The Sixth Taste of Food

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Scientists have discovered a sixth basic taste that the human tongue can detect—fat.

There may be a legitimately scientific reason why many people enjoy fatty food so much—we can blame it on the taste buds in our tongues.

It appears that our tongues can recognize and may even have a certain preference for fat, according to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Their research has shown that variations in a certain gene are likely responsible for making people more or less sensitive to the taste of fat.

For someone who loves burgers and fries, and enjoys a deliciously marbled steak, these findings are not surprising, despite being contrary to what scientists believed not very long ago.

It has long been an established fact that the human tongue can only detect four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. All the other flavors we experience were contributed to the elaborate interplay of our sense of taste with our other senses, mainly the sense of smell, sight, touch, and thermoception, to a varying degree.

Then came the Japanese scientists with their fifth taste theory, and they introduced us to the taste of “Umami, the savory taste of meat and other foods rich in proteins we find so delicious (umami is derived from umai, the Japanese word for delicious). It is the taste of glutamates—the salts of an amino acid—and other small molecules called nucleotides.

With the new findings, a sixth taste is now added to the list of the basic tastes our taste buds are able to recognize. The findings can finally explain why some people have a certain affinity for fatty foods, since they are less aware of the fat content as they eat.

The research team showed that people who were blessed with more of a receptor called “CD36” were better at detecting, and thus limiting, the presence of fat in food.

"The ultimate goal is to understand how our perception of fat in food might influence what foods we eat and the qualities of fat that we consume," said Professor Nada Abumrad, who led the research.

"We have found one potential reason for individual variability in how people sense fat. What we will need to determine in the future is whether our ability to detect fat in foods influences our fat intake, which clearly would have an impact on obesity."

The study, which was published in the Journal of Lipid Research, found that variations in the gene that produces the CD36 receptor make people more or less sensitive to the taste of fat, to that extent that people with half as much CD36 were eight times less sensitive to the presence of fat.

Up to 20% of people are believed to have a variant of the CD36 gene that is associated with producing lower levels of the receptor, which may make them more prone to obesity.

So now we know the real culprit in our fight against fatty foods—a variant of the CD36 gene. Let us hope scientists can soon learn of ways to conquer it.

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