Why do we like fatty foods so much? We can blame our taste buds. Our tongues apparently recognize and have an affinity for fat, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They have found that variations in a gene can make people more or less sensitive to the taste of fat.
The study is the first to identify a human receptor that can taste fat and suggests that some people may be more sensitive to the presence of fat in foods. The study is available online in the Journal of Lipid Research.
Investigators found that people with a particular variant of the CD36 gene are far more sensitive to the presence of fat than others.
“The ultimate goal is to understand how our perception of fat in food might influence what foods we eat and the quantities of fat that we consume,” says senior investigator Nada A. Abumrad, PhD, the Dr. Robert A. Atkins Professor of Medicine and Obesity Research. “In this study, we’ve found one potential reason for individual variability in how people sense fat. It may be, as was shown recently, that as people consume more fat, they become less sensitive to it, requiring more intake for the same satisfaction. 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.”
People who made more CD36 protein could easily detect the presence of fat. In fact, study subjects who made the most CD36 were eight times more sensitive to the presence of fat than those who made about 50 percent less of the protein.
The researchers studied 21 people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, which is considered to be obese. Some participants had a genetic variant that led to the production of more CD36. Others made much less. And some were in between.
Participants were asked to taste solutions from three different cups. One contained small amounts of a fatty oil. The other two contained solutions that were similar in texture to the oil but were fat-free. Subjects were asked to choose the cup that was different.
“We did the same three-cup test several times with each subject to learn the thresholds at which individuals could identify fat in the solution,” explains first author M. Yanina Pepino, PhD, research assistant professor of medicine. “If we had asked, ‘does it taste like fat to you?’ that could be very subjective. So we tried to objectively measure the lowest concentration of fat at which someone could detect a difference.”
Her team masked input that might help participants identify fat by sight or smell. To eliminate visual cues, they lit the testing area with a red lamp. Study subjects also wore nose clips so that they could not smell the solutions.
Fat is an important component of the diet, and both humans and animals usually prefer high-fat, energy-dense foods. Scientists have believed that people identify those high-fat foods mainly by texture, but this study suggests that the presence of fat can change the way our tongues perceive the food, just as it does for the tastes sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory (umami).
The CD36 discovery follows research that had identified a role for the gene in rats and mice. Scientists had learned that when animals are genetically engineered without a working CD36gene, they no longer display a preference for fatty foods. In addition, animals that can’t make the CD36 protein have difficulty digesting fat.
Up to 20 percent of people are believed to have the variant in the CD36 gene that is associated with making significantly less CD36 protein. That, in turn, could mean they are less sensitive to the presence of fat in food.
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