There may be a lot more going on than just flavor when it comes to your cravings, according to a recent study. Researchers looking into how food affects the brain have found that fat reduces neural activity that helps you feel satisfied. Could a new understanding of fat and flavor perception be used to help develop healthier foods without compromising taste?
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan
Unilever is a multinational consumer goods company that markets foods, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products. Some of Unilever’s better-known food brands include Ben & Jerry’s, Knorr, Hellmann’s, Lipton and Wish-Bone. In 2010 the company announced its “Sustainable Living Plan,” an ambitious effort to help hundreds of millions of people worldwide improve their diet within a decade.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham commissioned by Unilever say they have conducted the first brain study to assess the effect of fat on flavor perception. They found that fat in food can influence the way flavors are perceived by reducing activity in certain areas of the brain responsible for processing taste, aroma and reward.
Fat and flavor perception
For a three-year period the researchers used an MRI scanner to investigate how the brains of participants responded when they tasted different fruit emulsions. They were tested with four fruit emulsions. Three contained fat with different flavor intensities. One emulsion delivered flavor with no fat.
The participants noticed no significant difference in taste among the four fruit emulsions. However, the taste of the non-fat emulsion significantly activated areas of their brain responsible for flavor perception more than the fatty flavor samples.
Does fat make you eat more?
Like all good scientists, the researchers noted that further studies would be needed to measure whether increased activation of the brain’s somatosensory corticies and anterior, mid and posterior insula increases the perception of flavor or reward.
However, a layman could assume the suggestion that if fatty food does indeed reduce such brain activity, someone on a high-fat diet could unconsciously consume many more calories than needed by the time their brain starts firing “full” signals.
The University of Nottingham researchers say this understanding of fat on flavor perception in the brain is “a very important building block for us to better understand how to innovate and manufacture healthier food products which people want to buy.”
The researchers are taking an acceptable, uncontroversial position on behalf of their benefactor Unilever. But past history has shown that corporations don’t always wear their true motives on their sleeves. Tobacco companies are a good example. Could the science of fat and flavor perception be used by the food industry to lure consumers into dependence on certain products?
To thine own self be true
In the world of diet, weight loss and nutrition, healthy eating can be boiled down to one simple rule: buy fresh, unprocessed ingredients and cook them yourself.