This feature in The Economist says that in Silicon Valley, a biotech startup called Aromyx is trying to clone and isolate the genes behind each of the 400 olfactory receptors in the human nose in order to visualise on a computer the reaction of each receptor to different aromas.
Aromyx wants to produce a taste fingerprint based on which elements of a flavour trigger different receptors, and how great each receptor’s reaction to that element is.
IBM, an IT firm, is developing an electronic, AI-assisted tongue called Hypertaste, which is already able to determine the chemical similarity between some liquids, an important step towards more complex forms of analysis.
The machines have a lot of catching up to do, however. Flavour is a multidimensional experience dependent on many variables. Even sound can affect how you taste something: a recent study at Oxford University found that people are more likely to pick up bacon flavours in a dish when a recording of a sizzling frying pan is played in the background.
Robot tongues and food fingerprints are still worth pursuing. Elusive though they are, their potential applications are far-reaching. If the multidimensional world of flavour can be captured by machines, then it could ultimately be recreated too. That would revolutionise food production: lettuce leaves could be made to taste like beef burgers, saving the Amazon (and our hearts).
However at Tetley, a British tea maker master taster Sebastian Michaelis’s taste buds are insured for £1 million. He tastes up to 250 different brews each day, looking for subtle differences.
Tetley is unusual in having seven full-time in-house professionals like Michaelis, as well as part-timers and trainees. There are other valuable mouths in the business too. Dreyer’s, an American ice-cream company, insured the taste buds of John Harrison, who invented the cookies-and-cream flavour, for $1 million. Hayleigh Curtis, a chocolate scientist at Cadbury, has a mouth that is so valuable the company’s insurance terms ban her from eating certain chillies in case they damage her taste receptors.