Imagine being able to experience eating chocolate without risking putting on weight, or making your kids eat their broccoli by disguising its flavor as a hamburger. That is the goal of a research project being carried out by scientists at the University of London.
They developed a prototype gadget called Taste Buddy that uses low-level electrical currents to stimulate the tongue’s taste buds — thereby fooling people into thinking they are trying sweet, sour or salty flavors.
“Such a device could have real potential health benefits,” Professor Adrian Cheok, one of the lead researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “You could, for instance, create eating utensils which use electrical signals to artificially increase the sweetness or saltiness of foods, without you having to add these ingredients to a meal.”
Doing this will require the current Taste Buddy prototype to be shrunk down to fit inside everyday utensils and the team is already hard at work on a custom-built spoon for that purpose.
At present, however, the work is already enough to impress. Its success hinges on a particular frequency that stimulates certain taste reactions. In some cases, such as simulating sweet tastes, the Taste Buddy works by rapidly changes the temperature of the tongue, which turns out to correlate with how sweet we perceive food to be.
Long term, Cheok has another innovation in mind as well.
“Our tongues only have receptors for sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami,” he continued. “Everything else we experience comes from smell. For example, when you’re eating chocolate, 90 percent of that experience is smell. As a result, we’re working on an electrical smell machine that would use tiny electrodes that go inside the nose to generate smell signals. Using this, we think it would be possible to generate a wide variety of flavors.”
After that, who knows. We could be onto the next iteration of the internet, he thinks.
“Right now, we can send videos, text and photos online — but we can’t do the same for taste or smell,” Cheok said. “What I want in the future is for a multisensory internet. Imagine having dinner with someone from across the world, or watching an episode of MasterChef and being able to taste the food and not just see it.”