Master Masticator


French food scientists have built the world’s best mechanical mouth, the first machine to accurately reproduce the complicated grinding, swishing, and salivating that takes place with every bite.

It looks nothing like chattering teeth from a novelty store. In fact, this “munch-o-matic” resembles a cross between a piston, a plunger, and an iron maiden.

The researchers at ENITIAA, an engineering school in Nantes, were studying food aromas. They were frustrated to be able to use only soft foods—the likes of soups and purées—since solid foods hide their aromas until chewed.

The munch-o-matic overcomes that limitation. Teethlike nubs jab and grind, and a rotating platform mimics the rolling of the tongue. After washing the food with “artificial saliva” (water and salts), scientists pump in helium to whisk away odors for analysis.

To calibrate the appliance, the researchers, led by Gaëlle Arvisenet, had volunteers chew up 100 Golden Delicious apples and spit them out. They then varied the rotation speed, grinding force, and salivary flow in the munch-o-matic until the synthetic mush matched the human mush in texture, aroma, and color. The team will soon move on to quintessential Gallic foods such as hard cheese and bread.

The research is part of an international effort to devise a computer chip that can evaluate tastes. Last summer, for instance, a Spanish team released an “electric tongue” to judge wine. In addition to helping us understand taste, such devices provide a safe, cheap way to test new drugs and food additives.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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