Coffee, sugary drinks, or alcohol? It's in your genes.

Researchers have discovered that our genetic make-up may influence our consumption of alcohol, coffee, and sugar-sweetened drinks. It is hoped that the research will be used to personalize dietary recommendations.

A new, first-of-a-kind study has found that our genetic make-up may influence our consumption of alcohol, coffee, and sugar-sweetened drinks.Africa Studio | Shutterstock

The research was published in Human Molecular Genetics on May 2nd , and demonstrates how behavior and reward processes in the brain can influence the beverages people choose to drink.

The study furthers our understanding of how genetic differences can influence the lifestyle choices people make, which may help disassemble some of the barriers that stop people from achieving success in their diets.

Marilyn Cornelis, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained that taste isn’t the only reason why people prefer certain drinks, with the study stating that “Taste perception and preferences are heritable and determinants of beverage choice and consumption.”

The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drinks. People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel. That’s why they drink it. It’s not the taste.”

The study grouped drinks into two groups: bitter-tasting and sweet-tasting. Bitter-tasting drinks included coffee, tea, grapefruit juice, beer, red wine, and liquor. Sweet-tasting drinks included sugar-sweetened drinks, artificially sweetened drinks, and non-grapefruit juices.

The first study of it’s kind

Data on the consumption of the above drinks was gathered using 24-hour dietary recalls or questionnaires from approximately 370,000 people in the UK Biobank.

Once the data had been collected, the researchers counted the number of servings of each bitter- or sweet-tasting drink that was consumed during the study period before running a genome-wide association study comparing bitter drink consumption and sweet drink consumption.

Victor Zhong, who was the lead author on the study and is a postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said:

To our knowledge, this is the first genome-wide association study of beverage consumption based on taste perspective. It’s also the most comprehensive genome-wide association study of beverage consumption to date.”

The impulse gene

Cornelis found that a particular variant in the gene FTO was linked to higher consumption of sweet-tasting drinks.

The FTO gene encodes a ‘fat mass an obesity-associated’ protein, also known as the enzyme alpha-ketoglutarate-dependent dioxygenase.

Variants of the FTO gene have been linked to higher rates of obesity, with one cohort study carried out by the National Institute on Aging, Florida State University, and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in the US, finding that a specific variant (rs1421085) in the FTO gene was linked to changes in body mass index (BMI) with increasing age, along with changes in impulsivity in aging people.

Although this research did suggest that carriers of the variant FTO gene might be more likely to become obese with increasing age, it was not able to definitively link the FTO gene with a higher risk of impulse eating.

Conversely, an FTO gene variant Cornelis found was actually linked to lower risks of obesity, despite those carrying the gene variant preferring sugar-sweetened drinks.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Cornelis explained. “FTO has been something of a mystery gene, and we don’t know exactly how it’s linked to obesity. It likely plays a role in behavior, which would be linked to weight management.”

The study states that 12 replicated loci that were identified in sub-phenotype analyses that focused on alcohol, caffeine, and sweetener components in drinks were associated with “total alcohol consumption, coffee consumption, plasma caffeine metabolites or BMI in previous [genome-wide association studies].”

The researchers conclude:

Our study suggests that genetic variants related to alcohol consumption, coffee consumption and obesity were primary genetic determinants of bitter and sweet beverage consumption. Whether genetic variants related to taste perception are associated with beverage consumption remains to be determined.”

The research team at Northwestern University are aiming to replicate their results in three US cohorts, and state that whether genetic variants related to taste perception are “associated with beverage consumption” still needs to be definitively proved through further study.


Victor W Zhong, Alan Kuang, Rebecca D Danning, Peter Kraft, Rob M van Dam, Daniel I Chasman, Marilyn C Cornelis, A genome-wide association study of bitter and sweet beverage consumption, Human Molecular Genetics, , ddz061,

Lois Zoppi

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Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.


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  1. Jake B. Hayes Jake B. Hayes United States says:

    It all sounds like individual preferences with coffee and sweeteners are in such a way that they promote the individual's health by trying to combat the body's own naturally higher risk of obesity based on genetic differences.  Like if I am prone to being obese and I am also one who has a dysfunctional reward pathway that doesn't sense reward/pleasure very well, it may be helpful for me to naturally gravitate to sweetened drinks and beverages to enhance this pathway and thus help combat the negative aspect of my FTO gene increasing my odds of obesity.  It seems as though this "preference" essentially is an instinctive or perhaps pre-programmed drive to maintain a healthy body weight, or at the very least, just to try to mitigate the issues of the FTO gene.  Thoughts?

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