Study on fat helps develop healthier diets

Jessica Speweike and Jessica Speweike

A University professor recently studied whether or not humans have the ability to detect a certain substance in their food: fat.

Dr. Robin Tucker-Falconer has been at the University since Aug. 2014 and earned her doctorate in nutrition science at Purdue University.

In a study conducted at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the results of Tucker-Falconer’s research study indicated humans seemed to be able to sense the presence of fatty acids.

Citizen scientists — volunteers who worked at the museum — offered visitors a chance to participate in Tucker-Falconer’s study.

“We were able to test over 700 people from the age of eight to the age of 90 in about a year,” said Tucker-Falconer. “When I did my graduate work, I worked for four years and I might’ve seen 100 people.”

Richard Mattes, a professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University and Tucker-Falconer’s mentor, said in regards to the research subject that “it’s the biggest study with the most evidence.”

The participants were given test strips that were similar to breath strips, said Tucker-Falconer.

The strips were designed by Gregory Smutzer, a biology professor at Temple University; he joked that he was inspired by the breath strips sold at convenience stores.

After designing the strips, Smutzer gave them to Tucker-Falconer, who then increased the amount of fatty acid on the strips.

“She improved greatly on the technique,” said Smutzer.

The study was double-blind so neither the participants nor the scientists knew which test strip had what amount of fatty acid.

Tucker-Falconer brought the results back to the University and they disproved her initial idea that percent body fat affects a person’s ability to detect fat.

“(Percent body fat) is spectacularly bad at predicting whether or not someone’s going to be sensitive,” said Tucker-Falconer. “What we did see was a sex effect … and we saw that children were more sensitive than adults.”

Tucker-Falconer said women tend to have a more acute sense of taste because of a biological need to protect themselves and a child they might be carrying.

She also said children have a heightened sense of taste that may weaken over time and that is why people can develop a taste for certain drinks or foods as they age.

People were also able to correctly rate the lower amount of fatty acids to the higher amount of fatty acids.

Mattes said the results were not a straightforward answer, though, and lower doses of the fatty acids may have contributed to the experience and made the taste more pleasurable than the higher doses.

Tucker-Falconer and her team saw that genetics may play a role in a person’s ability to detect fat as well as their diet.

“People who were eating a high fat diet … were less able to detect the fat,” said Tucker-Falconer.

The results, Tucker-Falconer said, wouldn’t alter eating habits immediately because there is still more research to be done, but she’s optimistic.

“If we can quickly test you and see that you’re less sensitive to fat, then maybe we could design food products to make sure we stimulate that sense of fat for you so that, perhaps, you’re going to eat less,” said Tucker-Falconer.

Smutzer said knowing whether or not humans can detect fat could help people who are undergoing chemotherapy as they are less able to detect tastes in food from hospitals.

Though she is not continuing research on this particular subject, Tucker-Falconer will be working with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in November on another taste-related study.