Triglycerides impart appealing textures like creaminess.
Triglycerides are a taste bud's best friend when it comes to bacon.

There’s no question about it, bacon is the most widely loved food around. The cured, smoked and sliced pork belly has a certain special flavor that we all love – there’s just something about it – but no one can explain exactly what it is. Researchers at Purdue Univ. might have the answer – fat.

According to a recent report published in Purdue Univ. News, Purdue researchers have confirmed that along with salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, the sixth basic taste is oleogustus (or fat). “Oleo” is a Latin root word for oily or fatty and “gustus” refers to taste. And with fat being one of the key components of bacon, it’s no wonder it has such wide taste appeal.

The findings from the Purdue research are published online in “Chemical Senses” and the work was supported by a US Dept. of Agriculture Hatch Grant.

Richard Mattes, professor of nutrition science at Purdue Univ., explains the science behind fat: “Most of the fat we eat is in the form of triglycerides, which are molecules comprised of three fatty acids. Triglycerides often impart appealing textures to foods, like creaminess. However, triglycerides are not a taste stimulus. Fatty acids that are cleaved off the triglyceride in the food or during chewing in the mouth stimulate the sensation of fat.

“The taste component of fat is often described as bitter or sour because it is unpleasant, but new evidence reveals fatty acids evoke a unique sensation satisfying another element of the criteria for what constitutes a basic taste, just like sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami,” Mattes adds. “By building a lexicon around fat and understanding its identity as a taste, it could help the food industry develop better tasting products.”

Mattes said the taste of fat should not be confused with the feel of fat, which is often described as creamy or smooth.

“Fatty taste itself is not pleasant. When concentrations of fatty acids are high in a food it is typically rejected, as would be the case when a food is rancid. In this instance, the fat taste sensation is a warning to not eat the item,” said Mattes, who studies the mechanisms and function of taste. “At the same time, low concentrations of fatty acids in food may add to their appeal just like unpleasant bitter chemicals can enhance the pleasantness of foods like chocolate, coffee and wine.”

Of course, the flavor of bacon cannot be fully attributed to its fat content – the muscle content, in addition to the curing and smoking process, also contributes to the unique flavor.

Taking the concept a step further, a BBC report published in late July theorizes that fat alone can’t take all the credit for the succulent flavor, rather the transformation of the fatty acids that occur during cooking. BBC referenced Guy Crosby, a food scientist who works as science editor on “America’s Test Kitchen, stating the disintegration of fatty acids in bacon “yield a bouquet of flavourful (sic) compounds like aldehydes, furans and ketones” that create molecular cocktail that make bacon lovers drool.