Science targets your taste buds

Janet Babin Jun 3, 2008

Science targets your taste buds

Janet Babin Jun 3, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: The United Nations held a summit in Rome today to talk about the global food crisis. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to import tariffs and to the export bans that some countries have imposed to protect their domestic supplies. He also said it’ll take as much as $20 billion a year to cope with rising global demand.

Scientists are experimenting with new technologies to help increase crop yields and meet that demand, but they’re working on another part of the food chain at the same time.

Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio on the business of flavor.

Janet Babin: There used to be only one way to create new flavors: with a chef and a couple of taste testers. But the flavor industry hit a wall. Product development took too long. Consumers demanded taste sensations without added salt, sugar, fat or cost.

Enter science to the rescue. Senomyx is a flavor company based in San Diego, but inside, it looks a lot more like a pharmaceutical lab than a test kitchen.

Mark Zoller: Using much of the same technologies that the biotech industries use to discover medicines, we’re using to discover new flavors.

That’s Senomyx Chief Scientist Mark Zoller.

So far, researchers know humans can experience five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the fifth taste, umami, or savory. Well, Senomyx isolated the human taste bud receptors that let us distinguish these tastes.

Again, here’s Mark Zoller:

Zoller: We built an artificial taste bud, if you will, and what this allows us to do is to screen different potential flavor ingredients against these receptors.

The pseudo taste bud doesn’t look impressive — just an oversize Petri dish, really, loaded with flavor samples that get popped into a big metal machine — but the system is actually more sensitive than our tongues. It can identify new flavors faster than you can swallow that chocolate bacon bonbon.

Senomyx starts with ingredients pulled from all kinds of sources: flowers, plants, minerals, chemicals.

Joe Cohen built the sample system from scratch.

Joe Cohen: This is a thermo-scientific plate sealer and this is an apricot liquid handler.

Babin: You ever get these on eBay?

Cohen: Believe it or not, I bought this bar code scanner on eBay.

Then the sample plates are mixed with human taste receptor cells. Guy Servant’s director of High Throughput Screening. He’s in charge of the cells.

Guy Servant: The system can take all these samples, put them on to the cells and we measure in real time here on this computer screen how the cells are responding to the samples.

Servant tests as many as 50,000 flavors a day.

Finding that rare flavor, though, is just the beginning. Sweet in the lab could turn sour in the kitchen. Senomyx didn’t let me watch its taste panel in action — privacy concerns; the flavor enhancer market is worth $6 billion a year according to the Freedonia Group, so secrecy is key — but the company’s Jana Smith put my taste buds to the test:

Jana Smith: Here’s your water and your spit cup.

Babin: Spit cup?

Smith: Yes.

You’re not supposed to swallow what’s in the little plastic cups. It could be a substance the FDA has yet to approve.

For my test, I had to discern which of two samples was sweeter and the difference between them was just 2 percent.

Smith: Most people don’t realize that tasting can be a science and that it is pretty difficult to be a taster.

But the tasters at Senomyx have figured it out. The company created a new flavor enhancer than can cut the amount of sucralose in products by up to 75 percent — not a bad find at a time when consumers want less sugar and food companies are dealing with spiraling sweetener costs. Senomyx also patented a replacement for the savory flavor. It’s used in noodle bowls sold around the world. Discoveries like these helped Senomyx double its revenues over last year.

Next up: a cooling ingredient. It can make room temperature soda feel ice cold in your mouth.

In San Diego, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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