Taste is intimately associated with food choice, yet little is known about the role of taste in preferences for dietary fat, a major component of many foods. We measured the taste threshold for linoleic acid (LA), an essential free fatty acid found in dietary fat, before and after bilateral transections of the chorda tympani nerve (CTX) in adult male and female rats. We conditioned a taste aversion to 88 microM LA and assessed the generalization of the aversion to lower LA concentrations to determine LA discrimination thresholds. We discovered that female rats had a lower LA discrimination threshold (approximately 2.75 microM LA) than did male rats (approximately 11 microM LA). In another set of animals, we performed CTX and found that CTX elevated LA threshold to the same level (approximately 22 microM LA) in male and female rats. Finally, we evaluated licking responses to 11, 22, 44 and 88 microM LA mixed in sucrose by male rats and ovariectomized (OVX) female rats treated with estradiol benzoate or oil vehicle. All rats increased licking to increasing LA concentrations, but OVX rats responded to a lower LA concentration (22 microM) than did males (44 microM) in 10-s trials. However, estradiol did not affect this outcome. Collectively, these experiments show that male and female rats use taste to discriminate LA and that the chorda tympani nerve, which innervates taste buds on the anterior tongue, plays a role in this discrimination. Furthermore, sex differences in fat preferences may depend on differences in fatty acid taste thresholds as well as on the taste stimuli with which fat is combined.