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11 November 2010 / Liz Johns

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?

Human Tasters

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?

Animal Tasters

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.”

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12 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. offtheleashsd / Nov 13 2010 10:10 am

    I’ve read that cats can’t taste sweet but I don’t buy it. My cats have sweet tooths; they eat things that are pure sugar. I have caramel dip that is fat free, nothing but sugar, and my cats love it. They only get a little taste on my finger, because I’m sure sugar isn’t good for them. They also like cookies and other pastries, but most of those have some fat and milk in them. I don’t think humans will ever quite completely understand cats, they’re just too mysterious. Great blog, by the way. I love reading about animals.

    Like

    • Liz Johns / Nov 13 2010 12:26 pm

      I have to agree. There is lots of proof that cats DO like the odd sweet treat, so more research is needed I think.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Like

  2. Glenn Radakovich / Nov 13 2010 12:09 pm

    Great new website!

    Like

  3. Liz Johns / Nov 13 2010 12:28 pm

    Thanks 🙂

    Like

  4. Cymbria / Nov 17 2010 4:10 am

    I am curious to know how you found out about your cats’ um…’sophisticated’ tastes? As a supertaster who, strangely enough, has a mad affinity for peas and broccoli, I enjoy saltiness above all else. I blame the peas on my Mom calling them “little bundles of joy” all growing up, but the broccoli? At least it’s not as inexplicable as that fantastic giraffe pic. But it looks like the squirrel is taking it all in stride lol Just another day in the wilderness hehee

    Like

    • Liz Johns / Nov 20 2010 9:01 am

      The baked bean discovery came about by leaving a dinner plate with left-over baked beans on it and seeing the cats wander over and lick the plate spotlessly clean. I didn’t have to wash it! Only kidding 🙂
      Peas are top – I agree.

      Like

  5. Cymbria / Nov 27 2010 3:49 am

    The world can offer up some pretty amazing discoveries when we take the time to sit back and watch what happens 🙂

    ps.I totally need a “Peas are top” T-shirt lol!

    Like

  6. homeschooledjunglefreak / Dec 5 2010 9:57 pm

    stalking your blog now with my stupid comments, obviously.
    MY CAT WAS SCARED OF FISH.
    I had a male tabby named Toby, and one day we bought him little dried fish… he backed away and wouldn’t go near them, and I think he got a bit fluffed up over them.
    We fed them to the neighbour’s cat… lol.

    Like

  7. Ells / Dec 18 2010 12:59 am

    I like your description of umami – I’ve always thought of it as ‘kind of savoury or meaty’ – but “the flavour of ’delicious taste’” is a briiliant way to put it!

    Love the blog, really interesting subjects. 🙂

    Like

  8. Liz Johns / Dec 18 2010 6:36 am

    Thanks. I had trouble finding out what umami tasted like. We just can’t describe it in English!

    Like

  9. caz / Jul 6 2011 10:27 pm

    Are there copyright charges on your photos?, would I be able to use some in my presentations please?
    Caz

    Like

    • Liz Johns / Jul 15 2011 9:40 am

      Apologies for the delay in replying.

      The images I’ve used on that post are sourced from the net with attributions (name/url) attached (either underneath the pics or in a mouse-over). So there are no charges from me to use them. If you want to be really safe, then best to follow up with the original posters.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog.

      Liz

      Like

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