The joint study – published in Chemosensory Perception – reveals for the first time that fats present in food have can reduce activity in several areas of the brain which are responsible for processing taste, aroma and reward mechanisms, thus influencing how flavours are perceived by consumers.
Led by Dr Joanne Hort from the University of Nottingham, UK, the research team said the findings provide the food industry with better understanding of how in the future it might be able to make healthier, less fatty food products without negatively affecting their overall taste and enjoyment.
“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,” said Hort.
“It also remains to be determined what the implications of this suppressive effect are on feelings of hunger, satiety and reward,” she explained.
Unilever food scientist Johanneke Busch, based at the company’s Research & Development laboratories in the Netherlands added: “There is more to people’s enjoyment of food than the product’s flavour — like 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.”
The three year study investigated how the brains of consumers respond to changes in the fat content of four different fruit emulsion. Using a panel of 12 experienced taste testers, the researchers assessed how modifying the fat levels of the emulsion affected taste perception – whilst under an MRI scanner.
The team said that all samples were of the same thickness and sweetness, however one contained flavour with no fat, while the others contained fat with different release properties.
Hort and her colleagues revealed that areas of the brain that are responsible for the perception of flavour — such as the somatosensory cortices and the anterior, mid & posterior insula — were significantly more activated when the non-fatty sample was tested compared to the fatty emulsions; despite having the same flavour perception.
However, it is important to note that increased activation in such brain areas does not necessarily result in increased perception of flavour or reward, they added.