There are at least two reasons we love high-fat foods: Fats can make any food taste better and it’s in our interest, genetically, to prefer foods that the body needs.
Image source: National Cancer Institute Visuals Online
Most of us don’t consume our fats straight. We don’t sit down with a bottle of olive oil and eat it by the spoonful. And when did you last eat a pat of butter without first applying it to a roll or baked potato? The secret weapon of fat is its ability to interact with other foods and make them taste better.
The most interesting and tasty flavors – animal, vegetable, or dessert — are fat soluble. We prefer marbled beef to lean beef because the most enticing flavors that characterize meat have dissolved into the fat and are stored there. Fat not only carries the taste of the food it’s mixed with. It also carries the smells. The more fat in a meal, the more aroma, and aroma plays an important role in our ability to sense flavor. Without aromas, there are only the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory. Flavor is something much more complex and subtle.
Let’s eat out
As evidence of this, I offer the following: The reason restaurant food tastes better than (most people’s) home cooking is the fat content.
Not surprisingly, restaurant chefs aren’t eager to reveal the culinary secrets that make their fare uniquely delicious. They don’t want the competition stealing their recipes, a competition that includes those motivated to prepare gourmet meals at home. But a more fundamental reason for the secrecy is the fat content: If you knew how much fat was in a restaurant meal, and translated that into calories, you might think twice before eating out.
Just how bad is it? A typical restaurant meal can have more than eight tablespoons of fat. This is more than an entire stick of butter. That’s not something you would consume in one sitting if you knew what you were doing. Or even in one whole day. The recommended daily allowance for fat is four and a half tablespoons. When state laws require restaurants to provide nutritional labeling, it’s no wonder restaurants prefer to post the information on their websites, not their menus.
My genes made me eat it
So we love high-fat foods because they taste better. But taste has a biological basis. Sugar provides energy. Bitter tastes warn us of poisons. What does fat do for us?
Fat is a calorie dense food, with more than twice as many calories per ounce as proteins or carbohydrates. Millions of years ago, in early Paleolithic times, calories were not so easy to come by. The available meat, wild game, was 4% fat. Just imagine the typical day of a wild animal. It gets a lot of exercise and doesn’t have much time to sit around and store fat. Today we fatten our livestock, who never get to exercise, until their meat contains 20 to 30% fat. We prefer meat with a high fat content because it tastes better.
As our species evolved, it was in the interest of our genes to favor individuals with a preference for calorie-dense foods such as fat. A reasonable amount of dietary fat is good for us. Not only do the calories give us fuel to burn, but there are essential fatty acids in food that the body can’t manufacture on its own. They’re “essential” for important biological processes in the body. Some vitamins, such as A, D, E and K, are fat-soluble. Without fat in the diet, we wouldn’t be able to digest, absorb, and transport these nutrients. An extremely low-fat diet is extremely unhealthy.
So fats enhance the taste of foods and we’re programmed to enjoy them. Does the science of taste tell us anything about what to do when we consume too much? The recommended level of daily calories from fat is 30%, and the typical Western diet contains 40%. In my next post I’ll explain what science has discovered about our ability to “taste” fat, which is the first step in efforts by the food processing industry to create a satisfying alternative.
A matter of taste
How do you taste?
Orange juice and toothpaste
What is a supertaster?
The genetics of supertasting
Are you a supertaster: Do you really want to know?
Are you a supertaster: Look at your tongue
Are you a supertaster: How does PROP Taste to you?
Are you a supertaster: DNA testing
Do we taste fat?
The taste advantage
Grapefruit and the Pill
This is your brain on sugar — and sugar substitutes
The Pepsi challenge: How beliefs affect what you taste
Melissa Clark, The Rich Little Secret Of Top Chefs: Fat, The New York Times, April 28, 1999
‘Taste bud’ for fatty foods found, BBC News, November 2, 2005