The taste of things that aren’t really there is finally here

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October 10, 2012

In the wondrous world of food technology, taste sensations need not be real to be big money makers. The industry, in fact, is all abuzz these days over imaginary flavors, ‘tongue-tampering’ ingredients’ that, like imaginary friends, really exist only in your mind.

As I reported in March, Senomyx, the biotechnology company headquartered in San Diego, is busy working on its “sweet taste modulations,” sweet enhancers,” “salt enhancers,” and “savory flavors,” with several reportedly ready for market. These chemicals have no taste of their own, but work by either activating or blocking taste receptors on the tongue.

Four of the Senomyx “savory flavors” recently received approval in the European Union (EU), the company stated Tuesday in a press release. According to Senomyx CEO Kent Snyder, they are ready for use in sauces, frozen foods, soups and snack foods.

In the U.S., the company proudly announced at the beginning of this month that one of its sweetener enhancers, S9632, has been determined to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration “under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

I called Senomyx to get more information, as well as to inquire how this ingredient would appear on food labels, only to be told by a spokesperson in the corporate communications office that labeling details are “not up to Senomyx,” as they “don’t manufacture and don’t sell” the ingredient, but are only responsible for “discovery and development.”

She added that they have different types of agreements, including ones that stipulate exclusive use and arrangements with ingredient suppliers “that can sell to anyone.”

The spokesperson wouldn’t provide much more information regarding the reported GRAS status for ingredient S9632, saying only that “a process was put in place by the FDA” that was neither based on a “self determination” nor on a food additive petition submitted to the agency. “We don’t get into any of that discussion,” was how she explained it.

Coming soon: ‘HFCS Helper’

Another Senomyx ingredient, a taste modifier which is still being developed, will allow for a “meaningful reduction” of high fructose corn syrup, according to CEO Snyder, who was also 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.”

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 developing a kind of ‘high fructose corn syrup helper’ 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.”

To get an idea of just how high tech such stuff really is, here is bit of an explanation of how it all works from “Building on work by scientists who have successfully cloned human taste receptors for sweet, bitter and umami tastes, Senomyx uses high-throughput biological screening techniques to evaluate millions of molecules to identify which substances bind to specific taste receptors.”

Back in the EU, however,  an explanatory memo issued by the European Commission to explain its list of “approved flavouring substances,” says that to be authorized a flavoring must not “mislead the consumer.” And that would seem to raise the question of whether there’s any real difference between misleading the consumer and misleading the consumer’s tongue.