Scientists think they've discovered a sixth taste

bacon fatFor centuries, people described food in terms of four basic tastes: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. More recently a Japanese chemist discovered a fifth taste, umami, which is triggered by glutamates. Now scientists say they have found a sixth basic taste, and they believe it could profoundly change the way we eat.

This new basic taste doesn't get a fancy new name because it is already familiar to everyone - it's fat. Scientists have long known that receptors in our mouths recognize fat, which led them to speculate that it could change the way we perceive food in the same way that other basic tastes do. Now scientists have discovered the evidence to back up their theory.

Richard Mattes, a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, is the lead author of the study. He explained the results to The Washington Post: "We already knew that people have a taste receptor for fatty acids; now we know that it's a distinguishable taste - that it doesn't have overlap. The combination of those two things is what's important," he said.

When you eat, fat isn't perceived by itself, just like you don't immediately perceive that the color green is a combination of blue and yellow. In the same manner, "when you eat a food that contains fat, you don't immediately perceive the taste produced by the fatty acid. But it's there, and it's distinct." 

You may be surprised to learn that fat, when isolated from other flavors, doesn't taste good. "It's very harsh," said Mattes. But other basic tastes operate in the same manner. The bitter taste and MSG also aren't appealing outside of the food products in which they are found, but they contribute significantly to foods we love like chocolate and beer. "Many things that are unpleasant in isolation in fact contribute greatly to the appeal of foods," Mattes reminds us. "Fat is a perfect example."

This finding will change the way food companies approach flavor. Until now, they've mostly focused on the "mouthfeel" of fat rather than the flavor. Mattes thinks that if these companies learn to manipulate the taste of fat correctly, they can make many foods taste better by finding better substitutes or using fat molecules as a flavor enhancer. 

Photo of Rendering bacon fat from Cooking Light Magazine

1 Comment

  • ellabee  on  7/29/2015 at 10:34 AM

    Yet another reason to avoid "food" from "food companies", and cook with real foods (a wide variety, in moderation). Fat pretty clearly plays a role in making nutrients from other foods available and regulating digestion as well as combining with other flavors to make food appetizing.

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