A salty situation: Japan invents electric shock chopsticks that trick your tongue into tasting salt

By Harriet Piercy

Published Apr 19, 2022 at 03:26 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Researchers at Meiji University and Kirin Holdings have developed a pair of chopsticks that enhance the salty flavours of food through an electric current that shocks your tongue, tricking it to taste more flavour than there actually is. Apparently, you can’t feel any of the little zaps, but, even so, I’m not lining up to try it any time soon, would you? Don’t answer just yet. First, here’s everything you need to know.

To start, the term ‘umami’ has been variously translated from Japanese as ‘yummy, deliciousness’ with a pleasant savoury taste. It was first coined in 1908 by a chemist at the University of Tokyo called Kikunae Ikeda. According to The Guardian, “he had noticed this particular taste in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but it was strongest in dashi—that rich stock made from kombu (kelp) which is widely used as a flavour base in Japanese cooking. So he honed in on kombu, eventually pinpointing glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.”

Why I’m mentioning all of this is because this particular taste is very high in sodium due to the ingredient required to make it, aka salt, which isn’t exactly the most healthy thing to eat too much of.

Asian foods are famous for their umami flavours—hence why the object in question here is the humble chopstick—whereby some health concerns are raised due to the high salt ingredients we all know and love in the vast cuisine like soy sauces, fish sauces and, of course, miso pastes. The average Japanese adult consumes about 10.6 grams of salt per day, which is double the recommended amount by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Excess sodium intake is related to increased incidence of high blood pressure, strokes and other ailments. To prevent such diseases, doctors often recommend reducing your salt consumption. Which sounds simple enough—but for those who have been accustomed to heavily salted foods (let’s be honest here, that includes most of us), a more bland version of the same food doesn’t seem like the most appetising alternative either.

According to the research results, the chopsticks have the ability to enhance the saltiness perceived by a taster on a low-sodium diet by up to one and a half times. In other words, you (the electric chopstick user) wouldn’t be able to notice a difference in taste even if there was a 30 per cent decrease in the food’s actual salt levels.

How the electric chopsticks work to enhance the flavour of salt

The device uses electric stimulation paired with a mini-computer worn on a wristband to change the function of the ions (an atom or molecule with a net electrical charge) in salt and MSG, making them seem stronger (or weaker) to whoever is doing the eating. The device transmits these sodium ions from food through the chopsticks and to the mouth.

Two main components are used to create this illusion: the electrical stimulation waveform combined with the effects of both cathodal stimulation (which is what increases the saltiness at the time the electrical currents stop), and the anodal stimulation (which is what enhances the saltiness while electrical currents are ‘on’).

Most of the tests so far have been conducted using only gel samples with different degrees of saltiness, but the researchers also trialled it with a reduced-sodium miso soup, to which some of the participants reported more “richness, sweetness and overall tastiness” when using the magic chopsticks as part of the meal.

Homei Miyashita, lead researcher at Meiji University, is also exploring how such technology can be used to interact with and help stimulate human sensory experiences in relation to other objects, such as his team’s flavour producing ‘lickable TV screen’. No more food envy next time you watch The Chef’s Table, I guess. According to Sky News, this device called Taste the TV (TTTV) works by combining sprays from a carousel of 10 flavour canisters which can replicate the taste of particular foods. The food flavoured spray is then rolled out on hygienic film over a flat TV screen for the viewer to taste.

As Reuters reported, potential uses for such devices include distance learning opportunities for sommeliers and cooks, even providing tasting games and quizzes. But to take it further, the technology could possibly be used for toppings, like applying a pizza or chocolate flavour to your morning toast. Miyashita explained to the publication that “in the COVID-19 era, this kind of technology can enhance the way people connect and interact with the outside world. The goal is to make it possible for people to have the experience of something like eating at a restaurant on the other side of the world, even while staying at home.”

When will the salt enhancing chopsticks be available?

Miyashita and Kirin are currently working on the prototypes of their chopsticks and, according to The Straits Times, hope to release them to the general public sometime in 2023. They expect that the device will help reduce the amount of salt Japanese citizens use by at least 20 per cent, in turn opening up the possibility of developing the technology for other utensils such as spoons or bowls. Who knows what the future of culinary science holds?

We’re going to have to see it to believe it though, as a professor at the National University of Singapore, Nimesha Ranasinghe, had a similar idea back in 2018 with his utensils only managing to recreate saltiness, sourness and bitter tastes—sweetness was just too difficult to produce. The magical ‘umami’ concept was also too abstract for the respective testers to identify. Either way, food-tech is officially a ‘thing’.

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