Health: Machines win by a nose in taste game

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The Independent Online
Human tasters could soon be replaced by electronic ones, as the Agriculture Minister, Dr Jack Cunningham discovered yesterday. Scientists at the University of Nottingham are developing an electronic "taste bud", which will be used to develop food with more flavour by analysing the aromas that form in our noses when we eat meals.

Yesterday Dr Cunningham saw the machine as he opened the university's new pounds 2.2m Food Science building. The "electronic taster" is being developed as part of a three-year project in which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is investing pounds 120,000, half of the total funding.

The aim of the project is to build a machine that the food industry can use to develop new products. Whereas natural foods achieve their balance of taste, "mouth feel" and nutrition through their genes, manufacturers of processed foods face a constant struggle when trying to develop "low fat" or "low calorie" products by mechanical means. This is because taking out fat generally means taking out "taste": fats absorb and hold the complex aromatic compounds that we perceive as taste, and contribute strongly to the sensation that professional tasters describe as "mouth feel" once we start chewing something.

But the trouble with tasters is that their sense of taste varies from day to day. An electronic "nose" that can precisely evaluate the aromas in different chewed-up foods, and especially in experimental ones, would be a valuable addition to the present testing regime that new food products undergo, though humans would still be essential in the final stage before a food reached the shops.