Oh, carbohydrates, how we love you. From pasta and pizza to potatoes and polenta, much of the world can’t get enough of them, and they form a rich variety of dishes that delight our taste buds. It’s long been thought that we’ve only been able to register five primary tastes on our tongue – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and the savory “Umami” – but a new study suggests that we may have a carb-based sixth.
Writing in the journal Chemical Senses, a team of researchers note that the five primary tastes miss out a major, carbohydrate-focused segment of our diet. “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate. The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense,” coordinating author Juyun Lim, an associate professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University, told New Scientist.
The proposed new flavor would be a “starchy” one. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, one that takes the form of many small sugar molecules attached to each other in a large chain. Our bodies are able to break down these long polymer chains into smaller sugar ones that our cells use for energy. Starch is, without a shadow of a doubt, vital for our survival, and Lim’s team suggests we can taste it, too.
Previously, food scientists have assumed that we detect the presence of starch when our mastication-accompanying, enzyme-filled saliva breaks the polymers down into sugars, which we register as sweet tastes. In order to test how accurate this idea was, a variety of mixed carbohydrate solutions were given to volunteers to taste while observers asked them to describe what they were tasting.
As it turns out, a significant number of them were able to describe something along the lines of a “starchy” flavor, which seemed to suggest they could pick up on the long-chain starches as well as the sugary products of the enzyme breakdown. Those from an Asian ancestry described it as rice-like, and Caucasians explained they detected a bread or pasta-like taste.
Starchy wonderfulness. Nastivan/Shutterstock