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We Might Be Able To Actually Taste The Starch Molecules In Our Delicious Carbs

Evolution could be to blame/thank for your deep feelings towards bread.

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According to a new study, we can detect a starchy taste in the bits of matter our saliva breaks carbs down into. We're talking molecules.

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To understand how researchers from Oregon State University in Corvallis conducted the study and what it found, BuzzFeed Health reached out to lead researcher Juyun Lim, associate professor at Oregon State University's Department of Food Science and Technology.

Lim says that when you eat a complex carb like pasta or rice or bread, enzymes in your saliva break the food down into shorter and shorter chains of molecules. The carbs first get broken down into molecules called glucose polymers and further into even smaller molecules called glucose oligomers.

For the study, participants' tongues were swabbed with solutions containing these starch breakdown products, which were assumed to be tasteless.

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Lim says that even though it was thought that the only carbs we can taste are simple sugars like candy, honey, etc., the participants could taste the glucose oligomers, describing them as starchy.

Plus, those subjects also compared the taste to a complex carb most heavily featured in their own culture and/or diet — some respondents said it tasted like rice, others said pasta, others said bread.


To make sure the participants weren't tasting any sweetness in the breakdown products of the starch, researchers swabbed subjects' tongues with a solution that blocked their sweet receptors.

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To Lim's surprise, they were still able to taste the glucose oligomers even while they couldn't taste sugars.

According to Lim, this likely means that we're able to taste starchiness all on its own (without sweetness). But Lim says we don't yet know the mechanism by which we can taste it — her team has not found starchy receptors on the tongue, so it's a topic for further research.

This all makes pretty good evolutionary sense if you think about it.

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"Taste and smell are working to help us figure out what to eat and what not to eat," says Lim.

And because complex carbs like rice, breads, grains, beans, starchy vegetables, and whole-grain cereals are a good source of slow-releasing energy they're staples of many cultures' diets.

But, sadly, this study doesn't explain carb cravings.

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Even though some articles have reported that her team's findings provide an explanation for carb cravings, "Scientifically it's a stretch to say," she says.

Because while everyone can taste sweetness (she says she's never encountered a healthy subject who cannot), not everyone craves sweets. In other words, just because you can taste something, it doesn't mean you then crave it.

Lim says any claim that her study explains carb cravings "is more the media trying to get attention." Cravings for particular foods would be better explained by a combination of genetics, physiological needs, cultural influences, and habits and behaviors.

But the team's findings do help scientists understand just how complex human taste really is.

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Research findings like these will help us further understand the roles that taste systems play in eating behavior and health issues like diabetes and obesity, says Lim.

So, even though the study doesn't specifically address our craving — no, our deep and intense desire — for soft pretzels, it does open doors to further understanding and discovery for food and health researchers.