Fat is an essential component of cooking and enjoying what you cook that has often been demonized in our journey toward healthier eating habits. Without fat, our diets would be extremely different to what we have today, and for good reason. Humans almost universally find fat (in its many forms) to be delicious. But why is that? What about fat triggers our brains to go “mmm?” Similar to salt, there are a number of reasons why we find fat to be tasty, both having to do with how they are utilized in cooking and deeper, older factors.

Let’s chew the fat a bit to figure out just what it is about this nutrient that we find so irresistible.

Ticks the Boxes of Taste and Texture

When it comes to cooking, we wouldn’t be able to get a lot done without fat. Many of our methods of preparing food utilizes some form of fat. Many ingredients also have some sort of fat content. We utilize fats because they perform a number of culinary roles that we find delicious. Fat is important to the texture (or mouthfeel) of a dish. It’s why cream is so creamy and why shortened baked goods like biscuits are so light and flakey. They can also be important in the Maillard reaction, which browns and crisps food. Similarly, fat (in the form of oil) is required to fry foods, again greatly effecting the texture of the fried food.

Fat is really good at picking up flavors from other ingredients, carrying and combining them into a cohesive unit.

Fat can also be important for the flavor of a dish, as well as how filling or satisfying it is. In fact, scientists now believe that fat could be considered a basic flavor unto itself, like salt or umami. Fat is really good at picking up flavors from other ingredients, carrying and combining them into a cohesive unit. At the same time, fat coats your tongue, which allows flavor in the fat to stick around longer and enhance the overall taste. Finally, fat is digested at a slower rate than other nutrients, promoting satiety and a pleasing feeling of fullness. This effect depends on the type of fat, though.

Receptors and Rewards

At a more biological level, fat triggers the brain to send out pleasurable signals and hormones throughout the body. Remember how we mentioned that fat may be able to be considered its own flavor? Well, we know this because a study discovered that the tongue has fat-specific flavor receptors on it that taste fat and signal that to the brain. It also found that these receptors can be influenced, with fattier diets tending to make you less sensitive to the flavor. This also may be linked to genetics. Together, these can explain why some people crave fatty foods, while others don’t. It’s also why the pleasure signals to the brain may be so strong.

Fat has been found to have an outsized effect on pleasure signals, especially when combined with carbs.

We hear you asking, “So what?” That’s true of any food we eat that tastes good. While that’s correct, fat has been found to have an outsized effect on these signals, especially when combined with carbs. Fatty or highly processed foods have even been found to interact with the brain similarly to the way drugs do in the minds of addicts. That’s how powerful this pleasing signal can be and can lead to food addiction in some. In fact, one study found that rats would go after the fatty, unhealthy foods, even while receiving punitive shocks.

Evolutionarily Significant

This biological love of fat is hardwired into our brains for a very good reason. Foods taste good because they have the nutrients our bodies need to survive — fat included. We crave fat so much because it’s incredibly calorie-dense, which is needed to power our bodies. While that’s a problem today — when we’re much more sedentary than humans were thousands of years ago — this was a real strength in times when you weren’t sure about your next meal and had to pack on as many calories as you could, when you could.

In order to keep such an energy expenditure running at a high rate, ancient humans needed a lot of calories.

There is now a belief that eating fat may have been what initially set us apart from other animals and made us distinctly human. Of all the animals in the world, humans have the most developed brains overall. This kind of mental power takes a lot of energy &mdash approximately 20 percent of our body’s overall energy expenditure. For comparison, this is about 16 times as much as the entire skeletal system uses. So, in order to keep such an energy expenditure running at a high rate (thus keeping our brains developing), ancient humans needed a lot of calories. By developing a hunger for fat, humans were able to encourage eating fat regularly until we got to where we are today.

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Unfortunately, fat does still remain unhealthy for you in large amounts. But, once you know why it tastes good to us, especially with cooking, you can be clever with how you use it. Utilize it strategically in your dishes to maximize the impact so you can still enjoy your fat without gaining the fat around your midsection. And remember, that craving for fried food or creamy ice cream is the product of generations of humans who needed those cravings to survive. So, there’s no shame in indulging occasionally. Just make sure to stay active or account for it later!

Further Reading

NCBI — Human Perceptions and Preferences for Fat-Rich Foods