It goes without saying carbs are happiness. Now scientists have found evidence that our tongues can register the starchy flavor of carbohydrate-rich foods as a primary taste, along with salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and Umami–the most recent flavor added to the list.
Juyun Lim, a co-author on the study, told New Scientist that this basic list doesn’t explain our love for stuffing our faces with fries: “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate. The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”
Because there are enzymes in our saliva that break down complex carbs into the shorter chains and simple sugars that they are built of, scientists have previously generally accepted the idea that humans detect starches by tasting sweet molecules. Lim and her team at Oregon State University tested this by giving volunteer participants solutions of dissolved carbohydrates containing long and short chains. “They called the taste ‘starchy’,” Lim said. “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It’s like eating flour.” Participants were still able to taste this starchy flavor after being given lactisole, a compound that blocks the sweet receptors on our tongues. This is pretty solid evidence that starchy is a flavor of it’s very own.
There is growing scientific thought that human taste is more complex than we knew before. According to New Scientist:
Other potential tastes being investigated are the flavour of carbonated drinks, the metallic taste you get from blood, and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Receptors have been found for kokumi, a full-bodied flavour that has been described as “hearty” and is thought to make foods feel richer and more satisfying, and there is some evidence that we can taste the fatty acids that make up fats.
Before the food science community anoints a recognizable flavor with the coveted “primary taste” label, though, they have to be sure the taste has its own set of receptors and triggers a useful physiological response within us. The team behind the current study haven’t yet identified specific receptors for starch on the tongue, but there’s already a good case that starch is a useful food source for humans to detect, since it’s a slow-release source of energy.
“I believe that’s why people prefer complex carbs,” said Lim. “Sugar tastes great in the short term, but if you’re offered chocolate and bread, you might eat a small amount of the chocolate, but you’d choose the bread in larger amounts, or as a daily staple.”