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Published: 21 Dec 2022

This article was written by Lachlan Bennett and Dan Smith from ABC News. Access the original article and video here.

Would you taste rotting meat to measure its degradation of taste? Chances are, you'd rather not — so scientists have created an electronic tongue that can do it instead.

The e-tongue has been developed by scientists to create objective taste profiles based on data and mimics tastebuds using sensory membranes to create a flavour fact sheet not influenced by genetics or personal preference.

It picks up tastes like sweetness, bitterness, umami, saltiness, and richness based on the compounds associated with those sensory characteristics.

Research Fellow in food science at the University of Tasmania's Institute of Agriculture Samantha Sawyer said it could measure changing flavours, help farmers develop new crops, identify possible substitute ingredients in products, and even help people choose what they want to eat or drink.

"For example, it's being used in Japan at the moment for marketing red wines," Dr Sawyer said.

"So they're showing people ... the objective sensory profile of red wines so they can then make a decision based on those profiles to be able to pick the next wine they'd like to try."

The machine creates a flavour fact sheet showing the sample's different characteristics.

Using the e-tongue allows scientists to avoid using a trained human sensory panel, which can be time-consuming and difficult to get objective results, or a consumer sensory panel, which involves a much bigger number of people.

"Those differences between people, their genetic differences and it's also about the microbiome in their mouth, how they process it and their overall perception, does vary from person to person," Dr Sawyer said.

"So having an electronic tongue means that we can do that [tasting] objectively.

"We can essentially replace that trained panel so that we get measures that are accurate, consistent and objective, so then you don't have some of the subjectivity that comes from human subjects and a human panel."

Dr Sawyer said the e-tongue could taste things humans couldn't — or wouldn't.

Unlike a human panel, the machine also will not complain if scientists want to study how taste changes as meats go off.

"One of the great opportunities in having this electronic tongue from a research perspective ... is to be able to test products we wouldn't otherwise be able to give to a human sensory panel," said Dr Sawyer.

"For example, we've been looking into the spoilage of meat, and we can monitor the changes, both the aroma and taste changes over time.

"And that is something we could not be able to do with a sensory panel... and to be honest, a panel probably does not want to.

"Especially once it starts looking a bit blue, or green, or slimy... you start losing people very quickly."

Key points:

  • The electronic tongue uses sensory membranes to pick up tastes based on the compounds associated with those characteristics
  • It can measure changing flavours, help farmers develop new crops, identify possible substitute ingredients in products, and help people choose what they want to eat or drink
  • It means scientists can avoid using human panels, which can be time-consuming and subjective.