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How the brain reacts to the taste of fat

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — MRI scans show that fat in food can reduce activity in several areas of the brain that are responsible for processing taste, aroma, and reward.

The research, reported in the journal Chemosensory Perception, could offer the food industry clues for how to make less fatty food products without negatively affecting their overall taste and enjoyment.

The three-year study carried out by the University of Nottingham and the multinational food company Unilever investigated how the brains of a group of participants in their 20s would respond to changes in the fat content of four different fruit emulsions they tasted while under an MRI scanner.


All four samples were of the same thickness and sweetness, but one contained flavor with no fat, while the other three contained fat with different flavor release properties.

The research found that the areas of the participants’ brains that are responsible for the perception of flavor—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 flavor perception. It is important to note that increased activation in these brain areas does not necessarily result in increased perception of flavor or reward.

Joanne Hort, associate professor in sensory science at the University of Nottingham, says: “This is the first brain study to assess the effect of fat on the processing of flavor perception and it raises questions as to why fat emulsions suppress the cortical response in brain areas linked to the processing of flavor 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 adds: “There is more to people’s enjoyment of food than the product’s flavor—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 study was co-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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