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Genetic Anchors

Our actions and tastes are governed by genes and internal microbes.

by Fran LoBiondo

Fran LoBiondoSo I knew there was a sane reason for my violent revulsion to goat cheese. I once suffered through a three-day conference where all the food, lunch and dinner, was infused with goat cheese. The menu called it chèvre, but no matter the frenchified name, they could not mask the smell of goat.

It was a time when the foodies had declared goat cheese the next superfood. Everyone ate it up. I tried it, thinking it was feta, but I could not get it down. Worse, skipping both lunch and dinner made me an outcast among my fellow conventioneers.

But it turns out it wasn’t my fault.

In this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine, an article by Bill Sullivan, a professor of microbiology at Indiana University, says that science has shown our actions are governed by hidden biological forces. We have little or no control over our personal tastes.

More’s the pity. If we did, I would rearrange my family’s genes so their palates were as wide as an Indiana cornfield. Then we could all sit down to the same meal and enjoy the food.

Therese does not like tomatoes, but says she wants to. She did not get that from either her Sicilian or Irish genes. Everybody else likes and uses tomatoes.

My husband eats mostly whatever I make, but he draws the line on black pepper, cilantro and dill. I myself have a few don’ts on my food list—kale, stinky fish, anchovies and sardines. Anything served carpaccio (raw), artificial sweeteners, moldy cheeses and, please God, no baby octopuses.

Our son, Greg, never met a carb he didn’t like. We try to save leftovers because he likes them for lunch. But each morning, he can’t help himself raiding the leftovers. He stands before the open fridge, scooping up gobs of rice and feeding them into his maw without benefit of a spoon. And although he does enjoy his Three Oreo Dessert, he seems partial to salty snacks. Which is why he can be found hiding by the spice cabinet, taking long pulls off a bottle of soy sauce. He did not get that from either side of the family, either.

And our eldest son, George, is married and as such, no longer my problem. But he used to love all pasta, except linguine.

“But it’s all the same thing!” I’d say, holding out a luscious plate of spinach linguini sautéed with a little garlic. “Just taste it!” I would beg. “Rigatoni, ziti, orzo, it’s all the same!”

“NO! Not linguine,” he’d moan as if tortured by conquistadors.

I was telling that story to my in-laws at dinner one night, thinking I was preaching to the choir, when Aunt Sharon piped up: “Oh yeah, I agree with you, George. Some shapes do taste different.”


But here’s where Bill Sullivan, the Indiana brainiologist, has an explanation:

‘Researchers have found that about 25 percent of people might hate broccoli for the same reason I do. We are called supertasters. We have variations in genes that recognize bitter chemicals like thioureas, which are plentiful in broccoli, as revoltingly bitter.” The other 75 percent enjoy the odd smackerel of broccoli.

At first, Sullivan found the idea that our actions and tastes are governed by genes and internal microbes “ridiculous crazy talk.”

But he researched the new science of epigenetics and found some new theories.

“Scientists have uncovered distinct personality traits that tend to be associated with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In general, liberals tend to be more open-minded, creative and novelty-seeking; conservatives tend to be more orderly and conventional, and prefer stability.

“These biological differences may partially explain why it’s so difficult for a liberal or conservative to get the other to ‘see the light.’ ”

And get this: A famous study had women sniffing the underarms of T-shirts worn by men and then ranking the odor. The more similar the men’s and women’s immune system genes, the worse the T-shirt stank to the women.

There is a sound evolutionary explanation for this: If parental immune genes are too similar, the offspring will not be as well equipped to fight disease.

“Perhaps we should not take another’s romantic disinterest personally, but view it more like organ rejection,” Sullivan said.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, he added. “The truth is, every human behavior—from addiction to anxiety—is tethered to a genetic anchor.”

I lost weight on that three-day fast from goat cheese. Now I know why.

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