Low-Carb Diet? Your Taste Buds Are Literally Working Against You

Foregoing bread at dinner or a second plate of spaghetti can seem impossible for some, while others can go weeks eating hardly any carbs. A new study offers a possible explanation for why starchy foods can be so irresistible: it lies in the taste buds.

Scientists have found that some people may have a sensitivity to the carbohydrate taste, which makes them eat more of the nutrient, ultimately leading to a wider waistline. The team was surprised, as carbohydrates aren’t thought to have a taste.

Related: Healthy Bacon? Scientists Engineer Skinny Pigs with Low Body Fat 

“It’s typically sugar, with its hedonically pleasing sweet taste, that is the most sought after carbohydrate,” said Russell Keast, study co-author and sensory scientist at Deakin University in the United Kingdom, in a statement. However, Keast says his new research shows that non-sweet carbohydrates actually might have a detectable taste.

GettyImages-103415709 A diner eats spaghetti and bread in Australia. Scientists believe that your taste buds may be the cause of your carb addiction. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

In a small study, 34 men and women participated in taste tests of two different carbohydrates, maltodextrin and oligofructose, rating flavor intensity. The researchers used these carbs as they are found in many processed foods, like bread. The subjects also completed dietary journals at home, and were instructed to weigh all their foods when possible. Researchers then compared the participants’ diets to how well they could detect the carb flavor.

They found that people who picked up on the taste ate more carbs and calories, and had larger waist lines, which could lead to trouble down the road.

“We specifically looked at waist measurements as they are a good measure of the risk of dietary related diseases,” study co-author Julia Low, behavioral scientist at Deakin, said in a statement.

Currently, there are six detectable tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory, or umami. This new, currently unnamed “carb” taste could one day be added to the list. Keast previously researched fat and found that it could also be detected by some, so he dubbed it the sixth taste, though it had the opposite effect: those who were sensitive to fat ate less of it.

We often pick foods based on taste and this sense is actually imperative to our survival. It helped our foraging ancestors test foods, like whether a bitter plant was poisonous, or whether something had gone rancid. Sweet and salty choices may be pleasing to our bellies and brains, but they’re also a sign that a food has plenty of nutrients (when found in nature and not the cookie aisle).  

Of course, much more research needs to be done before you can blame your pasta addiction on your taste buds. But new findings suggest that it’s more than a lack of willpower accounting for bad dietary choices.

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