Do Animals Have Good Taste and What the Heck is Umami Anyway?
It’s all a matter of taste. You like sweet. I like savoury. She likes umami. Um-what-i? It’s the fifth taste apparently and it is difficult to describe. It’s defined as the flavour of ‘delicious taste’. No, I don’t understand what it is either, but let’s move on. The taste of food makes us enjoy eating, and for many of us, too much eating. But how so with animals? Do they get the same taste enjoyment out of their food or do they simply use food as fuel to live?
Well, leaving invertebrates aside, all animals taste their food, and just like us, an individual’s ability to taste depends on their number of taste buds. Humans have on average 10,000 taste buds, but this can vary dramatically from person to person. If you have a greater number of taste buds and a particular genetic make-up, you are deemed a supertaster. Supertasters dislike green vegetables, grapefruit juice, coffee, soy and overly sweet things. At the other end of the scale are the non-tasters who prefer sweets, alcohol and fats. Which are you?
Other animal species have different numbers of taste buds. Cows have around 25,000, pigs and similar omnivores 15,000, parrots 1-200, cats 470 and chickens a mere 50. But this doesn’t mean that because a cow for example has two and half times as many taste buds as a human that it can taste two and a half times better. Different animal species taste differently and cannot be compared.
Cats are not able to taste sweetness. They lack some amino acids that make up the DNA of the Tas1r2 gene (a gene used in combination with Tas1r3 to make the protein essential for sensing sweet flavours.) Hence, their preference for a seemingly dull diet (meat, meat and more meat).
Herbivores, such as cows have a great number of taste buds to enable them to detect levels of bitterness and dangerous toxins.
And the poor old chooks with only 50 taste buds, they musn’t be able to taste very much at all. That’s what chook feed manufacturers believed up to the 1950s. Tests conducted since then have proved inconclusive over what chickens can taste, but from my own backgarden research I can tell you that they have a highly developed sense of taste. My chooks get spoilt with foody treats such as cheese, boiled eggs, grapes and rice crackers most days. They will turn their beaks up at the dull, dry chook feed and tuck straight into the good stuff. My one-legged chook Monkey has an obsession about grapes. When you go out to see her, she’ll stand and coo from a distance, which I interpret as – it’s too difficult for me to hop over, please bring my food over here – but then when you show her some grapes, she hops over quicker than you can say eggs on toast.
Fish also have taste buds on their tongues, but one fish stands out as a supersenser – the Catfish. Not only the tongue, but most of the catfish’s body is covered with taste buds. It has . . . wait for it . . . about one quarter of a million taste buds in total. The taste buds on the body detect food and chemicals nearby, then the taste buds on the tongue check that the food is edible.
Favourite Tastes of my Pets, Past and Present
- Rats – Chocolate
- Rabbit – Cake
- Chooks – Grapes
- Cats – Baked beans in tomato sauce
- Lorikeets – Dates
- Corella – Apple seeds
- Sheep – Crisps
So there you have it, a quick tour of the animal world and its taste buds. In the words of Kenny Everett, “It’s all done in the best possible taste.”