Studying the Science of Sweetness

By Wesley Fenlon

Volatiles, chemical compounds that affect our perception of taste, could be used by chemists to turn bland foods into sweet ones--without unhealthy sugar additives.

Imagine biting into a head of steamed broccoli and loving it. It's not covered in cheese, or butter, or dressing. It's just plain old broccoli, but it's delicious, somehow sweet like a strawberry or pineapple, tasty enough to appeal to even the pickiest kids. Broccoli may not ever taste so sweet on its own, but with a little chemical modification, it could be. According to Smithsonian Mag, scientists are looking into chemically modifying foods to make them seem sweeter to our brains.

Photo Credit: Flickr user bomb_tea via creative commons.

And they're not talking about injecting sugar into our veggies. More sugar would be bad, as artificially sweetened foods are already a major cause of health problems and obesity, especially in the United States. They're talking about supplementing sugar with something else, fooling our sweet tooths into being satisfied while feeding us healthier foods in the process. The answer may lie in fruit volatiles, which excite our sense of smell:

By determining how sweetness is triggered, we could use chemical compounds to affect how we perceive other foods.

"The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes," writes Smithsonian Mag. "Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness."

By determining how volatiles trigger the sensation of sweetness, we could theoretically use those chemical compounds to affect how we perceive other foods. A bland bit of celery suddenly becomes sweet. Everyone knows that the senses of smell and taste are linked, but study into volatiles shows a deeper connection than most of us realized.

The article goes on to detail research into growing the perfectly sweet tomato, which began with studying the various volatiles in the fruit and finding which ones affected our perception of sweetness (volatiles also affect other taste sensations, like bitterness). Sure enough, researchers found that people preferred tomatoes that they perceived as sweet due to the heavy presence of volatiles, even though those tomatoes didn't have the highest concentration of sugar.

From there they bred their own tomato. If the research proves convincing, it may make its way to farms and grocery stores, someday.