Bitter vs Sweet - Why People Love Coffee and Beer (and Maybe Chocolate)

Bitter vs Sweet - Why People Love Coffee and Beer (and Maybe Chocolate)

A recent study examining how taste preferences could be exploited to influence people’s diets found an explanation linked to how genes connected to the psychoactive buttons beverages categorized into two taste groups: bitter (coffee and tea, beer, red wine and liquor/spirits, and some citrus juices) and sweet (other juices and drinks sweetened with natural and artificial sweeteners.

Surprisingly, the research points to the psychoactive properties of the drinks being responsible for a person’s preference of sweet over bitter. The source article from Northwestern University clearly states, “[An individual’s] genetics suggest beverage preferences hinge on psychoactive effects.”

According to Marilyn Cornelis, one of the research leads, ”People like the way coffee and alcohol make them feel – that’s why they drink it – it’s not the taste. The genetics underlying our preferences are related to the psychoactive components of these drinks.”

From the abstract in Human Molecular Genetics (emphasis is not in the original):

Except for drinking water, most beverages taste bitter or sweet. Taste perception and preferences are heritable and determinants of beverage choice and consumption.

Consumption of several bitter- and sweet-tasting beverages has been implicated in development of major chronic diseases.


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.

Although the study did not look into how these results might affect preferences for cocoa- and chocolate-based beverages or chocolate/confections, it seems reasonable to assume that preferences for more bitter vs sweeter chocolates follow a similar pattern – it may not be only how a beverage or confection or bar tastes, it may be how it makes us feel.

What are your thoughts about the study and its conclusion? Please leave them in a comment below!


Article in New Atlas.

Paper in Human Molecular Genetics [paywalled].

Article Why You Love Coffee and Beer (source: Northwestern University).

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