A NEW study on food science offers an explanation of exactly why lechon tastes good.

After the five basic tastes sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (malinamnam), scientists have discovered a part of the tongue that can detect the taste of oily food.

The new taste, called “oleogustus,” from the Latin root words “oleo” and “gustus” meaning “oil” and “taste,” respectively, was proposed by Richard Mattes, director of Purdue University’s Investigative Behavior Research Center, and his team last 2015, in their study “Oleogustus: The Unique Taste of Fat.”

“Fatty acids that are cleaved off the triglyceride (glycerol ester and three fatty acids) in the food or during chewing stimulate the sensation of fat,” Mattes said in an article published on the university website.

Mattes explained that small qualities of fatty acids in food add up to the appeal of oleogustus, but the taste also becomes unpleasant in high concentration, akin to how the other gustatory senses (basic tastes) work.

‘Fatty’ challenges

Russell Keast of Deakin University’s Center for Advanced Sensory Science assembled a research team to support Mattes’ study and found that oleogustus still needed to meet several criteria before being classified as a major part of the palate.

One criterion covers how the fat molecule is perceived by the receptors of the taste bud cells. Keast said fat molecules do not provide chemical codes that can be identified by the brain as a basic taste.

Keast noted, however, that oleogustus may cast a gustatory response similar to umami that can subtly compliment other tastes, but is without a recognizable taste of its own.

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“The taste of fat may be less well-defined than the sweetness of sugar or the saltiness of sodium chloride,” Keast wrote in a journal review. “The next five to 10 years should reveal, conclusively, whether oleogustus can be classified as the sixth taste, but no matter what, there appears to be a functional significance to oral chemosensing or the detection of chemical stimulus in fats.”

UST Department of Food Technology Asst. Prof. Monalisa Narvaez explained how the human tongue perceives a certain taste.

“In order for you to detect taste, the stimulus should be soluble. In [other words] the molecule that you want to taste should be wet and solubilized in liquid form,” she said in an interview.

The purpose of saliva, aside from being an enzyme for oral digestion, is to make the food wet. Once solubilized, the person eating the food can detect the taste.

“Try to blot dry your entire tongue and put a chocolate or salt on it, you won’t be able to perceive taste,” Narvaez said.

Chemical feeling factors are exhibited when an “irritating feeling,” whether pleasant (like the coolness of mint) or unpleasant (chili), in the mouth occurs.

“Flavor is a complex experience [as] it has three components: taste, aromatics and chemical feeling factors,” Narvaez said, adding that the combination of the three is what results in the overall quality of a certain food.

Contrary to popular notion, the basic tastes are not only associated with specific areas of the tongue.

“When we say the tip of the tongue is for sweet [food], it doesn’t mean that it’s only for sweet [food],” Narvaez said. “It means, the tip of the tongue has the most number of receptors for sweetness but we can still perceive other tastes in that area.”

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She also noted that similar to odor, there are certain blind spots in gustatory perception.

For Narvaez, describing oleogustus as a taste lies on enhancing the texture and flavor of certain foods containing fatty substances. “Fat varies [as] it has no fixed taste,” she said. “For example, fat in chocolate is cocoa butter, while fat in ice cream is milk.”

The main appeal of fat is its capacity to decelerate flavor release and carry other tastes, thus keeping the flavor of food in the mouth.

“Fat slows down the release of flavor in food and makes it more delicious,” she said. “In a dish of adobo, you have [ingredients bringing out] salty and sour [flavors], but the oil [makes] the taste stay long in the mouth.”

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