Oleogustus: why we might all be getting a new taste for fat
Scientists say they have isolated the ability of the human palate to detect fat as a distinct taste from sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami
The taste of fat might be joining sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami as an official sense of the human palate after scientists said they found people have a distinct and basic ability to detect it.
But it’s nowhere near as delicious as it might seem, either in name or nature – they propose calling the new taste oleogustus, after Latin for fat taste, and say that in its raw form it causes people to gag.
A research team at Purdue University in the US tested lookalike mixtures with different tastes. More than half of the 28 special tasters could distinguish fatty acids from the other tastes, according to a study published in the journal Chemical Senses.
Past research showed fat had a distinct feel in the mouth, but when scientists removed texture and smell clues people could still tell the difference.
“The fatty acid part of taste is very unpleasant,” said study author Richard Mattes, a Purdue nutrition science professor. “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 mixes well and brings out the best of other flavors, just like the bitter in coffee or chocolate.
To qualify as a basic taste, a flavour must have unique chemical signature, have specific receptors in our bodies for the taste, and people have to distinguish it from other tastes. Scientists had found the chemical signature and two specific receptors for fat, but showing that people could distinguish it was the sticky point.
The team started out with 54 people but concentrated on the results from 28 who were better tasters in general.Initially Mattes found that people couldn’t quite tell fat tastes when given a broad array of flavours. But when just given tastes that are generally unpleasant on their own — bitter, umami, sour — they could find the fat.
Robin Dando, a Cornell University food scientist who wasn’t part of the research, praised the study as “a pretty strong piece of evidence” for a basic fat taste, but didn’t like the suggested name — preferring to just call it fat. There is no single scientific authority that names senses.