- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

Mouse chromosome No. 4 may just rock Mars the candy maker, that is along with anyone else who makes bonbons, chocolates and goodies of any demeanor.

Some resourceful researchers believe they have isolated the very gene that gives folks a sweet tooth, and also determines just what they hanker for.

Granny's fudge? Tollhouse cookies? Dum Dums? Only the mice know for sure, perhaps.

Through behavioral and molecular experiments, scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have determined that a little strip on one particular mouse chromosome "plays a prominent role in sweet perception in mice, and most likely, in humans," according to project director Gary Beauchamp.

It is, he added, "a likely candidate for a sweet taste gene."

Which can be inherited. Chocoholics and cookie fiends would run in families, at least in theory.

The Monell team went through 10,000 mouse genes to find the sweet factor, and hope by year's end to confirm that yes, one of them predisposes humans to sweets.

"We believe the gene somehow controls variations in sweet perception," Mr. Beauchamp added.

Which means that the gene could dictate one's chosen course through a Whitman's Sampler, say, or what loot we quietly set aside for ourselves come Halloween.

The Monell team presented their findings before 20,000 scientists last weekend at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Beyond the candy factor, though, such studies also help explain why certain people are predisposed to obesity, diabetes and even alcoholism. Smell and taste influence all sorts of things, from release of insulin to nutritional absorption and attitude toward food itself.

Monell researchers also hope to figure out which taste responses are hard-wired right into our brains, and which are learned. The group found, for example, that babies will nurse 50 percent longer if their mothers have been chowing down on food spiced with garlic.

The medical community, meanwhile, continues to fret over the fact that American sugar consumption has risen by a third in recent years up to about 153 pounds per person, per year. Overindulgence has been linked to everything from hyperactivity in children to an increased taste for fat, weight gain and possibly adult-onset diabetes.

Sugar intake is more of a cultural factor among confectioners, who study candy-eating patterns around the globe with much gusto.

The National Confectioners Association and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association reveal Americans eat more than 26 pounds of candy per year. About 12 pounds is chocolate.

As voracious as that seems, we only rank seventh in the world as candy eaters. The worst offenders are the Danish, at 36 pounds per person per year. Next are the Germans (32 pounds), the Irish (31 pounds), the British (30 pounds), the Swiss (29 pounds) and the Belgians (28 pounds.)

Which brings us back to the mice, their chromosomes and the sweet tooth.

The larger theoretical implications of the findings, said the Monell scientist, Mr. Beauchamp, is that in the future we may be confronted with sweets that are custom-flavored and configured to satisfy us on the genetic level.

The mind reels.

"Well, you never know," Susan Smith of the National Confectioner's Association, said yesterday. "There's a niche market for everything and maybe candy based on someone's gene pool is a possibility."

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