Why we are what we eat: New links between our biology and food choices

DENVER, CO "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are," wrote French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, in his 19th century tome, The Physiology of Taste. In the same spirit, scientists reported today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting that our biology plays a major role in determining our food choices.

While specific food cravings are generally thought to be the product of temporary biological changes, such as hormonal fluctuations, our bodies may determine what we eat in other ways as well.

Biological differences in our sense of taste have such an influence on our diets that they may help determine which diseases we might be susceptible to, according new research by Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University. And, new insights into how diet has adapted to the course of human evolution have emerged from McGill University researcher Timothy Johns' observations of how indigenous peoples use plants for food and medicine.

A Matter of Taste

The "neon taste world" of people whom Dr. Bartoshuk calls "supertasters" is roughly three times as intense as the "pastel world" of the nontasters. That's because the tongues of supertasters have a higher concentration of taste bud-containing structures than the tongues of less taste-sensitive groups do.

"The ability to taste bitter substances has always been associated with poison detection, but now we have found all these health associations," Bartoshuk said. "We know people's whole diets are different, based on their taste sensitivity."

Because taste buds also detect the sensations of touch and pain, supertasters are also the most sensitive to the heat of chilis, for example, and the feel of fat. Women are more likely to be supertasters than men are.

Thus, being a picky eater isn't necessarily a sign of a difficult personality.

"Supertasters are picky eaters. They taste bitterness in food that other people don't n


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