Do you feel like you crave bread, pasta and rice? Are you addicted to carbs?

If you can't get enough of the starchy stuff, it might not be pure lack of willpower. It could be down to your individual sensitivity to what's now being called the "seventh taste": carbohydrate.

Fascinating research recently published by Australian scientists at Deakin University found some people are more sensitive to the "taste" of carbohydrates. That's not just sugar, but other non-sweet carbs as well.

The scientists looked at two carbohydrates, maltodextrin and oligofructose, which are found in common starchy foods like bread, pasta and rice. They discovered that far from being neutral, as it had been assumed, these "tastes" can be detected in the mouth.


Then they looked at whether people who were more sensitive to carbohydrates ate more or less of them.

Interestingly, in contrast to what happens with fat (the "sixth taste", identified by the same scientists two years ago) people sensitive to the taste of carbohydrate tended to consume more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this translated to larger waist measurements in these people.

More research is needed to figure out why this happens and what causes the carb-sensitive people to eat more. This has potential to add an interesting layer to what we know about what drives food choices.

Carbohydrate foods make up a significant portion of everyday food intake, for most of us. According to the most recent National Nutrition Survey, carbohydrates make up about 47 per cent of energy for the average person.

There's a popular narrative about carbohydrates that goes something along the lines that humans were all pretty slim and healthy back in the day when our grandparents were young, and that since we started eating more carbohydrates and less fat, we've become obese and unhealthy.

It's true we have developed a serious obesity problem, but it's probably not as simple as drawing a straight line between carbs and our current problems. In fact, there seems to be some doubt about the facts of this story.

I was surprised to see, in an excellent infographic produced by National Geographic of data from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, that globally people's intakes of carbohydrate have not changed much since 1961.

There's no direct data for New Zealand, but Australia's, which we can assume is similar to ours, shows a decrease in the intake of sugar and grains over that time. Clearly there's more to this picture.


Maybe carbs are not responsible for all our ills, but it does seem likely what has happened over time is a change in the types of carbohydrates we eat, coupled with a general explosion in the availability of highly processed food of all kinds.

It's widely agreed all carbs are not created equal. There's a difference between carrots and cupcakes. And whether or not we think we are sensitive to carbs, we'd all do well to favour the plants over the refined flour.