By Kara Mason
For geneticist Joanne Cole, PhD, food is life.
Beyond trying a new recipe and seeking out new restaurants, food is a key ingredient in her work identifying the connection between genetics and nutrition.
Three years ago, Cole, assistant professor of biomedical information, identified 814 regions in the genome associated with dietary intake. Analyzing a large sample of individuals’ food preferences, she made a novel discovery that 300 of those genetic regions are linked to the consumption of specific foods.
“The foods we’re eating are influenced by all sorts of things, including our macro environment, how much money we have, who’s around us, and how we’re raised,” Cole explains. “What’s amazing is we can now finally study the genetic component, which is small, given all the environmental factors that influence what we eat, but it’s there. It’s real.”
Joanne Cole, PhD
In a presentation for the American Society for Nutrition 2023 Annual Meeting, Cole dives into whether genes have a direct or indirect impact on dietary intake, hoping one day that genetics might be used to achieve personalized nutrition.
A genetic variant, for example, could be the reason for liking the taste of carrots. If so, Cole’s work could possibly identify a compound in carrots directly linked to that genetic variation, making it taste better to some individuals. Knowing that relationship — what researchers call a “biological mechanism” — could potentially inform nutritional interventions.
“If we know that a person has a strong liking toward a specific compound because of a specific genotype, and it triggers a positive reward response in the brain, then we can find all the foods with that compound,” she explains. “Then we could start creating personalized nutrition plans for people based on their genetics and opening their eyes to foods that have that have similar reward responses but have healthier profiles.”
Knowing the connections between food preference and genetics can open a whole world of opportunity.
“I think of the biological mechanisms as being pretty valuable,” she says. “We all have different food preferences and eating habits. Are there ways to incorporate the biological mechanisms influencing eating habits? They might have more of an impact in developing nutrition guidance that’s specific to certain people, because taste is the primary driver for food choice.”
Lactose-free dairy milk is a similar example of how Cole’s other discoveries could be applied in the future. Some people can’t digest milk because of the lactose, but “once scientists figured out the biological mechanism, they found a way to make a product that had the same health ingredients but already removed the lactose sugar,” Cole explains. These discoveries could also lead the way for improving lifestyles of those at risk for life-altering diseases, such as diabetes.
Cole and her lab team learn about the connections between genetics and diet through questionnaires mostly made available through large cohorts and biobanks. In this research, Cole used the UK Biobank, a database that contains in-depth genetic and health information from a half-million participants in the United Kingdom.
Participants answered questions about how often they eat a particular food, ranging from fruit and vegetables to alcohol and bread.
“The sample size enabled the genetic analysis of these traits that have a small genetic component,” Cole says. “We couldn’t study these connections before, so that was a major innovation.”
Cole sees a whole future where her research could be relevant in optimizing diet choices and personal nutrition, and perhaps even a choose-your-own-adventure cooking class where students prepare a meal that’s based on their food preferences and genetic profile.
“I just think that would be so cool,” she says. “It might be a little pie in the sky right now, but it’s fun to think about.”