Massive savings for food manufacturers and new formulations for health foods could be just around the corner as ground-breaking research into how to trick the taste buds receives a cash injection from three leading ingredients companies.
Privately-held US biotechnology company Linguagen made the headlines in recent months because it received a patent for the first molecular compound that will block bitter tastes in foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals. The ramifications of this new taste technology are immense, opening the way to a raft of new food products - bitter coffee as smooth as a milky double latte, grapefruit juice that tastes sweet but without added sugar, crisps with half the amount of salt.
The 'bitter blocker' compound, named adenosine 5'-monophosphate, or AMP, occurs naturally (in human breast milk, among other places) and, when added to certain foods, including coffee and canned or bottled citrus fruits, the company says, it blocks some of the acidic tastes from being absorbed by the tongue.
"The idea of a bitter suppressor is the holy grail," Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and a taste research expert told the Herald Tribune recently. "Everybody wants to find them."
The rapid move by the venture capital arms of three leading ingredients companies - Danisco, Cargill and Dupont - to invest so quickly in Linguagen is a clear sign of the potential value of the patent.
The US biotech company said this week that it plans to use the new funds to step up research and move into its next phase of growth. "We plan to use this funding to aggressively develop our research and to meet the needs of our expanding customer base," said Shawn M. Marcell, Linguagen's COO and acting CEO.
As well as Cargill, Danisco and DuPont, other participants in the $10.2 million surge of equity were NJTC Venture Fund SBIC, Aperture Venture Partners and RK Ventures Group.
"We are pleased at the high level of confidence our investors have shown in Linguagen's research and strategic plan for applying our technology in the emerging field of taste signalling," added Marcell.
Food manufacturers are increasingly concerned about health and nutrition issues, not least because obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases are being lain on the doorstep of the food industry.
So where do Linguagen's compounds fit in? Traditionally bitterness is masked by adding large quantities of sugar, salt, flavourings, or coating agents. Linguagen has developed technology to identify compounds that selectively eliminate the perception of bitterness so that products would require less sugar, salt, or flavourings, resulting in products that taste better and are healthier.
Scientists at Linguagen have discovered about 20 compounds that block bitter tastes and have received patents to use four of the compounds as bitter blockers. Its first product, AMP, has recently gained GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status in the US for use in coffee and tea beverages, artificial sweeteners, chewing gum, salty snack foods, salt substitutes and soup products. The company is also currently working on discovering natural sweetener and salt substitutes.