Taste, the sense that allows us to appreciate the beauty of good food, is something scientists understand fairly well. The sensation we feel when eating a piece of cake, chewing on a hamburger or taking the first bite of a piping hot piece of pizza is triggered when chemicals in our food interact with receptors in our mouths.
For hundreds of years, scientists have known about four basic tastes: sour, sweet, salty and bitter. More recently, a Japanese chemist discovered a fifth basic taste, umami, which is triggered by monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as it’s more widely known. Umami, perhaps best described as savory, is especially prevalent in truffles, meat and anchovies.
And now, scientists believe they have found a sixth basic taste that could profoundly change the way we eat.
In a new study, researchers found evidence that fat interacts with taste buds in a way similar to the five basic tastes. We have known for some time that receptors in our mouths recognize fat, which has led scientists to believe it could change how we perceive food in the same way sour and sweet tastes do. Now there’s evidence that it does.
“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 lead author of the study.
If people learn to manipulate the taste of fat correctly, he says, it will allow us to make tons of food taste better by either reproducing the taste of fat or introducing substitutes to mimic it.
To figure out that fat could be another of the basic tastes, Mattes conducted two experiments. In the first, more than 100 participants were given isolated solutions that had one of six different tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami and fatty. They were then asked to sort them into as many groups as they believed were necessary. The participants had little trouble identifying sweet, sour and salty as unique tastes, but, interestingly, they pooled the remaining three into a group that Mattes refers to as the “nebulous bucket.”
“We’re pretty sure that they did that because bitterness, umami-ness and fattiness, when isolated, can be pretty strange,” said Mattes. “So they put them in a ‘This is bad’ or ‘This is strange’ group.”
But then, in another experiment, they gave participants only solutions containing the three “bad” or “strange” tastes, and the participants easily divided them into three groups.
“It was really very telling,” said Mattes. “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.”
The fat taste is hidden in a bite of steak or a dollop of olive oil, just as umami is hidden in a bite of anchovy. Fat, as everyone experiences it, is a triglyceride, because it is made up of three fatty acids. The combination of the three gives fat the mouth feel and creaminess we associate with it.
“Understanding this could have huge implications for the food industry,” said Mattes. “It could make a lot of food taste a lot better.”