Are You Feeling Fat or Tasting It?
For years it was believed that humans had the capacity to detect four different tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It was what was taught in school. It was what was widely accepted, and it existed without dispute. Then a few years ago, the Japanese concept of umami (a certain savory aspect of food) was pushed as the fifth taste and garnered a fair amount of support. People began pointing out the umami in favorite foods (soy sauce, cheese, tomatoes, etc) as if it were a human right long repressed. Restaurants, and celebrity chefs, started promoting the inherent umami in their foods and on their menus, and even an entrepreneurial sort got involved with the opening of a chain of Umami Burgers.
Just when we were getting comfortable with umami as our long lost fifth sibling of taste comes the black sheep of the family, someone we have been talking about, but desperately trying to forget – yes, I am talking about fat. It seems molecular biologists studying how humans perceive taste are making a case for fat as being the distinctive sixth taste. Fat, long considered more of a texture than a taste or a flavor (by definition a flavor is what we perceive through both taste and smell), is now being seated at the family table, along with sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami as part of the taste family.
According to a report in the Washington Post, researchers at Deakin University in Australia found that people were able to detect the taste of fatty acids. This year, researchers at the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said they had discovered that some people might be more sensitive to the presence of fat in foods than others. The studies, interestingly enough, do reveal that some participants who were overweight or clinically obese had more of a knack for determining the presence of (even in miniscule proportions) fat. These studies are exceptionally interesting to molecular biologists, as well as food developers, and there is a collective hope that a growing understanding of the human perception of fat will ultimately aid in health and obesity management.
While we are likely a few studies away from global acceptance of fat as a taste, the rethinking and rebranding of fat may have some immediate repercussions (too late, there is already a Fatburger out there). In your experience, do you think fat is a taste or simply a texture? If fat gets recategorized, will it matter? Is it dangerous to bring fat into the taste family, and is it simply bad taste to show acceptance after so many years of strife and pain?