Study examines how fat affects flavor perception

by Jeff Gelski
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NOTTINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM — Fat in food may reduce activity in several areas of the brain that are responsible for processing taste, aroma and reward, according to a joint study carried out by The University of Nottingham and Unilever. Understanding fat’s impact on flavor perception may assist in the design of low-fat products that are more acceptable to consumers, according to the study, which appeared in the July issue of Chemosensory Perception.

The three-year study involved people in their 20s and how they responded to changes in the fat content of four different fruit emulsions they tasted while under an M.R.I. scanner. All four samples had the same thickness and sweetness. One sample contained flavor and no fat. The three other samples contained fat with different flavor-release properties.

Researchers found the areas of the people’s brains responsible for flavor perception were significantly more activated when the non-fatty sample was tested compared to the fatty emulsions. Researchers noted increased activation in the brain areas does not necessarily result in increased perception of flavor or reward.

“This is the first brain study to assess the effect of fat on the processing of flavor perception, and it raises the question as to why fat emulsions suppress the cortical response in brain areas linked to the processing of flavor and reward,” said Joanne Hort, an associate professor in sensory sciences at The University of Nottingham. “It also remains to be determined what the implications of this suppressive effect are on feelings of hunger, satiety and reward.”

Johanneke Busch, a Unilever food scientist based at the company’s research and development laboratories in Vlaardingen, The Netherlands, said, “There is more to people’s enjoyment of food than the product’s flavor, like its mouthfeel, its texture and whether it satisfies hunger. So this is a very important building block for us to better understand how to innovate and manufacture healthier food products which people want to buy.”

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