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A little secret… it’s the fat that makes food so fabulous

9 min read
Girl in rapeseed field

Are you familiar with the word oleogustus? If you’re not, don’t panic. A few years ago you had probably never heard of umami either, now it trips off your tongue. And of course you’re familiar with sweet, salty, bitter and sour. But oleogustus? 

A few years ago, food scientists concluded that fat had a ‘taste’ in the same way that sweet or salty does, and that it therefore deserved a special name. Hence oleogustus, which is a combination of two Latin words (Oleo means ‘fat’, or ‘oily’, and Gustus, which means ‘taste’).

Oleogustus is yet to break into casual conversation in the same way as sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Or even in the same way umami has, although Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda first coined ‘Umami’ in 1908, so it took a hundred years for Heston Blumenthal to get it trending.

Maybe it will take some time for the importance of oleogustus to bed in, but as far as the food and drink industry is concerned it doesn’t matter in the slightest that oleogustus hasn’t entered the popular vernacular. What should be of concern to the food and drink industry is just how influential fat and oil is when it comes to the overall makeup of a finished product. 

It’s concerning because the amount of tweaking and reformulating and reducing and reproducing going on by food scientists today would make even Kikunae Ikeda feel dizzy. Yet as part of those processes, what fat brings to the party is still being underestimated. And any amount of effort that goes into creating or reformulating a product can be torpedoed by the wrong type of fat. Unfortunately this happens regularly, because many food scientists and R&D departments are unaware of the holistic impact on a product that oleogustus can have.


“The role of specific fats and oils in formulated foods is often massively underestimated,” says Dr Kaly Chatakondu, Commercial Director at AAK. “The perception of sweetness, juiciness, the flavour delivery, the shelf life, the cost and even the carbon footprint depends greatly, and often unexpectedly, on the type of fat used. For example, the perception of sweetness in a cookie can depend as much on the type of fat as the type of sweetener. A reduction in sugar of 15-20% but with the same perception of sweetness as full sugar can be achieved simply by changing the type of fat rather than doing anything else.”

Often when formulating, he says fat and oil is viewed “almost like a filler. You do your clever stuff with your starch, your flavour, your sweetener, and then you make up the rest of the recipe with any margarine, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil etc and that’s it. And if the recipe doesn’t work, you think ‘let’s go back to the starch, let’s go back to the flavour, let’s go back to the sugar’. But fat should be considered as a functional food ingredient in its own right. That requires knowledge and awareness, so AAK often hires personnel from the wider food ingredient industry, rather than just the fats and oils industry, because the synergy between fats and oils and other ingredients is a very untapped but exciting area of food science. We’ve got more innovation scientists than the fats and oils industry would normally hire.”

Chatakondu has worked in the food industry for 35 years and says traditionally, the fats and oils industry was just that – a fats and oils industry. “Here’s the price, here’s the volume, you go ahead and work out how to use it.”

But that’s an unsophisticated approach to an ingredient that demands the opposite. “Take chicken flavour, for example, most of the flavour of the chicken is in the chicken fat as the flavour molecules are fat soluble and not water soluble. So if you take out the fat, you’ve taken out the flavour molecules. But if you have the right fat, you get juiciness and moisture, you get the flavour release, you get that yumminess. Our approach is to look at the synergy between the ingredients, because when you look at them together you can say ‘Ah, this type of fat works with this ingredient, but that type of fat doesn’t.’ This is crucial to developing next generation plant-based food, including plant-based chicken.”


Plant-based chicken will not work without fat – and crucially, the right type of fat

Plant-based chicken will not work without fat – and crucially, the right type of fat

He says the fats and oils industry often didn’t interact closely with other food ingredient scientists. “They were not as interested in synergic effects in the total recipe to solve challenges such as reduced fat, sugar, calories or increased fibre or protein but just the fat part. They often didn’t even have their own food technologists and would commonly only provide samples of fat and oil rather than demonstrating prototypes. We have the widest portfolio of functional fats and oils for this very purpose.”

Vegan fat

Kevin McAlister, Customer Innovation Manager at AAK, uses the development of its latest palm free vegan butter as an example. “You can’t replicate the lovely melt of butter in the mouth, or the texture, just by replacing it with a simple flavour or margarine,” he says. “You can, however, get that quick, clean melt profile by using natural oil and fat components and fractions blended together to melt at exactly the right point of temperature in the mouth and then use exactly the correct natural butter flavour with it. The synergy then works perfectly both in taste and in functionality.”

How far can this approach go? The food industry often strives for that elusive identical experience from an alternative product, be it a vegan, reduced fat or reduced calorie version of a favourite food, but often consumers are disappointed in the result.

“It’s only when they taste our vegan Jaffa Cake made with our Vegan Egg Replacer, and see it really does taste like a regular Jaffa Cake, that they know it is indeed possible,” says Jodie Spriggs, Customer Innovation Manager at AAK. “When we first introduced our Vegan Butter, people expected the taste would be inferior. But blind taste tests in cakes, cookies, sauces and meals made them instant believers. Our reduced fat sausage rolls made with Reduced Fat Laminating Fat taste identical to full fat sausage rolls, our vegan carrot cake tastes identical to a regular carrot cake. Our vegan butter in a cookie tastes identical. Identical taste and texture is our criteria.”

Robustness of that ‘identical’ claim comes via “multiple blind tasting sessions,” says Chatakondu.”Often we insist we are not part of it or even present. Instead we asked top chefs to invent and create recipes with Vegan Butter exactly as they would with regular butter, and we always ask for unadulterated and honest feedback. We do tastings with our customers and retailers, and at exhibitions and shows, and we ask ‘Can you tell the difference? Do you have a preference?’ And for all our products, they’re either ‘identical’ or ‘preferred’. 

Vegan versions of carrot cake, chocolate ganache, cheesecake and shortbread will be on offer at Tastes Of Better, allowing guests to decide for themselves. But AAK is confident that it’s at the forefront of a previously untapped food ingredients research area. But though he says that “momentum and awareness” of the importance of fat in formulation has risen over the last five years, getting the word out is “slow and painful”.

Food developer making food

“It’s like vegan food, it’s been around for 20 years, but it’s only within the last four or five years that people are putting money, resource and time behind it. People just don’t believe that vegan butter could taste like regular butter. It’s like how people didn’t believe in global warming or didn’t believe veganism would ever take off. And people don’t believe that fats and oils can alter sweetness perception. People just don’t believe it until it is in front of their eyes in a form that they can see, touch, taste and smell.”

But those that do take the time to develop an appreciation of this underexploited and often misunderstood ingredient are convinced. AAK’s fat-related technology is already in major brands on supermarket shelves and high street retailers. He says most of the cake, chocolate and bread made in the UK is already made with AAK fats and oils and AAK is found in every area of the supermarket food aisle – even in the cosmetics section.

Low fat cost

As well as taste, there are other practical issues for the food and drink industry to contend with, like nutrition, sustainability and the portentous cost-of-living crisis.

“The kicker is that vegan butter is several hundred pounds a tonne lower cost than dairy butter,” he says. “We worked with a major cake manufacturer who wanted to reduce sugar in their product, and sugar alternatives are much more expensive than sugar, so they couldn’t get cost out of the recipe. So we suggested to just replace the butter with our vegan butter as well as it would taste absolutely identical. Sure enough it did. And so they got a reduced sugar version but now at the right cost. So it doesn’t have to be just because someone wants a vegan product, it could be just about reducing costs. Vegan butter offers more stable pricing as well, because we can lock in our costs for a year, whereas with most dairy products you can typically only lock down costs for a few months at a time.”

Helen Flower, Marketing Manager at AAK, also says dairy products in general have a “big carbon footprint” so replacing dairy products with vegan equivalents can help reduce that and make products more sustainable. “We can also reduce packaging waste in the supply chain because a lot of fats and oils are delivered wrapped in blue plastic – a typical food manufacturer could cover a football pitch with blue plastic every year,” she says. “But we can also give the same functionality but in a liquid format that can be pumped straight into wherever the fat needs to go increasing efficiency and reducing waste. So in terms of removing plastic packaging from the supply chain, that’s another thing that could be very interesting as a result of using a different type of fat technology.”

Oleogustus is certainly more than just a name, then. Or as Chatakondu says: “Whatever problem it is that food manufacturers are facing, it’s the synergy between the fat and the other ingredients everyone should be looking at. And if you look at synergies between the type of fat and the ingredients upfront when formulating, or reformulating, then you can get often the most desired taste difference everyone wants… which is no difference at all.”