Coming soon to a supermarket near you: imaginary flavors

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March 13, 2012  Looking to consume fewer calories? Less salt? Before you buy a processed food item, do you check the nutrition facts label for the “sugar” and “salt” listings?  If so, here’s something you should know: products claiming to be “low calorie” and “low salt” may contain some ‘tongue-tampering’ ingredients —  laboratory concoctions that mess with our taste buds and fool our brains into thinking we’re eating something we’re really not.

Known as “sweet taste modulators,” “sweet enhancers,” “fructose enhancers” and “bitter blockers” (which are now finding a market for use along with the herbal sweeter stevia) and “salt enhancers,” these chemicals have no taste of their own, but work by either activating or blocking taste receptors on the tongue. You won’t find these compounds listed as such on food labels,  but rather categorized under the catch-all term “artificial flavorings,” or even “natural” ones.

The big player in this new field of imaginary flavor fabrication appears to be a biotechnology company called Senomyx, which has become close friends with some big names such as Kraft Foods, Nestle, Campbell’s Soup Company, Coke and Pepsi.  Senomyx research  has received some big bucks from its friends as well, including a reported $30 million “up front” from PepsiCo.

Last year, Senomyx had its first commercial launch of two of its “Sweet Taste modulators,” known as S6973 and S2383, and recently revealed PepsiCo’s interest in its efforts to market a fructose enhancer that will allow foods to contain up to a third less high fructose corn syrup and still taste the same. That disclosure was made by Senomyx CEO Kent Snyder, who was quoted in a trade publication as saying  “…During the past year, we have identified enhancers that enabled up to a 33% HFCS reduction, while retaining the preferred sweetness profile and taste test,” also saying the chemical ingredient is of  “…a high interest (to) PepsiCo…”

Added Snyder,”We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” referring to the sneaky tactic of “clean labeling,” in which a manufacture manipulates a product’s ingredients so it looks more consumer friendly.

So even while the Corn Refiners Association is claiming that major food companies are once again embracing high fructose corn syrup, the scientists at Senomyx are busily engaged in bringing out a fructose enhancer that would cut the amount of it used in products. Or, as Snyder put it, “Reducing HFCS in these products…would be welcome by consumers and manufacturers.”

Now this is nothing like mixing herbs or spices to make things more flavorful, but rather more like the kind of stuff you might find a mad scientist working on in a sci-fi movie. The concept, as described in is one built “on work by scientists who have successful cloned human taste receptors,” then used “biological screening technique(s) to evaluate millions of molecules to identify which substances bind to specific taste receptors.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but when I eat something I want the taste to actually exist, not be some hallucination that the food is sweet or salty. Talk about “mind-altering” drugs!

Since Senomyx-created ingredients won’t be labeled, the only way of avoiding them would seem to be to beware of low-cal, and reduced calorie foods, especially low salt items and of “new and improved” reduced calorie reformulations. All of which is bound to make shopping that much more tedious for conscientious consumers.

Oops! They forgot the fruit!

Oops – someone forgot the fruit again!

The latest addition to the rogues gallery of fruitless “fruit” products is “Oops! All Berries” cereal from our friend Cap’n Crunch, who sails under the flag of Quaker Oats.

Oops! joins such other breakfast classics as Froot Loops by Kellogg’s, Post Fruity Pebbles, General Mills’ Trix Wildberry Red Swirls and Fruity Cheerios in being a product that will have you searching fruitlessly for any actual fruit.

The name of this product, “Oops!” is more of a mystery than the fact it contains no fruit. Could it be that Quaker Oats named it that as sort of a “truth-in-labeling” claim for the less-than-fruity ingredients?  Despite the red, purple and odd aqua and green colors in the “fruit” balls, “Oops!” will not provide you with any of the benefits that a real blueberry or strawberry will.

And as I’ve learned, if a product has “fruit,” “fruity” or “blueberries” in its name, most likely you won’t find any. So if fresh fruit is out of season in your locale, get some frozen varieties, put a bowl in the fridge at night, and by breakfast time you’ll have some actual fruit to put on your cereal – that is to say, real fruit with real taste!

And no fooling!