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The human genome project has scientists diving into what makes us tick---and taste. To cut out salt used to mask bitterness in foods, researchers are blocking bitter signals. This ScienCentral News video has more.
Grimace all you want gourmands but it won't stop most Americans from surrendering to the appeal of quick-to-cook prepared foods that lure the stomach with succulent looking snapshots and highly tailored branding. In part, purveyors of fine taste have cause to wrinkle their nose about one thing: As easy cooking as prepared meals are they're often not so easy on your health. Consider canning. High temperatures involved in processing food prompts sugar and amino acids to produce a bitter taste that's usually masked with high amounts of table salt, associated with high blood pressure and heart disease.
But very soon food manufacturers could have a healthier alternative. "With the sequencing of the human genome all the machinery of taste began to be understood…so that allowed us to think of ways of applying drug discovery technology to make new molecules that would modify your sense of taste, " explains chemist Ray Salemme. Salemme, CEO of Linguagen Corporation, a New Jersey company featured in the March issue of Discover Magazine, is working to block bitter signals to the brain. Interrupting those signals could reduce the salt some manufacturers use to make bitter foods taste good.
The process involves manipulating about 10,000 taste buds that regenerate every two weeks. Each taste bud has 50 to 100 cells informed by genes that tell the surface cells which proteins---or receptors---to make. As you eat, food molecules like salt, or sodium chloride, attach to a receptor that binds to that molecule. Then, nerve fibers connected to the taste cell shoot signals to the brain, where five universal flavors---salty, bitter, sweet, sour and a savory flavor called umami---register. "We can put so called screening tools in place to measure compounds on the specific receptors and we can use that as a strategy to find molecules that in some cases will turn them off," Salemme says.
His company is one of many immersed in what Salemme says is the classic needle in a haystack search for compounds that will block bitterness. Each day, Linguagen researchers test hundreds of compounds mixed with taste bud cell cultures. They're run through a machine that picks up calcium bursts---cells' communication signals---that register as peaks when a compound blocks bitter activation. "We measure the effects of these compounds, usually against a reference compound that we know is either sweet or bitter…to find new compounds that might have novel taste," Salemme says.
Measuring calcium bursts helped them spot bitter activation.
But finding the ultimate chemical blocker is complicated. 30 genes are involved in coding for bitterness. "Your perception of these tastes is a complex system," he says. "Like chicken soup you wouldn't think of as a complex system but …when you look at what really develops the flavor in a mixture like that it actually becomes quite complicated to try to understand how you're going to control that, to make something that tastes salty and really chickeny but for example wouldn't have any bitterness in it."
Salemme's end goal could curb more than bitter flavor. Offering food manufacturers a chemical alternative to table salt---associated with high blood pressure and heart disease---may staunch a huge public health threat. Nearly a quarter of all Americans had high blood pressure in 2004, Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show and the American Heart Association estimatest that treating cardio vascular diseases linked to hypertension costs upwards of 300 billion dollars a year. The organization recommends 2,400 milligrams, or one teaspoon, of daily sodium intake for adults as a protective measure against hypertension. Salemme says he's confident that his company's research will have an impact on public health: "If we could really make 20 percent of the people that have high blood pressure not have high blood pressure the actual public health impact of that could be unbelievable."