More chocolate flavored peas, please

As I watched Willy Wonky & the Chocolate Factory for the first time, I sat in awe as the somewhat obnoxious Miss Violet Beauregard chewed the gum of my dreams. Willy Wonka proudly explained that the gum would go through three stages of flavors, starting with ‘tomato soup’, then changing to ‘roast beef and baked potato’, before ending with ‘blueberry pie and ice cream.’ I spent the rest of the afternoon drawing pictures of my favorite foods, imagining the various gum trifectas I could create.

This obsession phase inspired my initial interest in the idea of tricking my extremely picky taste buds, and from then on I found myself constantly wishing for some magical device or food spray to “make veggies taste good”. And although the idea initially seems absurd, ten years later, recent advances in thechnology have shown that the idea of directly manipulating what we taste is more possible than we might think.

TO TASTE OR NOT TO TASTE?

First, it is critical to understand how our taste really works. Essentially, taste relies on sensing that certain molecules are present in food, and then generating a signal through our taste receptors that is sent to the brain for processing. Within each individual taste bud, recognizing and generating these signals occurs through five different types of receptors: saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, sourness, and umami(savory).

 Diagram of a taste bud – shows the different types of receptors that send signals to neurons for processing.

Diagram of a taste bud – shows the different types of receptors that send signals to neurons for processing.

This is vastly different from the inaccurate geographic ‘map’ of our tongue’s taste ability, which I wholeheartedly believed for most of my life. The concept of a tongue or taste map is a common misconception that certain areas are responsible for certain tastes. Although this idea was once widely taught, it has been scientifically disproven now that we understand how taste really works.

During the next step, each receptor sends signals to dedicated areas of the brain where neurons receive and process the information. However, virtually all foods and beverages impart sensations in addition to taste. For example, a complex food like soup also has volatile compounds that give it a specific identity, conveyed by the food’s smell through our olfactory receptors in the upper regions of our nasal cavity. The actual taste we perceive can also be highly influenced by the information we are given about it. This complex interdependence is what will allow us to ‘trick’ our taste buds1.

WHAT THE FORK DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

A Canadian company called Molecule-R recently developed a new product called the “Aromafork.” The Aromafork has a small compartment in the handle containing blotting paper, onto which users drip intensely scented liquid flavors. Before taking a bite, they deeply inhale the aroma to make a fork full of broccoli taste like caramel or one of their 20 other available flavors, allowing people to live out my childhood dreams of licorice green beans or chocolate peas without the sketchiness of some sort of “food spray”2.

maxresdefault.jpg

Similarly impressive, scientists at Bombas & Parr, a London flavor specialization firm, have even made Willy Wonka’s eccentric gum into a reality. The gum is made out of nanostructures called ‘colloidosomes’ that capture flavors and aromas and can be broken upon contact with saliva or after a certain amount of chewing. Although the release of flavors is additive rather than sequential, simply by telling consumers what they will taste, they can manipulate them into thinking that a combination of flavors and aromas (such as strawberry and orange) is actually something completely different (like pineapple)3.

As we continue to research how we perceive flavor, it is possible that we could transition towards food experiences with a more holistic approach to taste through aromas that enhance or completely change what we sense. The question is, would we really want to use technology potentially powerful enough to make any food taste exactly like something else? How would that change our daily food habits? Would we be able to identify or trust anything we were eating? Just a little food for thought (smell?).