Quick, quick! Name the five tastes. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and unami. And now a team of researchers from Purdue University believe that the human body may be able to detect a sixth taste: fat. The field experts are making a case to establish it as a one-of-a-kind taste that generates its own patterns of brain activity.
If further research will reinforce this finding, the discovery could be of great help to the medical community in trying to better understand obesity (and how to fight it), as well as human biology as a whole. What’s more, it would also prove that we don’t know as much about the human body as we think we do.
Richard Mattes, study leader, and the rest and the team from Purdue University claims to have isolated the specific taste of fat (dubbed “oleogustus”, a mix of the Latin words for oil and taste), and even though people generally seem to love unhealthy fatty food, the researchers stress that fat actually tastes terrible.
For their study, the experts started out by looking at fatty acids, as previous studies had already established that the human tongue can detect them on a molecular level. They gave participating subjects nose clips so that the aromas of food would not interfere with the results as smell often contributes to what we perceive as flavor.
The researchers then gave subjects various concentrated samples and asked them to label each of the samples with one of the five (5) big tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and unami, while also including “blank” as an option.
The overall results showed that 64 percent (64%) of the subjects were able to successfully identify fatty acids by taste. However, not all samples of fat tasted the same – people perceived samples with short-chain fatty acids as being somewhat sour, while samples with medium-chain and long-chain fatty acids were perceived as being somewhat bitter.
The experts mentioned that the sour and bitter tastes of fatty acids differ from those we typically label “sour” and “bitter”, but since there is no other name for the taste of fat, subjects could only describe it using the traditional tastes.
The study surprised everyone by concluding that fat tastes bad as foods that contain fat are generally considered tasty. Fast food products for instance are well known for having an almost addictive taste that’s mainly given by fat and various souses. Researchers have not been able to come up with a reason why so far.
One working theory simply says that the human taste buds may just be programmed to enjoy fats, but dislike fatty acids. Mattes gave a statement informing that “We have a situation where one form of fat is adding to the appeal of food and may encourage intake. While with another, the taste signal is aversive, discouraging consumption”.
Another theory suggests that this is a defense mechanism of sorts. Fatty acids typically accumulate in rotting food because fat breaks down under these circumstances. The bad taste encountered in food that went bad may be given by fatty acids and serve as a warning that eating that food may make you sick.
Robin Dando, assistant professor with an expertise in Food Science over at Cornell University, also gave a statement, noting that while previous studies pointed at the idea that people identify fat by texture, not taste, many contemporary studies are disproving this belief and showing that fat does indeed have a unique taste all of its own.
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