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Born with a taste for coffee or tea

If you have a taste for coffee and want to drink a lot of it, you were probably born that way.

A new study led by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute shows a person’s perception of bitterness, which is determined by their genes, could dictate if they prefer coffee or tea and if they drink a lot or little.

The study that was co-led by PhD student Jue Sheng Ong has just been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

It analysed bitter taste perception genes using data from more than 400,000 participants.

Mr Ong said they found people with genes that made them better able to taste the varied types of bitterness in either caffeine, certain vegetables or quinine preferred different beverages.

“Coffee, tea and alcohol are widely consumed drinks that have a bitter taste, and have been found to have beneficial and adverse health effects.

“We identified that people who tasted the bitterness in caffeine were more likely to love coffee and drink more of it,” Mr Ong said.

“People who were less able to taste the bitterness weren’t as keen on coffee.

“On the other hand, if you were genetically predisposed to taste the bitterness in brussels sprouts, then you were more likely to prefer a cup of tea over coffee.

“The results were similar for other vegetables high in the compound propylthiouracil (PROP), such as broccoli.

“The same was true for red wine, with people who didn’t like PROP-rich foods also less likely to pour themselves a glass of red.

“That’s probably because red wine shares similar compounds to those vegetables.”

“This study provides some answers about why certain people are at higher risk of heavy consumption of these bitter drinks.”

Mr Ong collaborated with former QIMR Berghofer student and now The University of Queensland researcher, Dr Daniel Hwang, who in an earlier study identified the genes associated with the perception of different bitter compounds.

In the current study, Mr Ong compared people with those genes in relation to their coffee, tea and alcohol consumption

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Statistical Genetics research group, Associate Professor Stuart MacGregor, said showing the link between taste perception and consumption could have implications for future research.

“It improves our understanding of people who are big drinkers of alcohol or coffee and opens the door to new research into treatments,” he said.

“It also sheds some light on nutrition in general.

“We know that there are lots of factors which affect how and why people drink certain things, but this study highlights the importance of taste genetics on our drinking habits.

“We are now looking to expand the study to evaluate if bitter taste genes have implications on disease risks, and we’ll try to also explore the genetic basis of other taste profiles such as sweet and salty.”

The study was a collaboration with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in the United States.


  • Light coffee drinkers were classified as those who drank fewer than two cups per day, while heavy coffee drinkers drank more than four cups.
  • Heavy tea drinkers were classified as those who drank more than five cups per day.
  • Heavy alcohol consumption was defined as drinking more than three to four times per week.
  • The research was conducted using data from the UK Biobank Resource, which has collected genetic and lifestyle information from half a million middle-aged participants across the UK.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows 46 per cent of the Australian population consumes coffee (including coffee substitutes) and 38 per cent of Australians consume tea.
  • The ABS says the median daily consumption by coffee drinkers is 330 ml (equivalent to a large mug), while the median daily amount of tea consumed by tea drinkers is 400 ml (around two small cups).