Trick Your Taste Buds

How to make low-calorie, low-fat food taste like high-fat food

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

With the holidays as our inspiration, let's see if we can't play a few tricks on our taste buds. As we use the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic tools to emphasize healthier, lower-fat, and lower-calorie foods, our taste buds might be telling us (OK, screaming at us) that something is missing. The more we know about how the taste buds actually work, the more we can trick them into being satisfied with and even happy about our new, healthier, lighter way of living.

The Nose Knows

Before we get to the taste buds, though, let's start with the organ directly above them, the nose. That's right, folks, while the tongue's taste buds are responsible for detecting basic tastes (salty, bitter, sour, sweet, and savory), it's the nose that detects the specific flavors of foods through olfaction, or smell. Ever wonder why food just doesn't taste as good, no matter how great it looks, when you have a stuffy nose?

Of course, we smell our food as we prepare our bite and put it into our mouth. But did you know you were inhaling the aroma at the same time you were chewing your food? When you chew, volatiles (odorous, gas-like substances) are released from the food and pumped up to the olfactory receptors located behind the bridge of the nose. Pretty efficient!

Fat Tastes Good, Right?

Think again: fat molecules are actually too big to be processed by the taste buds. Then how come high-fat foods taste so good, you ask. What you may be tasting are impurities and volatiles that are mixed in high-flavor oils such as olive and sesame, meats such as bacon, or my personal favorite, butter. Have you ever noticed how much flavor butter has when you brown it in a pan? The fat hasn't changed; the impurities in butter just come through better. Fat is also a solvent for smells that eventually make their way to our nasal receptors. In many cases, the greater the amount of fat, the greater the "aroma" for these particular flavors.

Now let's talk about the king of fat: fried foods. Experts suspect that the high-temperature-frying process may release the volatiles in food, therefore triggering the "fat aroma." Deep-frying at high temperatures also contributes two other desirable characteristics:

  • Crispy texture on the outside while moist and tender on the inside
  • Unique flavors from the caramelization of sugars and starches and the browning of the food

Keep in mind too that a food's flavor and our enjoyment of it actually rely on many of our senses: smell, touch, sight, and of course, taste.

10 Ways to Trick and Treat Taste Buds

Considering how the taste buds work and how the fat in food imparts a wide range of characteristics to food, from the crunchiness in crackers and chips to the moistness in cookies and cakes, here are 10 ways to trick your taste buds into loving lighter fare:

1. Flavor your low-fat recipes with the best-tasting, freshest ingredients you can find. Fresh garlic tastes better than garlic powder; fresh basil and parsley have more flavor than dried. Lemon, lime, or orange zest (finely chopped) will add flavor to a dish that only calls for lemon, lime, or orange juice.

2. Toasting, roasting, or browning certain recipe ingredients -- such as nuts and garlic -- can bring out the natural flavors.

3. Try some grocery store products that trick you by cutting the fat and calories in the products, but not cutting it so much that it tastes too different. Some great tasting examples are Naturally Yours Fat Free Sour Cream, Cracker Barrel Light Sharp Cheddar, Reduced Fat Triscuit crackers, and light mayonnaise.

4. Use half real eggs and half egg substitute in a mostly egg dish, such as a quiche, omelets, frittatas, etc. You'll trick your taste buds into thinking it's all real eggs when you have really cut the fat and cholesterol in half!

5. Americans need to get off the deep-fried train. Everything, it seems, is breaded and fried these days. Instead, trick your taste buds into thinking that the food you are eating is deep-fried when it is really browned by panfrying or oven-frying in a little bit of oil.

6. Speaking of oil, let canola cooking spray save the day! We know about coating the pan you are pan frying or baking in with canola cooking spray. But did you know you can also use cooking spray to coat the outside of the food you are oven-frying or panfrying? It literally coats the food with a thin layer of small droplets of canola oil -- just enough to seal the outside crust or breading and encourage some browning as it cooks.