Bitebot Tastes the Chemistry of Flavor
Ooh la la! Zee French, zer taste buds zey are so refined! But then again it never hurts to get a second opinion from a bot. Which explains why researchers at France's national school for agricultural and food industry engineering have built this artificial mouth
—the first able to handle hard foods—to help them break down the chemistry of flavor. As we chew our food, volatile aromatics are released and float up to the nasal cavity, where they register as, say, lemon or jalapeño. To capture those odorants, the masticating bot simulates the conditions inside a human maw—from the saliva to the grinding motion—and then whisks away the compounds for analysis. By varying the crush parameters (speed and time), the French team plans to pinpoint exactly how chewing affects the quality of a mouthful. The goal: lab-engineered flavors that will blow your nose, er, mind.
Illustration: Peter Grundy
The Taste Test
1 // Food is placed on the plate, and technicians add artificial saliva — baking soda, potassium chloride, and a few other types of salt dissolved in water.
2 // Hot water is pumped around the inner chamber to keep the air inside at a body-steady 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
3 // Half-inch spiky teeth on a stainless steel plunger pulverize the food. A variable-speed motor controls the frequency of compressions for different tests.
4 // Another variable-speed motor spins the plate to mimic the circular action of the human tongue and jaw. (Yep, we do actually chew like cows.)
5 // Helium is puffed in to reproduce the effects of breathing. The gas carries the volatile compounds up to an opening at the top of the chamber.
6 // A solid-phase microextraction fiber traps the compounds and is then run through a gas chromatograph, an ion detector, a quadrupole mass filter, and other analytical instruments. Using the results, researchers identify and quantify the chemical building blocks of the morsel's flavor.
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