Dive Brief:

  • An “electronic tongue” in use at Washington State University can distinguish spiciness levels between different samples of paneer cheese more quickly and accurately than human taste buds can, according to research published in the Journal of Food Science.
  • WSU graduate student Courtney Schlossareck and her adviser Carolyn Ross found the e-tongue is very efficient at discriminating between two samples at both low and high levels of spiciness. That contrasts with human testers, whose taste buds become fatigued and need at least five minutes between tasting samples.
  • The research findings could assist manufacturers, since the market for hot food is growing, Schlossareck noted. “Spicy cheese is really popular. So helping cheese-makers dial in the optimum level of spiciness would be even more helpful,” she said in a WSU release.

Dive Insight:

Researchers in the U.S. and Europe are using the e-tongue for a number of food-related purposes — including detecting adulterated honey, finding the right salt blendsassessing beer quality and measuring grape ripeness.

In essence, the technology is an analytical instrument that mimics how people distinguish tastes. The e-tongue uses tiny sensors to detect substances in a sample of food or drink and sends signals to a computer for processing, just as taste buds sense and transmit flavor messages to the brain. The machine is proving to be particularly helpful when it comes to hot and spicy foods.

Spicy food has become more popular in recent years as consumers seek out regional ethnic flavors and more interesting culinary experiences — particularly those from Central and South America. Millennials are pushing the trend, while foodies and older consumers are wanting to reduce sodium, fats and sugars in foods without sacrificing flavor.

The challenge for manufacturers is finding just the right balance between the spiciness that more of today’s consumers like and the extreme heat a smaller segment of the population enjoys. While certain milder chili peppers — including Anaheim and dried guajillo, pasilla, ancho, morita and cascabel​ varieties — can add intriguing flavors to dishes, jalapeño, serrano, habanero, poblano and green and red New Mexico chilies are often much hotter and should be handled with care.

The e-tongue’s practical applications could be useful to companies making food and beverage products where spiciness, flavor and quality are major considerations, and in situations where human taste buds tend to wear out or take too long to assess distinctions.

The WSU researchers noted, however, that human sensory evaluation is also useful for detecting spiciness levels, along with the e-tongue’s qualitative discrimination ability. So while the e-tongue will probably continue to augment human taste testers, it is unlikely to replace them anytime soon.

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