Thursday, March 11, 2010

I've heard that fat is flavor...

... but apparently fat may also have a flavor. According to Australian researchers at Deakin University, people can taste certain fatty acids in an otherwise flavorless solution. This suggests that people can taste fat as a flavor, in addition to the previously known flavors: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami (savory).

Receptors for the compounds that are responsible for these flavors have been found on the tongue, and before now, researchers have thought that these are the only things we can actually taste. Everything else we perceive as "taste" is actually processed by receptors in the nose - it's actually smell. That's why everything tastes flat and flavorless when your nose is stuffed up from a cold. The reason that the addition of compounds like fat and alcohol are often said to increase flavor is because many compounds that our noses detect are more easily dissolved in fat or alcohol than water (they are fat soluble rather than water soluble). So, adding fat or alcohol to dishes that contain these flavors allows them to be more easily vaporized and distrubted to our smell receptors while we chew. Hence, people say "fat is flavor" but no one wants to eat pure lard or down a shot of vegetable oil.

Incidentally, most fats we use in cooking are not pure fat and do contain compounds that we can smell, so we perceive them as having a flavor. Things like butter and extra virgin olive oil contain fat in addition to a complex mixture of compounds from their previous lives as milk or fruit that give them a discernible flavor when we eat them. However, this study is the first to show that we can actually taste fat on our tongues.

This study has to be followed up on, but I wonder if this means that there's another taste receptor (or more than one?) on the human tongue that is yet undiscovered. Exciting!

(study via BoingBoing)

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