Genes may explain why some people turn their noses up at meat

May 2, 2012

If you don't like the taste of pork, the reason may be that your genes cause you to smell the meat more intensely, according to a new study.

Duke University Medical Center scientists, working with colleagues in Norway, found that about 70 percent of people have two functional copies of a gene linked to an odor receptor that detects a compound in male mammals called androstenone, which is common in pork. People with one or no functional copies of the gene can tolerate the scent of androstenone much better than those with two, the researchers said.

Hiroaki Matsunami, Ph.D., a Duke associate professor of and microbiology, had previously discovered and described the genetics of the odor receptor for androstenone (OR7D4). But it wasn't until a group of pork scientists in Norway contacted him that he launched an experiment to learn more precisely at a genetic level how humans perceive the smell of .

The Norwegian team had practical reasons for the study: It was concerned what might happen in Europe if a castration method for swine were outlawed. Currently, female pork meat and castrated male pork meat are sold in Europe. The researchers were curious how consumers might respond to meat from noncastrated males.

The level of androstenone in noncastrated pigs ranges up to 6.4 ppm. In Norway the level of androstenone in immunocastrated (using hormones) pigs is from 0.1 to 0.2 ppm, and in surgically castrated pigs the rate approaches zero.

The findings raise the possibility that more consumers will dislike meat if castration is banned and more meat from noncastrated animals is sold, Matsunami said.

The study was published May 2 online in the PLoS ONE open-access journal.

A total of 23 subjects were recruited: 13 consumers and 10 professional sensory assessors. When all of the subjects were divided into sensitive and insensitive cohorts according to a smell test that was previously devised, all of the androstenone-sensitive subjects had the RT/RT genotype, with two copies of the functional RT gene.

"I was surprised at how cleanly this experiment showed who smelled what," Matsunami said. "The results showed that people with two copies of the functional variant of the gene for that odor receptor thought that the meat smelled worse with higher levels of androstenone added."

For the experiment, the researchers added only biological levels of androstenone to existing pork meat, up to the limit of what might be found in male wild boars.

Matsunami said it would be fascinating to see results done on certain populations, including people in the Middle East, where pork has been omitted from diets for centuries.

"I would also like to know about odor receptor variants in indigenous populations, such as people who live near the Arctic Circle and who never eat these meats. What is their ?" Matsunami said. Vegetarians as a group may also have a genetic predisposition against the smell of meat, but all of these ideas need to be scientifically studied, he said.

Matsunami also speculated whether meat inspectors with both copies of the functional variant, who presumably would be more sensitive to higher levels of androstenone, might make different decisions in their jobs.

The availability of the humane genome has given us the tools for revising sensory and consumer science involving flavor perception, said co-author professor Bjørg Egelandsdal of the Institute of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science at the University of Life Science, in Ås, Norway. "This could be very useful in product development, to learn which flavor sensors are correlated with which flavors. More research is needed, but we may be able to revise the way we recruit consumer groups for evaluating product development."

Another practical solution for meat producers would be to find other compounds that are safe to ingest, but that might block the androstenone receptors to reduce that scent in meat.

Explore further: High levels of MRSA bacteria in retail meat products

Related Stories

High levels of MRSA bacteria in retail meat products

January 20, 2012

Retail pork products in the U.S. have a higher prevalence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA) than previously identified, according to new research by the University of Iowa College of Public Health ...

Copper + love chemical = big sulfur stink

February 6, 2012

When Hiroaki Matsunami, Ph.D., at Duke set out to study a chemical in male mouse urine called MTMT that attracts female mice, he didn't think he would stumble into a new field of study.

Recommended for you

Medical mystery solved in record time

April 17, 2017

In a study published today in PLoS ONE, a team of researchers reports solving a medical mystery in a day's work. In record-time detective work, the scientists narrowed down the genetic cause of intellectual disability in ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 02, 2012
"A gene that codes for the mammalian olfactory receptor, OR7D4, links food odors to human hunger, dietary restraint, and adiposity (Choquette et al., 2012). OR7D4 exemplifies a direct link1 from human social odors to their perception (Keller, Zhuang, Chi, Vosshall, & Matsunami, 2007) and to unconscious affects2 on human behavior associated with human olfactory-visual integration (Zhou, Hou, Zhou, & Chen, 2011); human brain activation associated with sexual preferences (Savic, Heden-Blomqvist, & Berglund, 2009), human learned odor hedonics; and motor function (Boulkroune, Wang, March, Walker, & Jacob, 2007). Insect species exemplify one starting point along an evolutionary continuum from microbes to humans that epigenetically links food odors and social odors to multisensory integration and behavior." --

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.