If you’re old enough to remember the New York World’s Fair, or even weekend cartoons from television’s innocent age, you’ve probably sensed that those sleek promised futures haven’t quite arrived.
Gridlock hasn’t given way to jet packs. Cars don’t run on water, and water doesn’t yet cascade across the desert. Man doesn’t boldly go many places: not interstellar space, and often not appreciably far off the sofa.
But quietly the future has arrived, and it doesn’t look or sound like anyone imagined. It does taste familiar, though — almost like the MSG-amplified flavors that linger in modern manufactured foods.
It’s arrived in the guise of a company with the dystopian name Senomyx, whose mission is not just to create new artificial flavors to crowd into processed food boxes, but also to freshen up the mandated nutrition panel. “We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” Senomyx’s CEO told The New York Times.
The Times noted that Senomyx’s “chemical compounds will not be listed separately on ingredient labels. Instead, they will be lumped into a broad category — ‘artificial flavors’ — already found on most packaged food labels.” The goal is to make these invented compounds as omnipresent as MSG itself, furtively hitting sweet and sour notes in everything from American cheese to Russian dressing.
Sometimes the truth is more incredible than any known science fiction. And that is why reading Senomyx’s own description of its product development process packs such a sensory jolt:
“Senomyx has discovered or in-licensed many of the key receptors that mediate taste in humans. We created proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems that provide a biochemical or electronic readout when a flavor ingredient interacts with the receptor. To enable faster discovery of new flavors, we integrated our assays into a robot-controlled automated system that uses plates containing an array of individual fluid wells, each of which can screen a different sample from our libraries of approximately 800,000 artificial and natural candidate ingredients isolated from plants and other sources.”
There is an additional benefit that transcends the use of plate-twirling robots. The Times explains: “Since Senomyx’s flavor compounds will be used in small proportions (less than one part per million), the company is able to bypass the lengthy FDA approval process required to get food additives on the market. Getting the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association status of generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, took Senomyx less than 18 months, including a 3-month safety study using rats. In contrast, the maker of the artificial sweetener sucralose spent 11 years winning FDA approval and is required to list the ingredient on food labels.”
Seven decades ago a behavioral scientist published a famous utopian novel. He believed his study of rats, of all things, gave him insight enough to predict the future. How ironic that the future is here, and the rats are dining on salad dressing.
More in our next post.