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March 2002
Vol. 5, No. 3, p 12.
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The taste of fat

opening artThe idea that fat has a taste seems natural enough—many a fatty food has likely been lamented in the old wives’ tale: If it feels (or tastes) good, it is probably bad for you. However, for years it has been a general consensus among nutritionists that pure fat actually provides no taste at all to foods, but only texture. Recent work carried out by Richard Mattes and students from Purdue University set out to determine if fat in foods does actually have a taste, and their results indicate that “fattiness” should be included as the sixth basic one, to join sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, the taste evoked by monosodium glutamate.

In fact, previous studies with rats have shown that fats cause electrical changes in the taste cells, showing a chemical, and not just textural, detection system. Some insist that fat has no particular taste, but rather that the brain detects a particular smell that fatty foods contain. Thus, Mattes’s work focused on explicitly determining whether humans perceive fat through smell or taste.

Nineteen subjects were subjected to a “fat” stimulus, namely a cracker with cream cheese, in different manners on different days (Physiol. Behav. 2001, 74, 343–348). In some cases, subjects were allowed to taste (but not ingest) as well as smell the cream cheese; in others, they were allowed to either taste (with a nose plug) or smell, but not both; and at other times they received no sensory stimulation whatsoever. The level of triacylglycerol (TAG) in the blood of the subjects was checked at various intervals before and after stimulation.

The study found that TAG levels measured in the blood after taste and smell, as well as taste-only stimulation, were significantly elevated from baseline and 3 times higher than what occurred after odor-only exposure. This finding provides supporting evidence that taste may be an important component in how humans perceive fat.

This research may help explain why it has been difficult to produce fat replacements that provide the same satisfaction as the real thing. A greater understanding of fat perception mechanisms could improve the ability to mimic them.

In any case, if further studies confirm these findings, textbooks will have to be changed to reflect the new taste category.

FELICIA M. WILLIS

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