Study into fat and perception of flavour


September 20th, 2012

A study carried out by the University with multinational food company Unilever has found that fat in food can reduce activity in several areas of the brain which are responsible for processing taste, aroma and reward.

The research provides the food industry with better understanding of how it might be able to — in the future — make healthier, less fatty food products without affecting their overall taste and enjoyment. In 2010, Unilever unveiled its Sustainable Living Plan, which sets out its ambition to help hundreds of millions of people improve their diet around the world within a decade.

The three-year study investigated how the brains of a group of participants in their 20s would respond to changes in the fat content of four fruit emulsions they tasted while under an MRI scanner. All four samples were of the same thickness and sweetness, but one contained flavour with no fat, while the other three contained fat with different flavour release properties.

The research found that the areas of the participants’ brains which are responsible for the perception of flavour — such as the somatosensory cortices and the anterior, mid and posterior insula — were significantly more activated when the non-fatty sample was tested compared to the fatty emulsions despite having the same flavour perception; increased activation in these brain areas does not necessarily result in increased perception of flavour or reward.

Dr Joanne Hort, Associate Professor in Sensory Science at the University, said: “This is the first brain study to assess the effect of fat on the processing of flavour perception and it raises questions as to why fat emulsions suppress the cortical response in brain areas linked to the processing of flavour and reward. It also remains to be determined what the implications of this suppressive effect are on feelings of hunger, satiety and reward.”

Unilever food scientist Johanneke Busch, based at the company’s Research & Development laboratories in Vlaardingen, Netherlands, added: “There is more to people’s enjoyment of food than the product’s flavour; 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.”

Nottingham University’s Sensory Science Centre, its Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre and the Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centre were all involved in the research, which was co-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Eldeghaidy S et al (2012). Does fat alter the cortical response to flavour? is published in Chemosensory Perception; 10.1007/s12078-012-9130-z

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