Ever wonder why our taste buds can recognize wonderful, delicious foods like chocolate cake, pizza, French fries, hamburgers…OK, we have to stop. But seriously, ever wonder why? To put it simply, a “good” sensation is triggered when chemicals in our food react with receptors in our mouths.
Up until recently, there were four widely known “tastes”: sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Not too long ago, a Japanese chemist discovered a fifth taste called umami, which is triggered by our friend MSG. And now there’s a sixth taste joining the party, and we’re all pretty familiar with it: fat. Yep, that’s right. Fat, fat, fat.
“Fat is likely another one of the basic tastes. I think we have pretty clear evidence for this,” said Richard Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, and the lead author of the study that discovered the “fat” taste.
To qualify as a basic taste, a flavour has to have a unique chemical signature, specific receptors in our bodies for the taste, and people have to be able to distinguish it from other tastes. Scientists have found the chemical signature and two specific receptors for fat, but showing that people could distinguish it was the sticky point.
Initially, Mattes found that people couldn’t quite tell fat tastes when given a large array of flavours, but when they were given less palatable tastes — like bitter and sour — they could detect the fat. Fat also has a distinct feel in the mouth. Eeeewwww. But here’s the shocker: fat (on its own) does not taste good. No, it doesn’t taste like bacon.
“The fatty acid part of taste is very unpleasant,” said Mattes. “I haven’t met anybody who likes it alone. You usually get a gag reflex.”
Stinky cheese has high levels of the fat taste, and so does food that goes rancid, Mattes said. Yet we like it because it blends well and brings out the best of other flavours, just like the bitter in coffee or dark chocolate, he said.
So what does this all mean for us and the food we eat?
“Understanding this could have huge implications for the food industry,” said Mattes. “It could make a lot of food taste a lot better.”
Just as we sprinkle salt on our food or include MSG in certain recipes, we could enhance our meals by adding a little fat taste on top. If cooks and chefs learn how to manipulate the taste of fat correctly, he says, food will taste better by either adding that taste or introducing substitutes that successfully mimic it.
Can you pass the fat, please?