It started off as a bomb detector, now this innovation is redeveloping food

Could a biochip that has cloned human smell sensors change the future of reformulations?

17 January 2018
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image credit: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

The human nose is pretty extraordinary: it has around 402 smell receptors. And a Californian company, Aromyx, claims to have cloned most of those receptors to create a digital smell and taste tester, called EssenceChip. The company won’t reveal how it was done, only that there was an experienced team of scientists and some magic.

But the research originally started out as a defence project to discover a ‘dog nose in a box’ that could be used to detect explosives and poisonous gas, says Todd Cushman, the VP of sales at Aromyx.

“While there are chemical detectors available for commercial and military use, their range is limited. Humans have a natural broadband detector that is able to detect trillions of different compounds,” he says.

So, how does the biochip work? Well, firstly the chips are only used once to prevent contamination.

The information from a tested substance is taken from the biochip and digitised using software, which stores the taste and scent in a central cloud database. Companies can then capture, store, reproduce and manipulate this library of information.

The technology has been described as the Google Maps for taste and scent by the University of California’s professor of food science Dr. Bruce German. But how could it transform reformulation? 

Professional noses

Currently, food creation, reformulation and ingredient profiling can be hard work. It is largely a manual process across most products, says Cushman.

“Highly trained and skilled human ‘professional’ noses are important to this work and are essential to making products today. But their numbers are limited, and not all professional noses are the same,” he explains.

“Although humans have an excellent apparatus – the nose – for sensing taste and scent, perception of these senses can vary based on internal and external factors, including having a cold, fatigue, the environment and overlapping stimuli.”

The arsenal

So how can technology help? By eliminating bias, apparently. Profiles of consumer preferences have been captured with words and without scientific measurement, says Cushman. It also removes the need for consumer and expert panels, which are also costly and time intensive – an observation also made by FlavorWiki, another company competing in this space with an app and big data.

Cushman says Aromyx technology moves scent and taste away from the subjective to digital measurements that food scientists can use to create healthy foods and to make products that appeal to desired target groups.

“Aromyx’s Allegory software platform uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to suggest locally sourced and culturally relevant ingredient substitutes to meet taste or smell, nutrition and cost targets,” he says.

Cushman even sees it changing the face of reformulation. He says processed food companies often adjust food measurements with only three levers: sugar, salt and fat.

“These companies then repeat by reducing one or two levers while adding the others to compensate and meet consumer ‘bliss points,’” he says.

“With the Aromyx platform, instead of having only sugar, salt and fat to engineer the appeal of a new food or beverage product, industry customers now can access literally thousands of levers to use to get target consumers to their bliss point.”

But wait, there’s more

Automation is also part of the biochip’s allure and Cushman predicts it could accelerate uptake in food manufacturing.

The technology can not only help in identifying different ingredients, but it can also apply to quality assurance of ingredients, food products, product packaging and raw materials – currently an intensely manual human process, says Cushman.

“Individuals or panels of individuals are required to sample many products, and due to the high volume, many products or ingredients are not tested, or sampled irregularly, leading to product failures, product recalls and risk to consumers,” he says.

“Because the Aromyx technology facilitates measurable quality standards for taste and smell for the entire supply chain, all product ingredients, intermediate outputs and finished products can be inexpensively assured.”

Aromyx has also partnered with London-based Rewired to use the technology in robotics, focusing on advancing machine perception and allowing them to see, taste, touch, smell and hear.

Reformulation, robotics and automation – is that the smell of change in the air?

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