Saturday, April 09, 2005

Senomyx: taking “artificial flavor” to a whole new level of fake

There is no denying that we enjoy the taste of food. We are biologically programmed to seek out food that is flavorful and fresh-tasting, and yes, sweet or salty or richly calorie-dense. Indeed, this is probably the main source of our modern collective battle with obesity, because only in modern history have most people (in this country at least) had the luxury of eating pretty much to their heart’s, or more accurately tongue’s, content.

From the Business Section of the New York Times (1) comes a report that the biotechnology company Senomyx has reverse-engineered the tongue’s flavor receptors so that “food” manufacturers can now use minute amounts of synthesized compounds to fool a tongue into thinking that what it is eating is saltier, sweeter, more “savory” or even, less bitter. This comes on the heels of the explosive introduction of Splenda, the organochlorine reduced-calorie sweetener compound deceptively marketed as sugar-like.*

Isn’t it time that we stop and think about what flavor is supposed to represent in the food that we eat? Biologically, flavor exists for the sole purpose of encouraging us to seek out and consume those things most useful to our continued existence as live organisms, and to avoid other things that threaten our lives and health. Bitterness, while not exclusive to harmful materials, is typical of toxic substances such as alkaloids that are best avoided.

It is clearly the “food” industry’s intention to sell products that cost as little as possible to make, and it is far cheaper to over-salt and over-sweeten processed “food” products than to make them flavorful with actual food ingredients. Campbell Soup Company sees Senomyx as a way to make their soups “healthier” by reducing the sodium content (which is currently through the roof), but a better option would be to make soups that taste good without the addition of all that salt (or fat, or sugar). It is possible, but requires costly food as the starting ingredient, apparently not a strategy of any interest to them, nor to the other partners in the Senomyx enterprise, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and Nestlé.

Most interesting, and a clear indication of their pride in product, is the fact that “food” manufacturers do not even intend to include the addition of Senomyx flavor-drugs in their lists of ingredients:

“Instead, they will be lumped into a broad category - ‘artificial flavors’ - already found on most packaged food labels. ‘We’re helping companies clean up their labels,’ said Senomyx's chief executive, Kent Snyder.” (1)

Yes, I suppose that’s what’s most important to the consumers of such products: that their labels be “clean.” Bon appétit!

* If Splenda is to be considered sugar-like, then my Sudafed tablets must also be methamphetamine-like, because their reasoning is that Splenda is “made from sugar so it tastes like sugar,” implying a basic similarity. Proponents of Splenda also liken the addition of covalently-bonded chlorine atoms to the starting sugar molecule as being similar to the ionically-bonded chloride ions of table salt. This is a bald-faced lie, and any chemist or biologist making such a statement ought to find a new line of work, because they know it’s a lie, or they are professionally incompetent.

(1) “Food Companies Test Flavorings That Can Mimic Sugar, Salt or MSG,” by Melanie Warner, New York Times, April 6, 2005”


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