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Electric salt and the quest to control taste
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Electric salt and the quest to control taste

A Japanese researcher’s brainchild allows for taste to be controlled with electricity, allowing a pair of digital chopsticks to add saltiness to a bowl of bland food
Inventor Homei Miyashita holding his electric chopsticks
Inventor Homei Miyashita with his electric chopsticks, a device that can make food taste saltier without increasing your salt intake

Professor Homei Miyashita’s first encounter with programmed flavour occurred in his childhood, after an errant lick of live wire changed his sense of taste. The incident sparked his curiosity, and years later, when a student assigned to his laboratory wanted to research computer-assisted eating behaviour, he decided to put idea into action.

In September 2023, Miyashita and the student, Hiromi Nakamura, jointly received the annual Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition for their invention of electrified tableware that could make ramen taste saltier.

“Electricity not only stimulates taste receptors, but also makes sodium ions in the mouth stick to the tongue, which naturally makes it salty. There was a study in 2009 that proved this in animal experiments, and we have since conducted many experiments to demonstrate this,” Professor Miyashita told Happiest Health.

With Ig Nobel in hand, Miyashita plans to launch “Elektrisalt”, a brand of tableware that can enhance the saltiness of low-sodium food. He has already proposed the idea of electric chopsticks and forks that could do the same job and has plans for a “full course meal” of salt-free dishes.

Far from a fun gimmick, the invention could be a boon for those who need to cut down on their salt intake without sacrificing flavour.

The science of electric flavour

In a video, Miyashita demonstrates his creation with a participant. A humble bowl of ramen is found unsalted at first try. But upon “turning on” the electrified tableware, the bland became salty to flavourful.

“What’s going on?” asks the taster in the clip.

The idea that electricity could influence taste is as old as the discovery of electricity itself. Alessandro Volta, a peer of the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani, first demonstrated the effect in 1752, when he found a silver coin placed on the tongue would start to taste sour if you keep a tin foil along with it.

The inorganic explanation was that the foil completes the “circuit” made by the coin and the electrolyte-containing saliva in the mouth. Biologically, the electricity was stimulating the tongue’s taste receptors.

The electric effect on taste has since been well documented. The “electrogustometry” (EGM) test, where a current is applied to the tongue through electrodes until the individual can taste “sour”, is regularly used to diagnose taste disorders, and identify if the problem lies with the tongue or the brain.

Miyashita and his team have been studying “electric taste” for over a decade. Their 2011 paper had already showed how food and drink could be made to taste different using electrified chopsticks and straws. However, Miyashita has also explored new ways of experiencing taste.

The lickable television

Miyashita has long sought to replicate more than just saltiness. In 2020, he debuted a lickable device that contained five gel nodules made of dissolved electrolytes. Each nodule of the “Norimaki synthesizer” could produce the sensation of one flavour: sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami. In combination, they could theoretically replace any taste.

In 2022, Miyashita made headlines for his invention of a “lickable TV”, which used cartridges to achieve similar effect. With “Taste the TV”, the Japanese inventor hoped to supercharge advertising by allowing viewers to taste the food items they saw on screen.

“We’ll eventually be able to save taste as data and sign up for subscriptions like we do now with music and videos,” he told NikkeiAsia at the time.

An update, “Taste the TV 2”, allowed users who were allergic to crab cream croquette to safely taste the forbidden flavour through the screen, without the danger of allergens. In the future of digital taste, those with allergies need not fear their once-favourite foods.

A sustainable substitute

The chopsticks connected to a power source | Homei Miyashita

For Miyashita, the need to digitally control taste is an environmental necessity. “We will no longer need to transport food from all over the world, consuming a lot of energy and emitting greenhouse gases, as long as we can measure taste with sensors and create the same taste with the right mixture of what is available,” he says.

Moreover, for those with hypertension, chronic kidney disease or liver cirrhosis, reducing salt intake is a must for effective management. Miyashita’s electric tableware and electric salt could afford these individuals a more convenient solution to having bland food.

Miyashita also hopes that such substitution could help to preserve flavours of foods that go extinct over time.

“Digital technology should also be able to solve the food problem. If a food is going extinct, its taste can be replicated. Also, the taste of substitute meat can be made to taste the same as real meat.
In this way, I believe that taste technology will not only realise happiness and health for each individual but will also make a significant contribution to a sustainable planet,” he says.

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