Can You Smell the Fat?

3 glasses of milk

photo: digitalfilmtree

Back in the day, when we were still evolving from Neanderthals to modern humans, food was scarce. The consumption of highly caloric food was imprinted into our behavior as a basic survival skill. Of the three macro-nutrients (fat, carbs, protein), fat provided the most bang with nine calories per gram (compared to just four calories per gram of carb or protein). An additional advantage of fat consumption was that excess could be stored in our body for long periods of time.

Fast forward to today. Scientists wanted to explore whether our innate preference for fatty foods includes the ability to identify them from afar, perhaps by smelling them.

In a rather simple experiment, subjects were asked to sniff 3 types of milk and identify them as either skim, whole, or low-fat. The results, published in PLOS ONE earlier this month, were statistically significant. Using just their sense of smell, people were able to correctly identify the full fat milk. The ability, according to the researchers, is not learned and is not dependent on societal factors. (The experiment was conducted on three different sets of participants in the US and Europe).

The researchers leave us with a potential use for their finding:

The demonstration that humans have a functional olfactory system specific for detecting levels of fat content warrant further explorations into this mechanism given its potential to aid in a general reduction of our fat intake…

You can bet your money that in R&D departments of big food companies, food scientists will try to figure out how to create foods that smell as if they are richer in fats than they actually are. Let’s just hope the ingredients used won’t lead to other, undesired effects.



  • Leon

    Great potential aid! To bad that fat intake does not seem to be the main cause of our health problems – sugar is. Excess sugar becomes fat in our body.

    Or are we back five years and are light products good again?

  • Catherine

    Just a note. I don’t believe anyone has shown evidence we evolved from Neanderthals. It is believed they were a different species.

  • YaconSyrupTruth

    I don’t know how people drink skim milk! I personally only drink whole milk. I’ve never smelled the three types of milk side by side but I feel like the difference would be very obvious – especially once it’s in my mouth!