Sunday, February 12, 2012

Food Science

Well, it's been awhile, etc etc, abandoned blog. Now for something interesting.

Right before moving back to the SF Bay Area last year, I got a call from a local food processing company. I had been jobhunting for the better part of a year and at that point would have taken anything. They asked if I could start in a few days. A friend of my mother's (of course, she's apparently big in the California food industry) was willing to hire me, without interview, and I found myself doing research and development. Though not quite what I was looking for, I was interested in R&D.

Fast forward to here and now - most of it has become assisting in developing formulas for new food products. As one would guess, much of this work involves finely tuning flavor. My boss is incredibly experienced in this, and his tastebuds seem to be finely-tuned machines, tasting the slightest hints of spices, off-flavors, and spoilage that often I won't even pick up, not even with the placebo of his suggestion.

This got me to thinking about the tastebuds in general. I understood their evolutionary purpose, and got the gist of their function, but never really thought about how they worked. I also remembered hearing, as a child, that the sense of taste and smell were similar. Having a degree in bioengineering under my belt (however useless it has been to me thus far - well - the economy is looking up apparently), I fathomed how they worked and marveled at how I had never thought of this before. Both senses must simply be molecular sensors. This is all speculation, but really, it must be something as simple as a protein or protein-complex with receptor sites tuned for different molecules, reporting to a nerve. One sense's molecular sensors are tuned to work optimally with gaseous molecules, or molecules suspended in gas, while the other's are tuned to work optimally with aqueous suspensions of molecules - I've read somewhere that you cannot taste anything with a dry mouth.

My thoughts then careened violently into possibilities of cyborg-like electrical noses, or tongues. The closest thing I've heard of are specific gas sensors, which rely on a specific gas reacting with something coated onto a wire, causing a change in heat, leading to a detectable change in resistance. This is how breathalyzers work. But there must be hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of types of molecular sensors in our noses and mouths in order to provide the vast array of detectable smells and tastes to us. Or are there only a relative few, but with varying proportions of each type of molecule, or perhaps varying fits/reactions to the sensor proteins causing variations in nerve response. I wonder why I never learned any of this in my advanced biochem or biotechnology courses.

I just remembered my boss gave me an article on sweetness-receptors and the comparison of the molecular structures of the different artificial sweeteners that I never read.

Maybe I'll stick to food science after all.

Thinking about the whole smell/taste sense being linked tale, armed with this knowledge now, I wonder if the whole "pinching your nose" trick is a baseless myth. It was supposed to numb your tastebuds, but I remember vividly tasting full-strength bitter gourd while trying it as a child.

Oh, and here's a pic of some "broken" monitors I found in the e-waste at work, they just needed some new capacitors/power adapters. For some reason they love destroying the stands though.