Electronic Lollipop Can Simulate Any Taste Using Electrodes: How Taste Synthesizers Work

By Ben Wolford on November 22, 2013 10:11 AM EST

Scientists have invented an electronic taste simulator.
Scientists have invented an electronic taste simulator.

Scientists in Singapore have developed a method for recreating four of the five taste components — sweet, sour, salty, bitter — using only electricity and temperature controls. The technology, which is still in its infancy, has a multitude of applications, they said, from video games to online shopping.

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Eventually, they want to make an electric lollipop that can be licked anywhere for a jolt of whatever you're craving: corn on the cob, dark chocolate, Dr. Pepper. "In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations," team leader Nimesha Ranasinghe, of the National University of Singapore, told NewScientist. "For example, if you complete a game task successfully, or complete a level, we can give a sweet, minty or sour reward. If you fail we can deliver a bitter message."

That may actually be kind of weird. But they boast of other uses. Online shoppers could sample their provisions before they order them. People with diabetes could taste as much sugar as they want. Chemotherapy patients who have lost the enjoyment of food could suck on a dialed up dose of mashed potatoes and gravy. One psychologist in Sydney, who recently published on the potentially devastating neurological effects of high sugar consumption, told NewScientist that such a device could ween sugar addicts onto the wagon. It's not a strange as it seems; what's chewing gum but a bit of flavor to suck on?

But that device seems to be a way off. The current apparatus is much less portable and commercially aesthetic than an electric lollipop. However, the science would essentially be the same. It works not by recreating salt or sugar, but by tricking your tongue into thinking it's there.

Tiny electric currents carried through a piece of silver quickly stimulate the user's tongue with varying zaps. Meanwhile, semiconductors raise and cool the temperature of the silver imperceptibly quickly. The effect isn't totally unlike nature. Humans are able to distinguish tastes thanks to tiny receptors on the tongue that register the slightest variations of flavor, which are produced by varying levels of five different identified tastes.

In addition to the four that this machine mimics, there's also umami (not to be confused with edamame). It's a savory taste, present in tomatoes and monosodium glutamate. And there's one other drawback: Flavor isn't all about the five basic tastes dancing on your tongue. There's also smell and texture, which, so far, can't be reproduced by a silver electrode.

Watch the NewScientist video below to see the virtual food in action.


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