In the last issue of New Scientist (issue 2671; 30 Aug 08) there is an article (p22) in the technology section about molecules we can add to food that will enhance the flavor. These molecules are flavorless themselves but increase the sweetness or saltiness of the food. There are also molecules that will block the bitter taste of foods such as grapefruit.
These molecules are being developed by testing them against cell lines of taste receptors. These receptors have been altered to glow flourescent green when responding to the taste in question. These cell lines have also been useful in furthering sensory research – finding new taste receptors for compounds such as calcium chloride.
The cell lines are obviously not as good as the human tongue and can only respond to the taste that they are programmed for, typically sweet, salt, sour, bitter or umami. Hence, when a flavor enhancer has been developed, shown to be safe for consumption, it has to go through a human sensory trial.
My concerns with flavor enhancers are several:
1) We get habituated to levels of flavor. So adding a sweet flavor enhancer may make us used to a high level of sweet tastes. This is already true in the US, where food is much sweeter than that found in Europe.
2) This is pandering to the American preference of bland tasting food. In the article they were looking for bitter blockers for the after taste of soy but Asians and I (and probably many other vegetarians) do not find soy bitter. Do people really dislike the idea of strong tastes so much, what about sweet and sour sauces?
3) I would prefer to see companies using more natural ingredients, especially herbs. Surely these new compounds are no cheaper than herbs? I cook without adding any salt but I use a lot of herbs. My Dad, who typically adds salt to everything does not do this to food I have cooked. The herbs make up for the absence of salt. Admittedly if I did use salt I could reduce the amount of herbs added to get the same flavor effect as salt enhances flavors.