Some people are white-knuckle vegetarians who fantasize about tender slices of warm, savory ham or crackling strips of bacon but, for whatever reason, resist the urge and stick with a meat-free diet. Others, though, are genuinely squicked out by the smell, the texture, and the appearance of animal products, making the choice an easy one. But it may not be due to a deep love for all animals, large and small; according to a new study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center, it may actually be that some people are grossed out by meat because of a genetic predisposition that makes them sensitive to steroids found in animal flesh. Are you one of them?
The joint study, which received assistance from researchers in Norway, found that about 70% of people have a doubled-up gene that is linked to an odor receptor in the brain–making them more sensitive to a steroid called androstenone, which is a bit like testosterone, but is present in both male and female pigs. In non-human animals, it works like a mating call, which attracts female pigs toward males during sexytimes. And for humans with just one copy of the gene, it’s nearly undetectable. But for the rest of us, the smell can be a major, major turn-off.
Some people with two copies report that androstenone, and thus, pork itself, has a sweet, vanilla-like odor, while the majority others with the same genetic double-down find the smell to be acrid and too much like, well, like an animal during the mating season. In that case, they liken it to sweat, urine, or other primal odors…which give ham and other meats a decidedly unappetizing scent.
The study used a relatively small sample, but did show pretty conclusively that genes can have a powerful impact on people’s food preferences. This is especially true considering how much smell impacts what we perceive as taste; have you ever tried to eat with a cold, or held your breath while taking a particularly unpleasant-tasting pill or shot? Try it sometime, and see how things taste without the assistance of odor.
This line of study is pretty exciting, and has big implications for the future of eating in the developed world. Could androstenone be synthesized and added to fake meats to make them more desirable (and thus, cut down on meat consumption)? Or, on a broader scale, could androstenone lead to clues about how to use odor receptors to help people want to make healthier food choices?
What do you think? Are you grossed out by meat–and do you think it’s genetic? Or are you genetically predisposed to love the scent of a hot slice of ham? Let us know in the comments.
Image: Christopher Boswell via Shutterstock