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Hot topics: Mushroom-craving felines crave protein

Anyone who lives with a cat knows that fruits and vegetables do not top the feline food chart. So it's a surprise to hear that some cats do crave mushrooms.

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Anyone who lives with a cat knows that fruits and vegetables do not top the feline food chart. So it's a surprise to hear that some cats do crave mushrooms.

This tale starts with Ellen Jacobson, an amateur mushroom hunter in Colorado. As she was cooking up a bolete mushroom, her cat Cashew started brushing against her legs. She put some of the mushrooms in a bowl, and Cashew gobbled them up.

She was puzzled as to why a meat-loving cat would love this vegetable. But she soon found that other peoples' cats wanted mushrooms, too.

That oddity is a clue to how the taste preferences of humans and animals evolved, based on the foods we need to survive.

Mushrooms have a lot of glutamate, an amino acid that gives them their rich, savory flavor. Glutamate is one of the chemicals responsible for the umami flavor; it's one of the five flavors sensed by humans, along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.

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The notion that a cat might crave mushrooms isn't a big surprise to Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In 2005, Beauchamp and his colleagues proved that cats, tigers and other felines can't taste sweetness because they lack a functional gene for sweetness taste receptors. But they do have genes for the receptors that detect the umami flavor.

Mushroom-craving cats are really on a vain hunt for protein, not for fungi, he says.

Nevertheless, neither dogs nor cats are advised to eat mushrooms, and the North American Mycological Association warns that both dogs and cats are attracted by the odor of wild mushrooms, and can be poisoned as a result.

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