Genetics, Sweet Preference, Short Sleep & Food Choice

Originally Published: October 30, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
A woman sipping a fruity beverage.

ROBIN TUCKER, PH.D., Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Michigan State University, provided an update on the science related to two under-studied contributors to food choice—genetics (sweet-liking phenotype) and sleep—in a video on “Genetics, Sweet Preference & Short Sleep: Important Players in Food Choice,” done for Global Food Forum’s 2020 Sweetener Systems Conference.

Tucker began by explaining that sweet liking phenotypes (SLP) are observable traits that are the result of genetic and environmental interactions. “There are three-to-four ‘foundational’ patterns of sweet-liking responses consistently observed,” she explained. Sweet “Likers” increase their liking as sweetness grows, whereas “Dislikers” are the opposite. Increasing sweetness decreases their liking.

The third type, “U-shaped” SLP, decrease liking once a threshold is reached; the fourth type, “Neutrals,” have no change in liking when presented with differing concentrations of sweetness. These SLP are associated with beverage intake. “Adult sweet Likers consumed more energy from all beverages; more sweetened juice and tea; and less water than those in other clusters,” stated Tucker.

Tucker and associates published a systematic review of studies which found that, when participants’ SLP were considered, the likelihood of identifying relationships between taste and dietary intake was increased (Tan, S-Y & Tucker, RM. 2019. Nutrients. Sensitivity (thresholds) and intensity studies demonstrated little association with sweet stimuli. Hedonic measurements were more likely to be associated with dietary intake, especially if sweet Likers were analyzed separately from sweet Dislikers.

Tucker’s research has shown that SLP predicts preferred sweetness concentrations for both sucrose and sucralose, with Likers preferring significantly higher levels of sucralose (Szczygiel EJ, et al., 2019. Nutrients.

Further work has shown that, among children, there are two clusters of liking patterns—Likers and Dislikers. For both adults and children, BMI, percent body fat, age and sex did not differ between clusters.

Moving onto the topic of sleep, data suggests that after insufficient sleep, a consumer will increase their intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods. Using observational studies, Tucker has investigated whether measures of sleep duration and sleep quality affect chemosensory function and sweet taste preference.

“In both men and women, no correlation between sleep variables and sweet taste sensitivity (that is function) was found,” said Tucker. “However, differences in sleep duration may contribute to differences in sweet taste liking or preference.”

Tucker explained the findings of a study in which the effects of sleep curtailment on sweet taste function and perception were studied (Szczygiel EJ, et al., 2019. Nutrients. Habitual (usual night of sleep) vs. a curtailed night of sleep (33% reduction in habitual sleep) were evaluated for their potential impact on sweet taste perception. After curtailment, a significant increase in preference for higher concentrations of both sucrose and sucralose was observed. The slope of sucrose sweet-liking increased to greater extent than the slope of sucralose-liking. Intensity perception of the sweeteners was not altered by curtailment. Tucker postulated: “There may be a need to control for sleep in food sensory studies.”

Based on these findings, another study looked at the sweet taste perception of complex food matrices after sleep curtailment (Szczygiel EJ, et al., 2019. Foods. A solid, oat-based food and oat-based beverage sweetened with sucralose were used. Overall and flavor-liking slopes across measured concentrations were steeper after sleep curtailment, suggesting that sweeter versions of the oat products were liked more after less sleep. The texture of a solid oat crisp was liked less among sweet non-likers (p < 0.001), but this did not hold for the oat beverage. “These findings suggest various effects of sleep on hedonic response in complex food matrices,” summarized Tucker.

A follow-up study examined the effects of sleep curtailment on appetite, food reward and food cravings (Yang, C-L, et al. 2019. Nutrients. Non-obese women who said they typically slept seven to nine hours per night were evaluated after a normal night’s sleep (NN) and also after a curtailed night (CN)— where time in bed was reduced by 33%. The women reported increased hunger, tiredness, sleepiness and food cravings after CN. More chocolate was consumed after the CN. Larger portion sizes selected after the CN resulted in increased energy plated for lunch.

In summary, Tucker stated that patterns of SLP may be useful to characterize consumers, especially in food development. Strong epidemiological and experimental evidence suggests insufficient sleep increases the risk of weight gain and higher BMI. She concluded, “These changes in perception are likely part of the puzzle that explains relationships between insufficient sleep and alterations in food choice.”

“Genetics, Sweet Preference and Short Sleep: Important Players in Food Choice,” Robin Tucker, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.N.D., Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Michigan State University

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