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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Virtual taster could help elderly diets
Woman eating a burger
The taster mimics the flavours of foods
Elderly people could be able to eat a wider range of foods thanks to a "tasting device" designed by scientists.

It could lead to them having a much more varied diet, with easy-to-chew meat or biscuits specially designed for them.

A Japanese team has developed the virtual reality tasters to mimic the experience of eating.

They say it could help researchers understand what it is like for elderly people to eat certain foods, so they can alter the textures.

This could help people have a more varied diet
Professor Tim Jacob, Smell Research Laboratory, Cardiff University
This might mean softening the textures so foods are easier to eat.

UK taste experts said the research opened up new possibilities in designing ready-meals.

Taste sensations

The Japanese team behind the taste simulator is based at the University of Tsukuba.

Siggraph exhibition
The taster has been on show at the Siggraph exhibiton in the US
Before they simulate a food, the scientists measure and record various sensations associated with eating it, such as the force needed to bite through it using a thin film sensor which is placed in the mouth.

Biological sensors made of lipid and polymer membranes record the main chemical constituents of the food's taste.

A microphone records the audible vibrations of the jawbone while chewing.

The data is then put into the food simulator.

The simulator, which has cloth and metal covers, is then put into the subject's mouth. It is designed to resist the user's bite as the real foodstuff would.

A thin tube squirts a mixture of chemicals which stimulate the five basic taste sensations; sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami - the taste of monosodium glutamate.

Dr Hiroo Iwata said his team had been able to emulate the taste of cheese, crackers, confectionary and Japanese snacks.

But the team has yet to design a vaporiser which can deliver appropriate smells to the nose.

The team say the device is perfect for people designing new foods.

Professor Tim Jacob, of the Smell Research Laboratory at Cardiff University, told BBC News Online: "There's a decline in taste and smell sensitivity with age.

"The Japanese want to improve people's quality of life.

"If you could make a whole range of foods which had the consistency, say, mashed potato but which had the taste of steak or chewy biscuits, this could help people have a more varied diet."

The research is reported in New Scientist.

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