Yummy Nigella - how we could soon sample TV chefs' food from our TVs
Watching celebrity chefs like Nigella Lawson or Gordon Ramsay whip up a culinary creation on television can set viewers' taste buds tingling.
But now television viewers could soon be able to sample the food for themselves with the help of new technology that can electronically recreate tastes.
Scientists have developed a simulator that uses electrodes to stimulate the taste buds on the tongue to reproduce salt, sweet, sour and bitter sensations.
The Digital State Interface also uses subtle changes in temperature to alter the taste experience.
The researchers hope that the system could eventually be used to allow television viewers to experience tastes while they are watching their favourite programmes.
Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe, an engineer at the National University of Singapore, said it could also be used in computer games or to allow people to share meals over the internet.
His team are also working on a digital lollipop that can produce all the sweet enjoyment of a real piece of confectionery but without the harm to teeth or risk of putting on weight.
He said: “Digital taste is a technology for digitally simulating the sensation of taste.
"It uses two methods - electrical stimulation and thermal stimulation to stimulate the tip of the human tongue non-invasively in order to produce primary taste sensations such as salty, sour, sweet, bitter.
"By manipulating the magnitude of current, frequency, and temperature - both heating and cooling - thus far salty, sour, and bitter sensations have been successfully generated.
"Simulating food is one of the future directions of this technology."
Previous attempts to create “taste TV” have largely been unsuccessful as research has concentrated on using chemicals released by a computer.
This means such technology requires a large reservoir of chemicals required to produce different tastes that can be mixed together and would need to be regularly replenished.
Using electrodes allows tastes to be sent digitally without the need for messy and expensive chemical interfaces.
Dr Ranasinghe said: “Using chemicals in an interactive system is unrealistic since a set of chemicals is difficult to store and manipulate.
“Furthermore, the chemical stimulation of taste is analogous in nature, making it impractical to use this approach for digital interactions.
“Therefore, it is evident that a new non-chemical approach is required to achieve digital control over the sensation of taste."
However, Dr Ranasinghe and his colleagues have yet to be able to replicate another crucial savoury taste, umami, while other research has found a sixth basic taste for fat.
Flavour also relies heavily on other important factors such as smell and texture.
Odour accounts for the bulk of the sensation when we eat food.
Scientists have also found that the colour of food and the way it sounds as we eat can also influence the way food tastes.
For example, research has shown that making a drink a deep red colour can make it appear 12pc sweeter than it really is.
Dr Ranasinghe said: "To simulate flavours we need to go beyond taste and incorporate smell, texture, colors and other modalities, because flavor is a cross sensory experience with multiple senses.
"At the moment we are expanding our technology to add the sense of smell into the experience, with the hope that by doing so we can expand the varieties of flavor sensations we can generate digitally."
Speaking to New Scientist Dr Ranasinghe, who presented his latest findings at the ACM Multimedia conference in Spain, said that even simulating basic taste could bring new benefits.
He believes it could find uses in health care by allowing people with diabetes to experience sweet tastes without changing their blood sugar levels or it could be used to wean children off sugary drinks.
He added: “In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations.
“For example, if you complete a game task successfully or complete a level, we can give a sweet, minty or sour reward.
“If you fail we can deliver a bitter message.”