According to a recent study published in the Journal of Heredity, red pandas are the first non-primate mammal to express a preference for low-calorie sweeteners. The study, analyzing how taste buds affect an animal’s diet, allowed six mammals to choose between plain water and water flavored with sugar and low-calorie sweeteners. Because previous research suggested only primates were able to taste aspartame, researchers predicted that none of the carnivore species tested would show a preference for “artificial sweeteners.” Although this was true for five of the species, the red panda drank large amounts of water sweetened with aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. “The taste world of every species, and even every individual, is unique, defined in part by the structure of their taste receptors,” said Monell Center geneticist Xia Li. “We need to know more about these differences and how they influence our diet.”
“The panda is presumably following the taste of something – maybe it’s the taste of some specific sweetener in the leaves,” says Joseph Brand, study supervisor. According to the Calorie Control Council, research shows that people have an inborn desire for sweetness and newborn infants, like the red panda, react positively to sweetness. Humans in general, have demonstrated that the pleasant response to sweet solutions is a reflex, innate reaction, rather than a learned response.
The study abstract may be found here.