For a significant number of consumers, low-fat or fat-free foods have proven something of an anathema. For that matter, I well remember my grandmother despising the very notion of reduced-fat products, almost recoiling at the mere suggestion of the foods. Family members often wondered why she had such a dislike of the products, as most of us could not tell much of a difference, and the dieting and health benefits outweighed any lack of similarity.

Now, word comes that she may have been on to something. Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University believe humans have a sixth taste, by which they can detect fat, joining bitter, salt, sour, sweet and umami. The Deakin scientists utilized a series of taste-testing experiments to discover that humans are able to identify the taste of fat by its chemical composition, as opposed to its texture. According to their research, consumers who are highly sensitive to the taste of fat appear to eat less of it and, as a result, have significantly lower body mass indexes (BMI). As the lead researcher, Russell Keast, notes, “Fat has a very nice mouthfeel to it, (but it) appears that fat is activating something in the oral cavity independent of texture,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

In his research, a group of people sampled various types of fatty acids found in common foods, mixed with non-fat milk to disguise the texture. All of the 33 subjects were able to detect the taste of fat to some degree, though the sensitivity differed between individuals.

With that knowledge in hand, Keast and his team examined whether the taste influenced what people consumed. The subjects were divided into two groups: those who were hypersensitive to the taste and those who were not. The researchers then compared the diets of both groups: those who were hypersensitive to fat ate less of it in their daily diet and had lower BMI. “It appears (hypersensitive) people have a mechanism that is telling them to stop eating it,” Keast notes. Meanwhile, those who are not hypersensitive to fat “are over-consuming, and this is creating an energy imbalance, which is leading to a higher BMI, or development of overweight or obesity.”

Armed with this knowledge, my grandmother will never embrace reduced-fat foods--like she ever would. Granted, she is passing a major-milestone birthday this year, so it’s not like we can criticize much. pf