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Researchers discover giant pandas have a sweet tooth

Giant pandas have been found to have a preference for some natural sweeteners, including fructose and sucrose, and the sensory apparatus necessary to taste sweetness by Dr. Danielle Reed, a behavioral geneticist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, and colleagues according to their report in the March 26, 2014, edition of the journal Public Library of Science.

If the panda drank more sugar water than plain water, it was classified as preferring the sugar water.
If the panda drank more sugar water than plain water, it was classified as preferring the sugar water.
Credit: Mary Leonard/Monell Center with permission from Leslie J. Stein, PhD Director, Science Communications Monell Chemical Senses Center.

No one knew pandas liked sweet food prior to this discovery.

The first cue to panda’s preference for sweets was the animal’s almost exclusive diet of bamboo. Bamboo contains some fructose and sucrose in very small quantities.

Test pandas were given two bowls to drink from for five minutes. One bowl contained water and the other contained water and one of six sugars.

All the test pandas preferred the sugar solution. Sucrose and fructose were the animal’s favorite. Most of the test animals downed a liter of sugar and water in less than five minutes.

Similar tests with artificial sweeteners indicated pandas have no preference for artificial sweeteners. This result may indicate pandas do not have the taste cells that sense artificial sweeteners.

The tests indicate that the sensory apparatus for tasting sugars has been conserved in pandas despite their plant diet and probably because of the low levels of sucrose and fructose in bamboo.