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Through a combination of behavioral and molecular genetic studies, Monell Center has revealed that the giant panda has functional sweet taste receptors and a strong preference for some natural sweeteners, including fructose and sucrose.
In the study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, the animals were given two bowls of liquid. One bowl contained water and the other contained a solution of water mixed with one of six different natural sugars: fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose. Each sugar was presented at a low and a high concentration.
The pandas preferred all the sugar solutions to plain water, especially fructose and sucrose, since the animals avidly consumed a full liter of these sugary solutions within the respective five-minute test periods.
Another series of preference tests revealed there was little to no preference for most artificial sweetener solutions, suggesting that giant pandas cannot taste or do not strongly perceive these compounds as being sweet. Parallel cell-based studies showed a relationship between the pandas’ behavior and how panda taste receptor cells respond to sweeteners in vitro.