02/19/2013 11:32 am ET

Taste Science: Measuring Flavors Using Sound

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Taste is one of the trickiest of the senses to describe. Its meaning is often fuddled, or expanded to include things such as flavor. The former refers only to taste buds, whereas the latter is a more all-encompassing sensory experience. Writes, "with spicy food, the brain will even factor in pain as one aspect of flavor."

So trying to determine how something tastes is no small task. Determining how fat tastes poses a particular challenge for both flavor scientists and food companies such as Nestle or Yoplait, which specialize in making fat-free snacks taste rich and creamy. Until recently, the process used to determine the taste of fat was more archaic ritual than reliable science -- it involved human test subjects describing the bumpiness of the roofs of their mouths. Now, a new, more technical method has been created, and it allows scientists to hear the way things taste.

Edible Geography describes the technology, invented by scientist George A. Van Aken, thusly:

Van Aken took a tiny contact microphone, packed it in polyethylene to keep it dry, and secured it behind a test subject’s upper front incisor teeth in order to record the acoustic signal produced by the varying vibrations of their papillae as their tongue rubbed against their palate.

In short, Van Aken’s device means that we can now listen to what our tongues feel.

Pretty cool, right? The implications are even more interesting: Smithsonian writes that this technology could allow artificial foods, such as vegan cheese, to mimic not only the taste but the texture of real cheese.

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