In one of the first large-scale studies of genes related to diet, researchers have uncovered almost 500 genes that appear to directly influence the foods we eat.

New insights into the genetic basis for food preferences could help improve personalised nutrition to improve health or prevent disease.

"Some genes we identified are related to sensory pathways -- including those for taste, smell, and texture -- and may also increase the reward response in the brain," said research team leader Joanne Cole, assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.

Because some of these genes may have clear paths toward influencing whether someone likes a food or not, they could potentially be used to create sensory genetic profiles for fine-tuning a person's dietary recommendations based on foods they like to eat, Cole explained.

One challenge in identifying diet-related genes is that what people eat correlates with many other factors, including health factors such as high cholesterol or body weight and even socioeconomic status.

In the new work, the researchers applied computational methods to tease out direct effects of genetic variants impacting diet and separate those from indirect effects such as ones where a gene impacts diabetes and having diabetes requires a person to eat less sugar.

The analysis revealed around 300 genes directly associated with eating specific foods and almost 200 genes linked to dietary patterns which group various foods together - for example, overall fish intake or fruit consumption.

For the study, the researchers used the UK Biobank, which contains data from 500,000 people, to perform a phenome-wide association study (PheWAS) that identified genes more strongly associated with diet than with any health or lifestyle factor.

"The study showed that dietary patterns tend to have more indirect genetic effects, meaning they were correlated with a lot of other factors," said Cole.

Cole is studying the newly identified diet-related genes to better understand their function while also working to identify even more genes that directly influence food preferences.

It might also be possible to use these new insights to tailor foods to a person's genetic predisposition.

Cole on Saturday presented the findings at 'NUTRITION 2023', the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston, the US.