‘Taste-adjusting’ chopsticks use electricity to give sensation of enhanced salt

2 May 2022

Japanese food company Kirin Holdings and researchers have created chopsticks that use an electrical current to give the perception of added saltiness in food by approximately 1.5 times its actual salt content. They are now working to roll out the technology industry-wide.

In April 2022, Kirin Holdings confirmed it has been working with Meiji University to undertake research and develop an electrical stimulation waveform and chopstick device that alters the taste of low-sodium food by adding the flavour of salt.

‘Taste-adjusting’ chopsticks use electricity to give sensation of enhanced salt
Image courtesy of Kirin Holdings

The patent-pending tool has been designed in a chopstick-like device to enhance the taste of low-sodium foods. The duo’s research and development comes at a time when there is increasing awareness around the presence of salt in consumers’ diets, particularly in packaged food. Recently, a UK study by Action on Salt found around 70% of ‘meal deals’ contain dangerously high levels of salt.

Research studies progress “taste-adjusting” chopstick development

Describing its research findings as a “major step toward making low-sodium food tastier to aid in maintaining low-sodium diets”, the collaborators conducted joint research to better understand the potential of the technology, commonly referred to as “electric taste stimulation”.

The duo carried out clinical trials with consumers who follow a low-sodium diet. During the trials, researchers looked at differences in the evaluation of saltiness between a sample that imitates “ordinary food” and a sample with 30% less salt.

“Clinical trials have confirmed that the device enhances the salty taste of low-sodium foods by 1.5 times when used by people who follow a low-sodium diet,” says Ataka Takashima, a member of Kirin Holdings’ corporate communications team. “We found that the use of ‘electric taste stimulation’ technology has the potential to increase taste satisfaction with low-sodium diets,” Takashima adds.

Salt reduction technology: From concept to chopstick

Since 2019, the Kirin Group has been collaborating on research that examines changes in taste perception caused by electrical stimulation. Using “very weak” amounts of electricity, which Kirin Holdings says is “not enough to affect the human body”, the company can modify aspects of the science behind generating taste.

When working on the impact that electricity has on taste sensation, Kirin Holdings and the Meiji University’s Miyashita Laboratory have found they can change the function of ions such as sodium chloride, which creates the taste of salt, and sodium glutamate, which gives food and drink its sweet flavouring. By adjusting the functions of these ions, they can also influence consumers’ taste perception by making a particular taste, such as saltiness, appear more or less prevalent in food.

The technology, which uses weak electrical stimulation to change the way people perceive taste, “has been studied for a long time, but its effectiveness for application in a diet has not yet been fully verified”, says Takashima. Therefore, electric taste stimulation has not yet made its way into the food industry, Takashima adds.

Kirin Holdings and Meiji University are working together to develop the technology for wide-scale implementation. Their aim is for the technology to “provide consumers with both mental satisfaction from delicious taste and health satisfaction derived from the nutritional aspects of a low-sodium diet”, says Takashima.

Real-world potential for ‘electrical taste sensation’

Currently, the device is in the form of chopsticks, but the collaborators are considering other applications, including cutlery and tableware such as spoons, forks and bowls.

The device has been designed for use in everyday dining situations. Currently, Kirin Holdings is developing its electrically-stimulating chopstick prototype, Takashima says. A crucial part of the development process is to ensure that the device is easy to use during meals.

The idea is to provide “a tool to enhance taste satisfaction when eating low-sodium meals and make meals tastier, more enjoyable, and healthier”, says Takashima.

Kirin Holdings and Meiji University are currently conducting verification studies to deliver it to consumers “as soon as possible”, Takashima says. “We aim to launch the product somewhere between 2023 and 2024.”

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