The Future of Taste Technology

Cutting back on sugar by manipulating the perception of sweet
February 1, 2015 Updated: February 24, 2015

Public health experts want to see a dramatic reduction in sugar and salt consumption. The processed food and beverage industry—by far America’s biggest source of salt and sweet—has been resistant to such requests. But a new technology may be a game changer.

Last year PepsiCo announced a partnership with Senomyx, a San Diego-based company specializing in “proprietary taste science technologies.” They make sweet, bitter, and savory flavor enhancers, with other flavors in the works.

Senomyx’s products are unique because they influence the perception of flavor. Take for example, Sweetmyx, the company’s sweetness enhancer. Unlike aspartame or sucralose which merely mimic sugar, Sweetmyx convinces the brain it’s experiencing the same satisfying level of sweetness with less actual sweetener. The addition of Sweetmyx to various products can cut added sugar by as much as half, and cut high fructose corn syrup by about a third.

This curious brain hack is developed with the help of biotechnology. Using the same human embryonic kidney cell line favored by drug makers, vaccine developers, and cell biologists for nearly 40 years, Senomyx replicates human tongue receptor cells. They then test various molecule combinations until they find one that hits the target taste.

You’re Already Eating It

This technology has not been granted approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it’s already available in many products, and you won’t find it on the label.

In 2013, following an 18 month evaluation, flavor industry authorities deemed the technology safe for human consumption. Very little of the Senomyx compounds are needed to achieve the desired effect. At a concentration of less than one part per million, Sweetmyx is merely considered an additive under FDA guidelines, which means it does not have to be specifically identified on the label. Instead, it falls under the catch-all category of “artificial ingredients” where similarly mysterious additives reside.

Partner Companies

Kraft Foods, Nestlé, Cadbury Schweppes, and other global food, beverage, and ingredient supply companies are currently marketing products which contain Senomyx technology.

PepsiCo, which enjoys exclusive rights to Sweetmyx in nonalcoholic drinks, is now interested in salt. In April 2014, PepsiCo (parent company of the Frito Lay line of snack foods) announced that it will provide research funding to develop Senomyx’s salt taste modifier in exchange for the rights of the new compounds discovered.

According to a November 2014 press release, Senomyx says the goal of their “Salt Taste Program is to identify flavor ingredients that allow a significant reduction of sodium in foods and beverages yet maintain the salty taste desirable to consumers.” Researchers have already identified a small group of proteins that carry this potential. Advanced tests will determine which of these proteins “enable salt taste perception.”

Campbell’s Soup and Solae (a soy-based food company) broke their partnerships with Senomyx in 2011 due to pressure from Children of God for Life and other anti-abortion groups. Their concern is the cell line Senomyx uses for its research, which originates from the kidney of a fetus electively aborted in the 1970s.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner