when certain compounds or chemicals are taken into the body,” Liz Weinandy, MPH, RDN, an outpatient dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline. “Some people are more responsive to these compounds than others. This is the psychoactive property a substance delivers to the body. In other words, substances in foods and other compounds like some drugs produce certain cognitive and mood changes in our bodies.”
Weinandy continued, “For example, it makes sense that people like coffee for the edge and increased alertness it gives them. In sports, it can increase physical performance, and for most people, it can increase cognitive performance. Sugar can light up the reward area in the brain as well and give people a temporary ‘feel good’ sensation. This is why people start to crave certain substances and especially for sugar, why it is said to be habit forming.”
The lead author, Victor Zhong, a postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern, said this is the first genome-wide association study to look at beverage consumption based on taste perspective.
“It’s also the most comprehensive genome-wide association study of beverage consumption to date,” he said in a statement.
This study, which was published in Human Molecular Genetics, opens up the possibility for new intervention strategies, or finding ways to override what our DNA says in order to make healthier choices.
After all, sugary beverages are closely linked to many diseases and health conditions, including obesity and diabetes.
Alcohol intake is responsible for 1 in 20 deaths Trusted Source, or 3 million people, annually worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It’s also tied to a number of diseases and health issues.
“Absolutely we can use this information to better adjust foods and beverages in our diet to improve our health,” Weinandy said. “We may want to think about certain foods and beverages as providing us with an edge but also be sure not to overuse them or misuse them.”
For example, Weinandy says, caffeine in coffee can be a pick-me-up, a tool you can use to perform better on a particularly sluggish afternoon. But if you drink it too much, it loses its effect on the body, and if you doctor it up too much with flavorings or sweeteners, you may introduce new issues.
“What we need to be careful of is adding a lot of sugar to it, since we know sugar is generally not good for us from an excess calorie and inflammation standpoint,” she said. “We also need to be aware that if we are drinking a lot of caffeine frequently, it can cause negative effects, such as interfering with sleep.”
With this study, researchers have identified that beverage preferences come from a “reward” center in the brain, not the taste receptors. While you can’t do anything to change your genes, you can do a great deal to counteract them.
Start by looking for alternative ways to “reward” yourself. When you’d reach for coffee or soda to get a buzz, opt for a physical activity that delivers a rush of adrenaline. Even just a brisk walk may be all that’s needed.
And when you’d reach for alcohol to calm your nerves at the end of a long day, call on those same bitter receptors and delight them with a cup of hot decaffeinated tea.