Flavor really comes down to a science

Janet Babin Dec 25, 2008

Flavor really comes down to a science

Janet Babin Dec 25, 2008


Steve Chiotakis: On this Christmas Day, taste buds will be getting a treat all around the world. Food companies are constantly trying to come up with new flavors to gain market share and create the next big thing.
And science is helping in that effort. From the Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin reports.

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 build sort of 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.

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: 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. The flavor enhancer market is worth $6 billion a year according to the Freedonia Group.

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.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.