Japanese researchers have created a novel device that enables individuals who are monitoring their salt intake to enjoy umami dishes that are typically high in sodium, such as ramen and miso soup, using electrically-stimulating chopsticks.
What the team claims to be a “worlds-first” demonstrates the possibility of enhancing the taste of low-sodium foods using electrical stimulation in eating utensils and subsequently improving the taste of low-sodium foods.
Co-developed by Professor Homei Miyashita at Meiji University and beverage maker Kirin Holdings Co., the chopsticks work through the application of electrical stimulation and a wristband mini-computer worn by the diner.
The idea behind the innovation is that the chopsticks can be worn and used to enhance the sense of taste and improve people’s diets in countries where salt intake is above the global recommendation.
Electrical Taste Sensation
Sodium ions in the food are transmitted via the chopsticks to the tastebuds, where diners receive an increased sense of saltiness using what is called “electrical taste sensation,” according to Miyashita.
Electrical taste sensation works using an extremely low pass of electricity – not enough to shock – and subsequently augments the function of sodium ions such as sodium chloride (salty taste) and sodium glutamate (sweet taste) to modify the taste sensation of low-sodium foods.
As a result, the salty taste enhances 1.5 times.
Professor Homei Miyashita, Meiji University
Miyashita and his lab are renowned for exploring how technology can enhance, improve and augment human sensory experiences. They have previously developed a “lickable” TV screen that can simulate a range of different food flavors.
The electrified-chopstick device used in this research is not what you would call typical chopsticks. They have been hooked up to a cable connected to a power supply, making them more sizeable than conventional chopsticks, and, as such, more of a personal item rather than something provided at a restaurant or in a delivery bag.
However, these electrical taste-enhancing utensils could be welcomed by diners in Japan, as the conventional diet is generally high in salt as a result of the use of ingredients such as soy sauce and miso. On average Japanese adults consume around 10 grams of salt per day which is twice that of World health organization (WHO) guidelines.
Health Benefits of the Technology
With the national salt consumption higher than the global recommended figures, there is an incentive to offer diners a route towards lowering their salt intake while not compromising on taste, especially considering that consuming too much salt can cause long-term health effects such as heart disease and high blood pressure, which is related to a greater risk of stroke or cardiac arrest.
The target daily intake of salt, set by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, to prevent lifestyle-related diseases should be less than 8.0 g per day for men and less than 7.0 g per day for women. To reach these targets, it is essential to lower the current national average salt intake in Japan by at least 20%.
“To prevent these diseases, we need to reduce the amount of salt we take,” explained Kirin researcher Ai Sato.
If we try to avoid taking less salt in a conventional way, we would need to endure the pain of cutting our favorite food from our diet, or endure eating bland food.
Ai Sato, Kirin Holdings Company, Limited
The electrically stimulating chopsticks could be just what is needed to help maintain a low-sodium diet without having to experience the bland taste of some low-sodium foods.
During trials conducted by Miyashita’s laboratory and Kirin, participants who consumed reduced-salt miso soup were impressed by how the chopsticks enhanced the richness and general tastiness of the dish. The team aims to refine its technology further and make the chopsticks commercially available as soon as 2023.
The long-term goal of both Miyashita’s laboratory and Kirin Holdings is to use their technology to offer satisfaction in taste and the health benefits of maintaining a low-sodium diet.
With the potential to transfer the technology into other utensils and even bowls and cups, this technology could have a global reach. For those seeking to significantly reduce their salt intake, the main challenge could be the thought of eating dull, bland food.
However, thanks to this study, the novel electrically stimulating utensils could offer key health benefits without depriving the tastebuds of the desired salty taste.
References and Further Reading
Kirin Holdings Company, Limited. (2022) A World First! Research Confirms Perceived Taste Change Via Electric Stimulation, Leading to Development of ‘Taste-Adjusting Chopsticks’ | 2022 | Kirin Holdings. [online] Available at: https://www.kirinholdings.com/en/newsroom/release/2022/0411_01.html