Researchers have identified a gene that causes some to crave salty snacks more than others.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
Chips with Vinegar
Credit: © Jonathan Knowles / Getty Images

Find yourself craving salty snacks? Chances are you are genetically programed to reach for that bag of chips. Researchers at the University of Kentucky have identified a gene that causes some to crave more of the mineral.

Doctoral student and lead researcher Jennifer Smith claims a specific genetic variation is to blame for this salty phenomenon. According to Smith, a gene called TAS2R38 has the ability to enhance or reduce an individual's perception of bitter flavors. Those naturally more sensitive to bitterness were shown to be more likely to add sodium to their food—often exceeding recommended daily dietary guidelines. "We were looking at a gene that codes for taste receptors," the researcher notes. "People with one genotype will taste bitter more keenly than people who have the other genotype." This particular genetic variation causes those naturally more sensitive to bitter foods more likely to avoid ingredients that are beneficial for heart health, including dark leafy greens and broccoli.

At the American Heart Association annual meeting, Smith presented data collected from 407 residents of rural Kentucky, all of whom had at least two existing heart disease risk factors. The researchers monitored the test subjects' diets and tested each individual's genetics to determine if they had an inherent sensitivity to bitterness. "We found that people who tasted bitter more keenly were in fact 1.9 times more likely to be non-adherent to the sodium guidelines," Smith says. Though the U.S. dietary guidelines suggests a sodium intake to 2.3 grams a day, those who heavily salted their foods easily surpassed that restriction.

While it has yet to be determined why there is such a correlation between sensitivities to bitter flavors and excessive sodium intake, health experts note its important to observe dietary guidelines. "Because bitterness is amplified, these people may need some other flavor alternative to mitigate the gene-induced bitterness," says Dr. Lawrence Appel, director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins.

Appel also notes that the majority of adults could stand to reduce the sodium in their diet—no matter their specific genetic variation. "We still consume vastly more sodium than we need to, and it does adversely affect blood pressure... Whether or not you have this gene, sodium reduction is good for you."