Japanese scientists are chewing over an ‘electric gum’ that never loses flavor

A device which zaps your tongue with electricity sounds more like some cruel and unusual torture method than it does something folks might do for enjoyment. But you’d be wrong — at least when it comes to the electric tongue zapper created by researchers at Meiji University in Japan. They’ve been working on technology they call “unlimited electric gum,” able to electrically simulate flavor sensations when a person chews a stick of specially created “gum.” The results make possible not only gum which never loses its flavor but, at least in theory, also open up the possibility of creating any flavor chewing gum you want to sample at that instant.

This is achieved using something called the piezoelectric effect, a phenomenon in which certain materials generate an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress. The word is derived from the Greek word word “squeeze” or “press.” In this case, the piezoelectric effect means that when a piece of the researchers’ gum (in reality, a piezoelectric element and electrodes, wrapped up in a thin plastic film) is chewed, a small current is created. This then fools the chewer’s tongue into experiencing different tastes.

You shouldn’t expect Juicy Fruits or spearmint tastes just yet, however. When the device was tested out at an event in Japan earlier this year, the test subjects reported that the gum tasted salty or bitter. They likened it to the experience of chewing niboshi, dried infant sardines which are frequently eaten either as snacks or used for seasoning in soup stocks. That doesn’t necessarily sound all that appealing, but there’s certainly scope for expansion.

The researchers hope that they will eventually be able to induce sour, sweet and umami (a savory taste found in foods like fermented soy products, cheese, and shiitake mushrooms) taste sensations as well. The chewing gum was recently presented at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Germany.

It’s not just Meiji University that is focused on creating these kind of futuristic simulated foodstuff, either. Dr. Nimesha Ranasinghe, currently director of the Multisensory Interactive Media Lab at the University of Maine, has created a number of similarly innovative projects — ranging from a programmable cocktail glass to futuristic chopsticks able to simulate flavor by zapping your tongue with electrodes.

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