Museum Helps Prove that Fat is the 6th Taste

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By Nicole L. Garneau, PhD

1000 Enrollments -FA Study

The Genetics of Taste Lab was host to the fatty acid taste study from November 2014 to August 2015. In that time we enrolled 1020 Museum guests, ages 8-90, as part of the crowdsourced data collection. The study was a true success in both citizen science and crowdsourcing, AND now that the data have been analyzed, we can share that it is a scientific success as well!

Background

Scientists have long accepted that sweet, sour, salty and bitter are basic tastes. More recently, umami (savory) was added to the list. And now through the findings of our study as well as those of our collaborators, we can finally prove that there is a sixth taste: fat, or as it is starting to be known in the land of taste, oleogustus.

There is a thirty year history towards proving that fat is the 6th taste, however the final nail in the coffin came this year when our collaborator, Dr. Richard Mattes of Purdue, and his team published their research "Oleogustus: The Unique Taste of Fat." This finally put fat taste on the map.  Now that we know people can detect the taste of fatty acids, we need to figure out how it happens and what it means for human health. That’s where the Genetics of Taste Lab’s work comes in. Using an omega-6 essential fatty acid (linoleic acid), the Lab examined both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the ability to taste this important nutrient, and the role it has in obesity.

Results

The first published results of the study, No Difference in Perceived Intensity of Linoleic Acid in the Oral Cavity between Obese and Nonobese Individuals, appears in the October 2015 issue of the leading journal Chemical Senses, published by Oxford University Press (free open access!).

The study had dual purposes. The first was to determine whether people can, in fact, discern the presence of linoleic acid. In a survey of 735 subjects, ranging in age from 8 to 90, of white, black, Asian and Latino ethnicity, the answer was definitively yes, people can detect the taste — but to different degrees.

The second was if taste acuity plays a role in obesity. In answer to this question, the researchers found no link between %BF and ability to perceive the taste of the linoleic acid.  “We didn’t find that %BF would predict someone’s sensitivity to fat,” our partner and lead author, Robin Tucker-Falconer, RD PhD said. “Now we know we need to explore other areas, like genetics or dietary exposure, for those results.”  We are now in the final stages of the genetic analysis, with the goal of finding the gene responsible for fat taste- stay tuned!

The results also revealed an interesting pattern in sensitivity. Women were much better than men at discerning the taste, and young people 17 and under, especially girls, were better than older people. “This was one of the first studies to look at how kids experience fat taste,” Tucker-Falconer said.

Making History

What was unusual about the study — and what enabled it to include such a large and diverse set of subjects — was that it was conducted with the help of citizen scientist volunteers that crowdsourced over 1000 Museum guests as human subjects in the Genetics of Taste Laboratory housed within the Museum.  Our research partner, Tucker-Falconer adapted the research methods she had used as a graduate student at Purdue, where she tested about 100 participants over four years, to the museum setting, working with our team to design the study and to train the volunteers.

The proof is now I the pudding. “This was far and away the largest sampling that has been done,” said Mattes, a longtime researcher into the biology of taste.  “Working with the citizen- scientists is a wonderful scenario,” Mattes continued. “With their interest and willingness to be trained and their commitment, it’s just a perfect situation. It enables us to study large populations in an efficient way.”

This two-year study was led by Nicole Garneau PhD (ngarneau@dmns.org) and Richard Mattes PhD (mattes@purdue.edu), and made possible by a partnership between the Health Science and Visitor Programs Departments at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue University.

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