Carbs are finally getting some respect. Scientists have thought that primary tastes were limited to salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and, more recently, umami, but there’s growing evidence that this roster misses at least one essential element: starch. All cultures rely on some kind of complex carbohydrate, so the idea that people can’t specifically taste them is a nonstarter, argues Oregon State University food science and technology professor Juyun Lim.
In fact, Lim believes she’s presented the first evidence that suggests people taste starch as its own flavor. In the past, food scientists haven’t associated a specific taste with starch, but Lim gave various carbohydrate solutions to volunteers and found that they identified starchy taste in the solutions that contained long or short chains of carbohydrate molecules. As Lim tells New Scientist, “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It’s like eating flour.”
The evidence for “starchy” as a primary taste lends further clout to the notion that human taste is far more complicated than previously thought, though there’s still much to be done before this particular taste is officially recognized by the scientific community. For example: Lim has yet to identify starch receptors on the tongue, but there’s also evidence that people can taste fatty acids, and scientists have found tongue receptors for something called kokuni, which lends another layer of richness to foods.
As far as Lim is concerned, this is all proof that science is moving on from the initial concept of just five tastes. In the same way that umami — once a mystical taste that you now see referenced all the time — revolutionized the way people think, and talk, about food (“umami bombs!”), the idea that people are more capable tasters than previously thought is the kind of gateway that could lead to all sorts of new discoveries.