There are five basic tastes that the human animal is capable of detecting: starting with the newest, there is umami, sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Frequently you will hear people say they are craving something sweet, of maybe something salty, sometimes you will hear someone express a hankering for something sour even, but rarely do you hear someone profess a need for something satisfyingly bitter. It just doesn’t happen. This may be of evolutionary design, as mammals evolved we developed an aversion to bitter tasting foods in the natural world, as these bitter flavors were indicators of naturally-occurring toxins contained in wild plants and fruits. Even though we have evolved into human animals with an empirical logic that things like endive are not going to kill us, most of us still have not developed an enduring enthusiasm for all things, or anything, bitter.
But the fact is many bitter foods hold a great deal of nutritional value (mustard greens, dark chocolate, cabbage, etc) and we would be doing ourselves a huge favor if we were able to cultivate an appreciation of bitter foods, or maybe find some miracle of science that made these bitter offerings not so repellant.
Well science is listening. As was announced at the national conference of the American Chemical Society, scientists at the Givaudan Flavors Corporation in Ohio have developed an enhanced “bitterness blocker” called GIV3616. Added to food, it targets certain taste buds and keeps them from recognizing bitter tastes. The result is that food companies now have a secret weapon in their flavor arsenal to transform off-tasting foods into something more palatable and appealing to the masses. As one of the scientists who developed GIV3616 frames it: “Blocking flavors we call off-notes could help consumers eat healthier and more varied diets. It could encourage them to switch to non-calorie soft drinks and help children and seniors swallow bitter-tasting medications.”
More than likely this will not at all impact the market for natural whole foods. Bitter melons will still taste like bitter melons. No, this GIV3616, if FDA approved, will likely be a well-used asset for the processed foods industry. Instead of masking off-flavors with sugar or sodium, those flavors will simply be blocked right where it counts – your tongue. Diet soda will taste sweet and relatively unadulterated. Cough medicine will lack that awful alkaloid taste, and just taste like the dozen chemical compounds it was meant to taste like. Now if they could only come up with a bitterness blocker to apply to our emotional lives. Oh wait, have they?