Sunday, February 02, 2003

The revolutionary molecules that turn bland food bodacious Globe and Mail,
Saturday, February 1, 2003 ? Page A1

"In a small office just west of the New Jersey Turnpike, researchers are taking the human taste bud into a brave new world....

A quiet revolution is under way in the world of flavour research, blending chemistry, molecular biology and genetics to cook up recipes your mother never imagined: In this emerging field, it's not the food that will be modified, but you -- the eater.

Imagine a compound that could dupe your tongue into thinking bland oatmeal was hot-fudge-sundae sweet? Or another that could make kids hoover spinach like Popeye?

"You could make healthy foods taste better," Alejandro Marangoni, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, said of the new field. "Just blocking bitterness has huge potential. Somebody's going to make a lot of money."

Linguagen's "bitter blocker" compound, which received a U.S. patent this month, is the first chemical known to inhibit the taste of bitterness by altering human perception instead of flavour. But it's unlikely to be the last.
By temporarily suppressing or enhancing molecular signals in the taste cells that blanket the tongue, researchers at several centres are devising ways to trick the brain into believing it's eating something that it's not.

Food and drug manufacturers traditionally rely on sugar, salt, and fat to mask unpleasant flavours such as bitterness. But that unholy trinity lies behind a raft of health problems, obesity and high blood pressure among them.

"I'm excited about the possibilities of all of this; there are all kinds of applications," said Linda Bartoshuk, who works on human taste perception at Yale University. "The more we learn about taste, the more clever we are going to become at manipulating flavours."

Dr. Bartoshuk called Linguagen's bitter-blocker "the real thing."

"I've tried it myself," she said.

Mixing it with water and quinine, a common bitter ingredient in tonic water, Dr. Bartoshuk gulped it back with few worries about the bitter-blocker's safety. After all, the compound, adenosine monophosphate, or AMP, is actually a naturally occurring substance made up of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA. AMP is found in a wide range of natural foods -- including breast milk.

As Linguagen officials like to point out, there are more than a few of us who have already tried it.

"It intrigues me that [AMP] might be doing the same thing in breast milk," said Dr. Bartoshuk. "Calcium compounds in breast milk are bitter and we have always wondered how supertaster babies [who are more sensitive to flavours] could stand that and maybe breast milk is a natural system using bitter-blockers."

[Hmmm, intrigues me too. - JC]

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