Scientists Have Discovered What Fat Tastes Like and It’s Gross

While fat is associated with texture and flavour release in foods, it’s not an instantly perceivable taste. A new study now claims that the tongue can identify fatty acids, and mark them as having a “bitter or irritating” taste.

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Jul 20 2015, 12:50pm

Anyone who has seen their way through a hangover by chain-eating cheese toasties or doused a bowl of summer fruits with disproportionate amounts of cream has a pretty good understanding of what fat tastes like. Full-bodied deliciousness with top notes of Oh-God-I-should-really-hit-the-gym-tomorrow, right?

Not entirely. While fat is associated with texture and flavour release in foods, it's not an instantly perceivable taste. Studies show that our mouths and intestines have the taste receptors for fatty acids (the building blocks of oil, lard, and butter) but have yet to figure out how they signal the presence of fat to our brains.

This inability to identify fat is why many scientists do not class it as one of the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and the savoury umami) detected by the tongue.

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But new research from the Ingestive Behaviour Research Centre (IBRC) at Indiana's Purdue University claims to be a step closer to pinning down fat's elusive taste.

Published in the Chemical Senses journal, the study explores the taste sensations of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) found in oils and animal fats. Two groups of volunteers wore nose clips and sampled a range of different taste qualities, including NEFA. The texture of each sample was manipulated to be the same, meaning the only difference was taste.

The results found that volunteers identified fat as having a taste unique to all other samples. But it wasn't a good one.

Professor Richard Mattes, director of the IBRC explained: "Many people described [fat] as bitter or irritating and consistently unpalatable," adding that at high concentrations, the "signal it generates would dissuade the eating of rancid foods." At low levels, he stated that fat's unique taste "may enhance the appeal of some foods by adding to the overall sensory profile, in the same way that bitterness alone is unpleasant but at appropriate levels, adds to the appeal of wine and chocolate."

It's not the first time scientists have attempted to define the taste of fat. Earlier this year, a study from Deakin University in Melbourne explored whether fat should be considered as a "sixth taste," due to the taste buds' ability to detect the presence of fatty acids.

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As well as bolstering fat's claim for a place in the basic taste lineup, the IBRC hopes that identifying exactly what fat tastes like will lead to the development of better fat replacements and new ways of tackling obesity. Most low fat foods currently mimic the texture of fat (think semi-skimmed milk or low fat yoghurt) but not the taste, something researchers say could be the key to creating healthy but satisfying alternatives to our favourite high fat dishes.

Until then, it seems we'll have to make do with real, fat-laden Camembert, marinated bacon, and soft-serve milkshakes in all their bitter, irritating glory.

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