Anyone who has owned a cat knows they’re the pickiest creatures when it comes to food – that is, until they hear the sound of a tuna can being opened.
A new study on how cats taste shows, for the first time, that cats are actually able to taste umami, that same flavor profile that drives humans wild as well. This discovery is pretty incredible, considering cats can’t taste sweet things like sugar and have a very slim perception of bitter foods.
The idea that cats can taste umami explains a lot about their eating habits and preferences.
Still, cats being the cats that they are, their taste receptors do work very differently from ours and the way their tongues respond to “umami” is literally opposite from how humans taste food.
From a Science.org report:
“When the researchers compared the protein sequences encoded by these genes with those of humans, however, they found a striking difference: Two critical sites that allow the human receptor to bind to glutamic and aspartic acid—the main amino acids that activate umami taste in people—were mutated in cats. “So I began thinking, maybe cats can’t taste umami,” McGrane says.
To double check, he and his team engineered cells to produce the cat umami receptor on their surface. They then exposed the cells to a variety of amino acids and nucleotides. The cells did respond to umami—but with a twist. In people, the amino acids bind first and the nucleotides amplify the response.
But in cats, the nucleotides activated the receptor, and the amino acids further boosted it, McGrane says. “That’s the exact opposite of what we see in people.”
You can read more about how the experiment started and the biology involved here.
Hopefully this research will indeed help scientists make more palatable cat food, especially since for many sick cats the first thing to go is their appetite. My elderly cats will definitely get some bonito flakes sprinkled on their dinner!