Monday, June 14, 2010


Man can go to any extent to satisfy his cravings for good tasting food that will ensure maximum sensory pleasure. Use of various food additives like colors, texturizers, flavor enhancers, stabilizers, etc is a direct response to the customer preferences discerned by the industry from time to time. While one cannot deny the consumer such a basic instinct-driven need, what is lost in the bargain is the tendency of the product developers to load processed foods with many chemicals of questionable safety. Of course safety is a relative term and if one has to live in the modern world, some degree of compromise and adjustment may be inevitable.

Taste is the most important criterion that influences the decision whether the food should pass into the GI tract from the oral cavity as there is still a chance of spitting out those with undesirable or unacceptable taste. The role of color, aroma and texture is secondary that influence future buying decision. Foods invariably becomes more acceptable when appropriate levels of salt or sugar or spices or fat are incorporated but bitterness and sourness are notes not liked by many though there is a large clientele with liking for moderate sourness taste.

Human tongue has over 10000 taste buds, each with a diameter of an hair strand and each taste bud is equipped with 50-150 taste cells. Taste cells have specialized receptors for saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness. Bitterness is generally linked to substances with some toxic potential and therefore nature has endowed the tongue with more than 25 different types of receptors for recognizing thousands of bitter substances, unlike those specialized in sensing other taste notes. These taste buds are supposed to equip human beings to avoid many food materials that may be poisonous during the early years of evolution.

Bitterness cannot be avoided, especially in medicines and synthetic sweeteners and flavor industry is continuously looking for substances that can mask the bitter note for better acceptability of the products. Such a chemical is reported to have been discovered by a major flavor developer which will bind most of the "bio-receptors" on the tongue to effectively prevent bitter molecules from attaching to these specialized buds. It is truly a remarkable endeavor involving screening of thousands of substances using specialized techniques to identify one single compound which was found effective.

How far this discovery will have any impact on food industry is not certain considering that there are very few popular foods with any bitter note. But the diet food industry cutting down on sugar levels in foods and beverages, often using synthetic sweeteners like Aspartame find it difficult to mask the bitter after taste noticeable in such foods. Similarly Grapefruit juice with high levels of Naringin exhibits bitter taste which needs complex treatment process to debitter the product. Such products, far and few, may be the candidates for the new bitterness blocking compound. Pharmaceutical industry may be a major beneficiary as many medicines are bitter to taste affecting their acceptability, especially to kids.

Carrying this research further, there is need to simulate tastes like saltiness and sweetness with suitably architectured chemical substances which will enable the industry to cut down use of salt and sugar very significantly. Such a development will be of great value to the human beings of to day tottering on the verge of a major health disaster due to over consumption of high sugar and high salt products. The development and availability of many fat sparing food aids has shown the direction in which dramatic progress will have to be made.


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