Could sense of smell help you lose weight?

2014February04_DietNutrition_AWhy is it that a lot of the time when we get a waft of flavors from foods that are high in fat they are the ones that get our mouth watering? Is it because we know what they are and crave them more simply because they are potentially on the ‘naughty’ list for fat controllers? Well, according to recent research it might just be because of your highly attuned sense of smell! If so, could this pave the way for some low-fat foods to be marketed to appeal in the same way in the future?

The importance of fat

At one point in time we were running around hunting and gathering food and the chances are that this was not the age of fad diets and rising obesity. The chances are that our ancestors weren’t watching their figures more than simply trying to survive. While processed foods and ready meals are often packed with saturated fats, making us study labels more closely than ever before, in the not so distant past we were looking for foods that would give us a good fat boost for energy to last us.

There is certainly an evolutionary basis for us wanting to store up reserves but on top of this is it possible for us to detect fat in everyday foods before we eat them? According to one study, it is.

The study

The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia tested whether study participants could detect different amounts of fat in milk. Blindfolded, the subjects were given three vials of milk to smell, two of which had the same fat content. Their task was to identify the odd-one-out. The amounts of fat in each were such that you would find in milk products today.

Three tests

Researchers conducted the test with normal-weight participants in Philadelphia. A second test involved a study population from a different culture, notably in the Netherlands in Europe where the average daily consumption of milk as a beverage per capita is higher than it is in the US by over 30%. This was to look at whether detection could be dependent on habit. A third test in Philadelphia set the task to normal-weight and overweight subjects, thus looking at whether fat intake and body mass index (BMI) had any influence.

The results

In all three tests, the results, as published in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, and open access online publication,  revealed that individuals could detect fat content in the milk through odor alone. Subjects could recognize minute differences by identifying the correct vial that was different with regard to the difference between skim and medium fat milk,as well as skim and high fat milk in the first tests. In the third test the participants could not differentiate between skim and medium milk. Overall though, subjects could differentiate between skim and high fat milk above the level of chance. This was regardless of cultural habits or personal fat intake levels. However, detections could not be made between medium and high fat levels in milk.

The future of low-fat foods

If we can detect fat in foods, even with strong odors like milk, and this appeals, then what chance do low fat foods have in creating the same attraction? As research looks at our sensory reactions to nutrition, we could see these findings being used to make low-fat foods more appetizing by adding in ingredients, aside from fat, that somehow appeal to our senses as well as our tastes.

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