You might have missed the memo. Umami is a flavor recognized by our tastebuds. Scientists confirmed this fascinating piece of gustatory evidence seven years ago. But the taste associated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) has not been followed by a new flavor since.
We have salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and if scientists are able to isolate the specific receptors — among other criteria — on the tongue that identify the taste of starch, we can add “starchy” to the list.
It’s not quite official but the latest flavor to hit our taste buds is “starchy,” according to a study at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Food Science and Technology professor Juyun Lim says, “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate. The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”
Evidence from the study shows that complex carbohydrates, which break down into simple sugars, have a flavor of their own that's detectable to the human palate. It’s “starchy.”
Study volunteers were given a compound that blocked receptors on the tongue responsible for detecting sweet tastes. Yet despite the presence of these blockers, volunteers could still make out the flour flavor from the carbohydrate solutions they were tasting.
Volunteers called the taste “starchy.” Lim says, “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It's like eating flour.”
What does this mean? We are possibly able to sense carbohydrates before they’re broken down into sugar molecules. It’s evidence that we can taste starch as a flavor on its own.
But before a taste is officially declared a flavor, it must first meet the following criteria: Tastes need to be recognizable; they must have their own set of tongue receptors; and they must trigger some kind of useful physiological response.
Another criterion is that a flavor must be useful. Starch has a strong case in this regard because it’s a slow-release energy source worth detecting.
This research might help us understand why many people crave breads and even chocolate.
“I believe that’s why people prefer complex carbs,” says Lim. “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.”
For now, our tastebuds will have to be sufficiently satiated with the five tastes — salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.