Scientists Attempt to Replace Human Taste Testers With Test Tubes

If everybody tasted differently, can you actually objectively evaluate how food tastes?

Everybody has different taste. Some of that is genetic, the problem for  people who think that cilantro tastes like soap or that pork smells vaguely urine-like. If everybody tastes differently, can you actually objectively evaluate how food tastes? Food critics are hired for their sophisticated palette and asked to try. But is there a way to really do that? Scientists don’t know yet, but they’re working on finding out.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo recently published a paper trying to develop a “cultured cell-based human-taste evaluation system.” Essentially, they want to give different foods to a series of cell cultures that mimic the range of human taste receptors. If they feed these cell cultures something salty, for example, the salt receptors would be activated. If they feed the cells something both salty and sweet, some of each would be activated. By reading the responses of the receptors, they can quantify just how much of each taste is involved in a food.

For sugar, these researcher were successful. They created cells that respond to sweeteners like aspartame, saccharine, acesulfame K and cyclamate—all of which are used in foods.

The real question is not whether scientists can build a system like this in culture, but rather whether the results they get from those cells actually translate to what we humans experience. Different people are going to have different tastes, determined by both genetics and personal experience. Tasting isn’t just about which taste receptors are activated. And these cell cultures aren’t good at tasting things that are very acidic, so they’re useless when it comes to things like ceviche.

In the end, having a totally objective taste test is probably impossible. And restaurant reviewers don’t need to worry: cells can’t exactly review the politeness of the staff or the ambiance of the restaurant. But for food companies that mass produce product, and who need to make a product that tastes the same every time, these cell based methods might wind up being more reliable than a human employee control.

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