There’s a New Basic Taste in Town: 'Starchy'

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Photo by: Paolo_Toffanin ©Paolo_Toffanin

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It may seem like only last year (actually, it was only last year) that scientists were celebrating the discovery of a sixth “basic taste” — something to join the ranks of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and that Johnny-come-lately, umami, as a fundamentally distinct and discernable flavor.

Well, fat, we hardly knew ye, because now there’s a new sixth primary taste in town: starchy.

Could this explain humanity’s common craving for carbs?

“Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate,” Juyun Lim, an associate professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Ore., told New Scientist. “The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”

Lim and her team set out to determine whether we perceive complex carbs as their own thing or rather, as had been assumed, by breaking them down into simple sugars and perceiving them as sweet. It turned out that volunteers were quite handy at detecting carbs as a distinct flavor.

“They called the taste ‘starchy',” Lim told New Scientist. “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It’s like eating flour.”

Starch hasn’t yet met all the criteria for inclusion in the pantheon of primary tastes. These flavors must be recognizable, physiologically useful and perceptible with specific receptors on the tongue. Tongue receptors for starch have not yet been identified, but Lim’s research helps check the first box. And starch plays an important role as a nice gradual source of energy — as anyone who has ever carbo-loaded before a race may attest.

Lim notes that people often scarf down carbs in greater quantity than they do other foods, including sweets.

Photo courtesy of iStock

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