The complex process involved in discerning taste is accomplished with our tongues, and our tongues’ taste buds are uniquely divided into four zones: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
Taste buds that determine sweet and salty foods are located at the front of the tongue, sour sensations are on the sides, and the back of the tongue recognizes bitter foods.
The complex nature of taste has precluded the creation of any sort of artificial tasting technology — until now.
In an attempt to replicate human-like flavor detection with an artificial sensor, researchers at the University of Copenhagen used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as “magnetic tongues” to predict the taste of canned tomatoes.
The sensor could allow food manufacturers to vastly improve their production methods in maximizing flavor quality during the canning process.
From the report published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry Safety (ACS):
“The perception of odor and flavor of food is a complicated physiological and psychological process that cannot be explained by simple models. Quantitative descriptive analysis is a technique used to describe sensory features. Nevertheless, the availability of a number of instrumental techniques has opened up the possibility to calibrate the sensory perception.
“In this frame, we have tested the potentiality of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as a predictive tool to measure sensory descriptors. In particular, we have used an NMR metabolomic approach that allowed us to differentiate the analyzed samples based on their chemical composition.
“We were able to correlate the NMR metabolomic fingerprints recorded for canned tomato samples to the sensory descriptors bitterness, sweetness, sourness, saltiness, tomato and metal taste, redness, and density, suggesting that NMR might be a very useful tool for the characterization of sensory features of tomatoes.”
Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers identified several common sugars and amino acids in eighteen different samples of tomatoes. Andrew Liszewski with Gizmodo provides a simple explanation of the calibration process:
“These same samples were also tested by professional human tasters, who rated the tomatoes based on various sensory criteria like flavor, appearance, and texture. By then correlating the results from the spectroscopy with the quantitative and qualitative descriptions from the human testers, the researchers were able to calibrate their artificial tasting technique to discern characteristics like bitterness, sweetness, sourness, saltiness and even texture and density.”
Factories could use a tongue-like detector to test flavor during production. Anders Malmendal, one of the Copenhagen researchers says manufacturers could sample tomatoes during production with this sensor and quickly adjust their methods to create better tasting products.