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The Sixth Sense for Fat

In medical school I learnt that we have four senses of taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

Several years ago a fifth sense, umami, was officially added to this list. Umami is stimulated by glutamate (as in MSG) and apparently allows us to taste protein (as in meat, sea food, or cheese).

Now, Jessica Stewart and colleagues from Deakin University in Australia show that a sixth sense, i.e. the ability to orally “sense” the fat content of foods may explain differences in fat preferences (British Journal of Nutrition).

Indeed, previous studies in animals have suggested that oral hypersensitivity to fatty acids (the building blocks of fat) are associated with decreased fat intake and body weight.

In the current study, the investigators first examined the taste thresholds for different types of fatty acids (olate, linolate, and laurate) in 31 normal weight subjects and classified them as hypo- or hypersensitive. Subjects also completed a fat ranking task using custard containing varying amounts (0, 2, 6 and 10 %) of fat.

Hypersensitive subjects reported lower energy and fat intakes, had an increased ability to rank the custards based on fat content and also had a lower BMI levels.

These data suggest that the increased ability to detect nutritional fat may result in lower energy and fat intake, which in turn may result in lower body weights.

Obviously, the idea here is that people who are less sensitive to fat are likely to need more fat in their foods to get that same level of enjoyment as people with more sensitive fat receptors. Because of fat’s high caloric content, this means that they may in the end also end up with more calories, and thus, weight gain.

I can think of a number of interesting questions that these findings may prompt:

1) Is the increased ability to taste fat genetic or are changes in fat-sensitivity determined by habitual fat intake (gustatory plasticity)?

2) Does weight loss affect people’s ability to taste fat (resulting in them searching out fattier foods when on a diet)?

3) Does going on a low fat-diet increase fat sensitivity thereby allowing people to get the same pleasure out of low-fat foods?

4) Can we develop artificial compounds that can stimulate the fat receptors thereby mimicking a higher fat content of foods (like we do with artificial sweeteners)?

Lots of interesting questions, which may not only explain why some people derive more pleasure from fatty foods than others but also open new possibilities for the food industry to manipulate the taste of foods (hopefully to our benefit).

I’d love to hear from my readers regarding their thoughts on “tasting” fat.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Very nice observations Doc.Tasting fat is all in your mind, I think. Most of us just love to eat and for any good reason also. If we only knew what all these “good tasting” foods where doing to our inside’s it think many of us would eat “smarter?”
    Eating for the right reasons is so important.
    Having a junk food day, eating what you want, when you want will turn your stomach upside down. Doing this will make you ask what should you do.
    Learning about foods and reading from experts like you is worth it’s weight in gold for your life.
    Thank you for being there for us all.
    Pierre William Trudel

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  2. Rereading my own post, I would like to amend the last statement. It is of course not that people with lower fat sensitivity derive more pleasure from fat – it is just that they probably need fattier foods to perceive the same pleasure as people who are more sensitive to fat.

    The study does not actually examine or talk about the reward or pleasure of eating fat – that is a different topic altogether.


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  3. A personal comment on “gustatory plasticity”:

    I have gradually switched from cream in my coffee to milk, to 2%, to skim milk.

    Cream in coffee now seems oily to me – yuck.

    I think fat is like sugar and salt – you get used to high levels – very gustatorially plastic.

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  4. I believe fat preference is acquired. There is a great deal of research (especially with children) that suggests people tend to prefer the foods they are most exposed to. I would be willing to hypothesize that changing one’s dieting would change one’s food preferences as well (how much? Not sure, but it would certainly be interesting to find out).

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  5. I went on a very-low-fat diet in 1991 and stayed on it for years. I lost 40 pounds “effortlessly”, was 21, in good shape and basically felt fine on it. I’m not sure I stopped liking the taste of fatty foods, like good cheese or olives or chocolate, but I certainly adjusted to the taste of low-fat foods, and high-fat foods made me feel noticeably heavy. I remember going on a 3-day backpacking trip where I ate a lot of oatmeal, dried fruit, dried beans, and then stopping at a fast food place. I had a regular cup of chili – beef and cheese, but nothing ridiculous – and had to upchuck an hour later.

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  6. This read is really interesting to me. After looking at thousands of diets over the years I can truly say the one nutrient that is never below recommended levels is fat. Fats are very satisfying and satiate hunger effectively, which is why low fat diets are difficult to stick to. I believe we will learn much more about this sixth sense in the coming years, and I truly hope that fast food and processed food companies will require a greater degree of accountability as to their ingredients, particularly the crowd pleasing fat.

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  7. I went on a low fat diet once, and after a few days the slimy slithery quality of fatty foods was repulsive and used that experience to give up milk in tea and give up chips (fries) pretty much permanently. I eat chips very rarely now. But I am back onto a normal fat diet.

    I tried those pills that stop you digesting all the fat. The best things about them is realising just how much fat you do eat. So they can help you change your regular diet. It helped me anyway.

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  8. I think there is something about fat that everybody finds irresistible.Knowing fully that fried (especially deep fried) are not good for health ,majorty still wont mind to go fora bite whenever they get a chance. And there ought to be something genetic about it, as this might have evolved during our early caveman and hunter gatherer days when food was sparce and we have to go for whatever was avilable.The acqistion of fat , and devloping a taste for it should have been thus a survival trick we devloped on the way (our genes are switched on for it ) and still continued even now.This is very obvious looking at the bulky frame of phsyique seen people mostly living in cold (mostly west) vs the relatively thin frame of those in tropical countries (mostly Asian).It would be intersting to look at taste preferences(especially for fat and protein) across ethenical populations ,and across continents or with in the same con tinent.I always believe the food avilable in the area you live in makes you or mars you and there is no universal food which is suitable for everybody (and tha tis what is brought about by prcessed food industryand presently we had to pay a price for it, intrms of obesity and diabetes)

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  9. I know this is an old post, my apologies. However, this is interesting to me. I’ve always been the sort of person who likes “fresh” food that doesn’t taste “slimy.” Only recently have I realized that what I was calling “slimy” was actually fatty. I don’t like bacon much, although it smells great. I don’t like whipped cream. I’ll avoid cream-filled doughnuts. Butter for me is a cooking ingredient and not so much a food in and of itself. I like the crunch of potato chips and I’ll have ice cream sometimes, but given a choice, I’d rather have the crisp crunch of an apple or a water chestnut.

    “Fresh” to me is food that you swallow, and it goes AWAY even if the taste remains, like an orange. “Slimy” is food that you can swallow for a week and you’re still not just tasting but actually feeling it in your mouth. Gross. I guess that’s a fat sensor — and if I have high-tuned ones, that might explain why I naturally seem to like less fatty food. FWIW, I’m 45 and never had a weight problem at all — my BMI has been around 19/20 since I was in high school.

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  10. My obseration of obese persons is that their life style is devoid of energy expediture so much so that they do not like fibre studded foods like salads & fruits which require lot of chewing . Fatty foods are easily ingested & transported to stomach with minimal energy expediture by body avoiding all physiological events in mouth of chewing & mixing with sliva for bulus preparation. Thereby it requires large amount to satisfy appetite centre there by eating more calories.

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  11. Everything in moderation should always be the guide

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