Innovation: Chemical flavor enhancers
How often have we heard this? "Half the sugar, half the fat — with that same great taste!" Right. But for the first time, one company may not be feeding us a line. Senomyx Inc., a biotech outfit in La Jolla, California, is designing chemical compounds called "flavor enhancers," which it claims target taste receptors on the tongue, dramatically improving their efficiency. So less sugar (or salt) will taste just as good.
Senomyx is screening hundreds of thousands of compounds to find matches for each region of taste. Its savory compounds, pending government approval, would allow food makers to cut back on or eliminate unpopular additives such as MSG. They could find their way into commercial products within a year, with sweet and salt compounds to follow by 2007. Nestle SA, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Campbell Soup Co. have all signed on to fund Senomyx research.
The results could solve one of the food industry's greatest dilemmas: While ingredients such as salt and MSG may improve flavor, the amounts required to do the job can be unhealthy. In the past, food companies have tried to dupe taste buds with artificial substitutes — such as Splenda — which generally taste fake. Senomyx, by contrast, hopes to change how our tongues work. In the case of sugar, which is picked up by receptors on the tongue, flavor enhancers bind to the receptors and lower their threshold for stimulation, creating the same taste with less sugar. In the lab, Senomyx's prototype boosted flavor by 40%.
CEO Kent Snyder believes flavor enhancers could find a place in the pharmacy, masking the bitter tastes of many medicines. He could face competition from Linguagen Corp., which has patented a compound intended to suppress bitter flavors and has a deal with Kraft. But the market probably is large enough for both, according to Smith Barney analyst Elise Wang, who sizes potential revenues for flavor-enhanced foods at at least $36 billion a year. Very sweet.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.