Foods high in sugar and salt can be healthy, but they are too good to be bad. What if we could enjoy their taste and not eat them? A spoon with a structure that stimulates taste buds has been designed by a team of students. Previous work has involved chopsticks that amplify saltiness with a mild electric current.

The five undergraduate and graduate research students wanted to create a spoon that could be used by people with disorders such as diabetes. Many people with the condition don't eat sugar.

The new spoon has a lot of bumps on it's underside, making it easier to press against the tongue. It is possible to cover the bumps with a permanent layer of molecules. They bind with taste-cell surface receptors that react to sugar. The binding can cause the brain to feel sweet. The team explained during the biodesign sprint that a diner could mimic the taste of sugar without the use of sugar or artificial sweetener. Sugarware won second place in the student category.

Two different influences are cited by the student researchers. A graduate researcher at Cornell University says they got their design inspiration from a Korean designer. The senses can affect one another while eating, according to Jeon. She was using a spoon similar to a knobby spoon to experiment with how the eating experience can change.

Jeon's research focuses on how texture affects taste perception. A University of Oxford experiment found that people rated the taste of ginger cookies, coffee and wine differently than when they rubbed a smooth surface. It's not clear what the reason is, but he thinks it might be related to the pungency of ginger biscuits or the sharpness of black coffee. He suggests that if the texture feels different from what you are used to, then suddenly you sit up and take notice.

The Sugarware team looked at a study by Homei Miyashita of Meiji University and his colleagues that found ways to increase saliva production. A weak electrical current runs through the special chopsticks, which shift the sodium ion in a mouthful of food to the tongue to make it taste better. Diners perception of salt can be increased by up to one and half times, according to the researchers. A U.S. company called Taste Boosters uses microcurrents to design a utensil called SpoonTEK.

Similar to Sugarware, these ideas use utensils to enhance taste without a user having to consume any salt or sugar. The mechanism for stimulating the taste buds in Sugarware is completely different than in the past.

Sugarware wanted to reduce the need for artificial sweeteners. Eran Elinav is a researcher at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science who is not involved with the student. Chemicals can affect the body. Elinav's team found that the rodents' gut microbiome interacted with the artificial sweetener when they ate it. Elinav says that the interactions resulted in worsening of the animals' glycemic response. Elinav says artificial sweeteners are not good for you. Sugarware might be able to sidestep the issue of glycemic response because it stimulates a sweet reaction without requiring users to eat anything.

The idea is very innovative according to one of the judges, who is a global director of corporate innovation at Mars. The product's commercial success would require a behavioral shift among consumers: instead of adding the usual sugar or artificial sweeteners, "now we're saying, 'Use this utensil.'"

It's not yet known if flavor-enhancement utensils will catch on. Sugarware researchers are still working on a prototype for the electric chopsticks that the Japanese team does not plan to bring to market until later this year. There is a mentorship from the Mars staff.

You don't need specially designed forks or knives if you want to play with utensils. The weight, color and shape of utensils can affect our perception of food's taste. You can hold an independent taste test by grabbing a variety of utensils. Even if they are free of bumps, some spoons are sweeter than others.

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