© Rene Johnston / Getty Images
Mike Pomranz
June 22, 2017

Juyun Lim makes a compelling argument. The associate professor at Oregon State University’s Department of Food Science and Technology knows that humans crave starches – be it bread or pasta or rice – and yet when it comes to our basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – starchy foods seem a bit incongruous. “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate,” Lim told New Scientist. “The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”

Lim and two of her colleagues at OSU have been looking for evidence of a new theory: “Starchy” is a taste all its own. The team recently published a paper in the journal Chemical Senses suggesting that the old theory, which says that carbohydrates break down into simple sugars and thus are recognized by our sugar taste buds, might be misguided. Her team tested this assumption by giving volunteers different carbohydrate solutions and looking at their reactions. “They called the taste ‘starchy’,” Lim was quoted as saying. “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It’s like eating flour.”

But the next step is what provides what Lim calls the first evidence that starch is a unique taste apart from sweet. Subjects were later given a compound that blocks the receptors for sweet flavors on the tongue. Despite this, the volunteers could still distinctly taste these “starchy” flavors. “We are moving away from the idea of five primary tastes,” Lim said.

Problem is, as we’ve seen with umami, getting enshrined into the halls of unique tastes is harder than deciding if Pluto belongs with the planets or if a steroids era baseball player deserves to be in Cooperstown. Last February, we covered how “fat” was also laying a claim to being a taste. Metalicness, calcium and kokumi (aka heartiness) are a few of the other flavors some have suggested belong in the taste crew. But according to New Scientist, “Tastes need to be recognisable, have their own set of tongue receptors, and trigger some kind of useful physiological response.” Lim’s team is yet to find any “starchy” receptors, so the battle rages on.

But Lim does believe tasting starches is useful. “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,” she said. Hey, speak for yourself, Lim!

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