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A Taste of the Future: CU Researcher Links Genetics with Dietary Intake

A Taste of the Future: CU Researcher Links Genetics with Dietary Intake

University of Colorado genetics researcher Joanne Cole, PhD, dives into the genome to discover more about food preferences, diet, and what the future of personalized nutrition might look like.

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Written by Kara Mason on July 9, 2023

For geneticist Joanne Cole, PhD, food is life. Her love goes beyond trying a new recipe and seeking out new restaurants it’s also in her work in the University of Colorado Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI), identifying the connection between genetics and nutrition.

Three years ago, Cole, an assistant professor in the CU School of Medicine, identified 814 regions in the genome that are associated with dietary intake. By analyzing a sample size of nearly a half-million individuals, 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."

Connecting genetics and diet

In her latest work, an abstract and 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 could be the reason for liking the taste of carrots, for example. Cole’s work might be able to identify the compound in carrots that is 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 up 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.

Leveraging data

Cole and her DBMI lab 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.”

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Joanne Cole, PhD, poses for a photo near the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. 

Cole sees a whole future where her research could be relevant in optimizing diet choices and personal nutrition, but she also approaches the work with a unique perspective as a self-proclaimed foodie.

“The nutrition field is always changing its stance on what’s healthy, whether a particular fat is good or sugar is bad,” she says. “I don’t follow those fads. I just like to eat what I eat and ensure a balanced diet, so my own research isn’t influenced by the diet I follow, and vice versa.”

Instead, she dreams of public health engagement 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.”

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Joanne Cole, PhD