There’s a reason low-carb diets like South Beach and Paleo sound totally bonkers to a lot of us. “What will happen,” we think to ourselves, “when the need for pasta or fries inevitably sneaks up on us somewhere down the dark alleys of our cravings?” Well, it turns out that maybe we really do need fries, and it’s all thanks to our taste buds.
It has long been believed that the human tongue can detect five primary tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (or savory). Now Oregon State University researchers want to add a sixth taste to that list: “starchy.”
It’s been thought that our tongue tastes complex carbohydrates by breaking them down into shorter chains and simple sugars, New Scientist reports, allowing us to taste starch through our “sweet” tongue receptors. However, OSU associate professor of food and technology Juyun Lim finds it difficult to believe that we can’t taste the carbohydrates themselves.
“Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrates,” she tells New Scientist. “The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”
Her team tested the theory by giving study participants a compound that blocks the tongue’s sweet receptors. When administering “starch-like” solutions that contained long or shorter carbohydrate chains, the researchers found that people could detect a starchy flavor.
“Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like,” she says. “It’s like eating flour.”
The scientists argue that it would make sense for our bodies to crave carbs, from an evolutionary standpoint, given their nutritional value. Our cravings have been linked to certain deficiencies in our bodies. Daily Mail reports that when we crave starchy carbohydrates, our bodies are telling us that we need tryptophan. It’s an essential amino acid used to synthesize serotonin, which regulates our moods. TLDR; if you’re hangry, eat a slice of bread and take it easy.
But don’t rush to tell your friends about this new taste bud just yet. Before a flavor can be inaugurated as a primary taste, it has to meet a few criteria. These include being recognizable, triggering a useful physiological response and having its own set of tongue receptors. Unfortunately, researchers have yet to identify starchy tongue receptors.
Other flavors sitting in the queue of misfit tastes include the metallic taste you get from blood, carbonated drinks, calcium and kokumi, a “hearty” or full-bodied flavor that’s been linked to fatty acids.
This line of thought marks a scientific move away from the esteemed primary five and toward the belief that our capacity to savor flavor is far more excellent and complex than can be described by a mere, reductive taste pentad.
So if you ever need an excuse to indulge your carb cravings, blame it on the complexity of your taste buds and the human struggle to survive.