It’s unfortunate that the fundamental ingredients that make food taste better—salt and sugar—can have less than desired effects on the human body if over-consumed. But just as VR goggles can trick the eyes into seeing 3D worlds that don’t exist, these chopsticks can trick the user’s tongue into tasting salty flavors, even in healthier dishes that are low in sodium.
Jointly developed by researchers from the Yoshinori Miyashita Laboratory of the Department of Advanced Media Science, Meiji University, and a Japanese food producer called Kirin (mostly known for its beer), the chopsticks were created as part of an effort by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to reduce the daily salt intake of the Japanese people which, on average, is actually considerably higher than the recommendations of the World Health Organization.
The goals are to reduce the amount of salt being consumed by at least 20%, but that also leads to a reduction in flavor: an endlessly problematic stumbling block for those trying to switch and stick to a healthier diet. That’s where the chopsticks come in. On the end of one of them is a metal contact that passes an electrical current with a specific waveform into a diner’s mouth that affects the ions in sodium chloride and monosodium glutamate so that the salty and umami flavors experienced by their taste buds are enhanced.
In a recent trial the added electrical stimulation was found to increase the salty flavor of a given food by almost 1.5 times. When eating something made with a 30% reduction in salt, the difference in flavor would be imperceptible to the user. Anyone who’s ever licked the contacts on a 9-volt battery on a dare will agree that deliberately shocking the tongue seems like a bad idea, but the level of electrical current used here is undetectable, and the idea has a lot of precedents.
In 2016 another team of Japanese researchers created an electric fork that enhances the flavors of both salty and sour, and a company called SpoonTEK sells an upgraded spoon with electrical contacts that not only promises to enhance flavors, but also reduce the unpleasant aftertaste and tang of foods like greek yogurt. Researchers have even gone so far as to create lickable screens able to recreate a wide variety of tastes without actually putting any food in your mouth.
The idea of enjoying a virtual meal without ingesting a single calorie is still a few years away, but the researchers at Meiji University have refined their chopsticks to create a more consumer-friendly version that connects to a wrist-worn battery pack, although it’s not quite ready for prime-time just yet, so for the time being maybe just skip the salt shaker or soy sauce.