For the longest time, the essential tastes were a steady foursome of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. (Don’t you remember those tongue diagrams you had to label in middle school?) Umami, though discovered in Japan in the early 1900s, only started becoming known in the U.S. around the 2000s. It’s that rich, savory taste you get from eating meat, truffles, or anchovies — thanks to MSG.
Now there’s a new addition to that list. A study released earlier this month by Purdue University states that the sixth essential taste is fat, or “oleogustus” in scientific terms. The research shows that fat, though commonly described as bitter or sour, is unique enough to stand alone. This is not to be confused with the feel of fat, which has a thick, creamy sensation on the tongue.
“By building a lexicon around fat and understanding its identity as a taste, it could help the food industry develop better tasting products and with more research help clinicians and public health educators better understand the health implications of oral fat exposure,” said Richard D. Mattes, professor of nutrition science and co-author of the study.
But how do you actually describe the taste of fat? According to the research, no familiar words can explain it. So what the 102 participants in the study had to do was organize an array of solutions according to taste. Though the participants at first started to group the fatty samples with the bitter ones, they eventually grouped the fatty samples separately.
Mattes says fat itself has a generally unpleasant flavor, but it can improve the pleasantness of other foods when added in small doses – think of the tiny amounts of bitterness in chocolate or coffee, or the way we can add salt or sugar to any dish or dessert.
With fat isolated as its taste element, it will be possible to enhance bland foods, according to the study. Maybe it’ll be in the form of a seasoning or a sauce. Perhaps it’ll also be possible to mimic that fatty taste with a healthier substitute.