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Which zoo animals like artificial sweeteners: Facts at last

Experts baffled by aspartame-guzzling Swiss pandas

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Almost everybody has, no doubt, at one time or another asked themselves one of the most urgent questions facing the human race today. That is, of course: Just which kinds of Swiss zoo animals like the taste of artificial sweeteners?

Wonder no more, because an international team of scientists has at last carried out a thorough investigation into the matter. In a shock finding, it has turned out that red pandas resident in Switzerland are absolute fools for aspartame, neotame and sucralose. Swiss meerkats and ferrets, however, prefer real sugar: and lions living in the land of cuckoo-clocks don't like sweet things at all.

"This is the essence of molecular science," remarked Joseph G Brand PhD, a biophysicist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Asking a behavioral question and getting a molecular answer."

It seems that Brand and his colleague Xia Li enlisted the help of Swiss brainbox Dieter Glaser from Zurich Uni. Glaser carried out taste tests on lions, ferrets, genets, meerkats, mongoose, and red pandas living in Swiss zoos. All these species are of the order Carnivora.

According to the Monell centre:

Lions, like other cats, are obligate carnivores, meaning that they eat almost exclusively meat. Meerkats are mainly insectivores, while red pandas are primarily herbivores that almost exclusively eat bamboo leaves and shoots.

As expected from the previous findings, the lion did not prefer any of the sweet solutions ... Each of the remaining species preferred at least some of the natural sugars ... Because only primates were believed to be able to taste aspartame, the researchers predicted that none of the Carnivore species tested would show a preference for the artificial sweeteners.

This indeed was the case for five of the species. However, the sixth species – the red panda – drank large amounts of the artificial sweeteners aspartame, neotame, and sucralose.

"The red panda is able to taste artificial sweeteners," said a baffled Dr Li. "What we don't know is why this particular animal has this unusual ability. Perhaps the red panda's unique sweet receptor evolved to allow this animal to detect some compound in its natural food that has a similar structure to these sweeteners."

That's just the way it is in science, of course. You answer one tricky question - ie, which animals like artificial sweeteners - and find that now you have another conundrum to solve: why do pandas like them? Does it have anything to do with living in Switzerland, the nation with the highest per-capita consumption of chocolate in the world? (22.36 pounds of choccy per Swiss resident per year, apparently).

Needless to say, the allied scientists plan more detailed research. They say that painstaking work such as this "could eventually lead to the development of more acceptable sugar substitutes, potentially benefiting diabetics and other individuals on sugar-restricted diets." ®

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