November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
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November 22, 2013
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
November 14, 2013
From additives like trans fat to GMOs, food processing is often blamed for being the unsavory scourge behind the widespread nutritional deficiencies and overall decline of the modern-day diet. But what if you were able to process your own food? Or more specifically, 3D print it?
For Lynette Kucsma, it’s more than a half-baked idea. Kucsma, the co-founder of Barcelona-based Natural Machines is betting that, given the option, you’d load only the best ingredients into her new creation, the Foodini, a kind of meal-o-matic replicator. Though the former Microsoft employee will handily admit that the device is hardly anything close to the sci-fi synthesizing technology envisioned on popular shows like “Star Trek,” it has shown to be quite masterful at quickly and efficiently arranging various raw ingredients such as dough, sauces, purees and well-grounded meat fillings into a ready-for-the-oven meal. By experimenting with several recipes, the four-person development team found that the 3D food printer is particularly adept at preparing burgers, gnocchi, ravioli, cookies, chocolate sculptures and bread sticks—foods generally made from pasty ingredients. It won’t, however, do a meatloaf since the layered process generally only works well with materials comprised of a smooth, fluid texture. (The team’s burgers, for instance, are made from beans.)
“Its function is more like food assembly, so it’s important to not confuse what it does with actual cooking,” Kucsma says. ”It’s probably most ideal for deserts or dishes with a meat or cheese paste, like ravioli. But even then it can be useful with many different kinds of food.”
Kucsma got involved with the project after she was invited at an event to try out current Natural Machines’ chief executive Emilio Sepulveda’s cake and chocolate printer. She found it intriguing, but being a health-conscious foodie, thought a better use of the technology would be to develop it further, so that it would enable people to prepare healthier meals in a manner that’s convenient, rather than resorting to having to reach for the factory-processed packaged variety.
“I’d say people would love a eat a home-cooked meal made with nothing but the freshest ingredients, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “The dilemma is that many people feel its only worth the time and energy to whip up a big batch of something if they can continue eating the leftovers for days without getting tired of it. That’s enough so that it can deter most people from doing it.”
Take, for instance, well, ravioli. Even preparing a small serving involves rolling and cutting the dough before wrapping and sealing in the filling by hand. It’s either that or pick up a preservative-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket. So in a way, the Foodini can best be thought of as a happy medium where much of the redundant labor can be done by automation, making the process not only convenient for a simple one-and-done dinner but also a time-saver for cooking in bulk.
Kucsma emphasizes that the Foodini is unlike the type of food printing technologies often showcased to the public. Those machines, she points out, tend to be nothing more than basic garage-built contraptions merely re-purposed to work with the simplest culinary confections, such as chocolate. Whereas those raw devices often come with exposed electrical wires and moving parts, a huge contamination risk, Natural Machines’ concept is enclosed and designed to look and operate just like a common kitchen appliance. To be certified “food grade” and on par with the likes of toaster-ovens or blenders, the FDA requires that any piece of food preparation equipment comply with health and safety standards, a process, she says, the company is currently undergoing.
In redesigning a food printer from scratch, the founders wanted to ensure that their consumers identified their product more with Martha Stewart and less with MakerBot. So instead of relying on complicated operating systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), the team developed specialized software and a touchscreen interface that makes inputting recipe instructions and adjusting the settings as seamless and intuitive as using tablets or smartphones. Inside, the compartments for ingredients are comprised of five capsules, which the machine is programmed to pick out one at a time to print or, more accurately, excrete in the shape of predetermined patterns. Depending on whether it’s ravioli shells or the filling that it’s printing out at the time, each soft ingredient is squeezed out at different rates of pressure and temperatures; the machine has a built-in heater to ensure certain ingredients stay at the proper consistency. And going along with the kitchen-friendly theme, cleaning and maintenance is made simple as the ingredient capsules can be tossed into the dishwasher.
The Foodini also includes Wi-Fi so that owners can receive software updates and take part in what the company envisions as an online community of enthusiasts who interact and share recipes. (I’m imagining a popular recipe series called “Five-Ingredient Meals.”) Users can sign on to view video demonstrations and recommended recipes and to access tech support. “When we re-conceptualized the 3D printer as a kitchen-friendly technology, it was important to us that it didn’t end up becoming one of those super-specialized appliances that you use once or twice a year and the rest of the time it sits in the cabinet collecting dust,” Kucsma says. ”We wanted it to be useful enough to help prepare many types of food and for people to continuing playing with that idea.”
In the meantime, the company has already begun taking pre-orders, which start at $1,366, though the staff is still in the process of testing the models and tweaking the software in preparation for a launch they’re hoping will happen by the middle of next year.
It wasn’t much of a surprise last week when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it’s about to drop the hammer on trans fat—the by-product of the process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which brings taste and texture to a bunch of food that’s not so good for us.
Yes, in the future, doughnuts may be a bit oilier, microwave popcorn could go back to popping in butter and manufacturers of frozen pizzas will need to find another additive to keep them reasonably edible. But the FDA has had its eye on trans fat since the 1990s, when the agency first proposed that nutrition labels disclose how much of the artificial fat is inside. That didn’t happen until 2006, which was the same year New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared war on trans fat. Two years later, a ban on trans fat in the city’s restaurants kicked in.
The reason, of course, is that it’s a notorious artery-clogger, one with a double negative of decreasing good cholesterol and raising bad cholesterol.
But, as we say a not so fond farewell to trans fat, researchers keep finding out new things about fat, whether in our food or in our bodies. Here are 10 things they’ve learned so far this year:
1) Let’s start with the good news: Chocolate may actually help reduce a person’s abdominal fat. According to a European study published in the journal Nutrition, teenagers who eat a lot of chocolate tend to have smaller waists. Even though chocolate contains sugar and fat, it also is high in flavonoids–particularly dark chocolate–and they’ve been found to be good for your health.
2) But wait, there’s more: A team of scientists in Japan determined that both cold weather and chili peppers can help burn fat. Specifically, exposure to cold temperatures and consumption of the chemicals found in the hot peppers appear to increase the activity of “brown fat” cells, which burn energy, instead of storing it as “white” fat cells do.
3) On the other hand: Low-fat yogurt may be more fattening than we’ve been led to believe, at least according to researchers behind a project called the Nutrition Science Initiative. They contend that easily digested carbohydrates—such as the sugars that are added to low-fat yogurt to replace the fat that has been removed—drive weight gain by promoting insulin resistance. This signals the body to convert more sugar into fat and to hold on to more of the fat in the food.
4) Ah, the vicious circle: Based on research with mice, scientists say that one reason people can have such a hard time switching to a healthier diet is that high-fat diets can interfere in the communication between the gut and the brain’s reward center. And that can make people think they need to eat more to feel satisfied.
5) So belly fat drains the brain?: Middle-aged people with a lot of belly fat are more than three times as likely to have memory problems and suffer from dementia when they’re older, according to researchers at the Rush Medical Center in Chicago. It turns out that both the liver and the hippocampus–the brain’s memory center–need the same protein, and the more the liver uses to burn abdominal fat, the less that’s available to the brain.
6) And saturated fats lower sperm counts?: Scientists in Denmark found that young men who ate a lot of food high in saturated fat, such as rich cheeses and red meat, had a significantly lower sperm count than men who ate low levels of fat. The researchers said that might help explain why sperm counts are dropping around the world.
7) Then again, maybe saturated fats aren’t so evil: A British cardiologist says his research suggests that saturated fats aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, and that the crusade against them has driven people to low-fat foods and drinks full of sugar. In a recent issue of the British Medical Journal, Aseem Malhotra wrote: “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity.”
8) Fat and taxes: Another British study contends that a 20 percent tax on sodas could reduce obesity in the U.K. by 180,000 people. About one in four Britons is obese, just slightly lower than the U.S. The researchers believe the tax could reduce soda sales by as much as 15 percent and would have the greatest impact on people under 30, who are more likely to guzzle sugary drinks.
9) Taking one for the team: Here’s something you’ve probably always suspected: When a sports fan’s team loses, he or she tends to scarf down a lot of high-fat food. That’s the conclusion of a study published recently in the journal Psychological Science, which found that football fans’ saturated-fat consumption increased by as much as 28 percent following defeats and decreased by 16 percent following victories. As Pierre Chandon, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times, “No one ate broccoli after a defeat.”
10) Yes, bacon rules: A comprehensive analysis by Wired.com of all of the recipes and comments on the Food Network’s website determined that meals that include bacon tend to be more popular than those with any other food. Based on its data-crunching, Wired.com found that the only foods that people felt didn’t go better with bacon were pasta and desserts.
Video bonus: Here’s a rundown of some foods that owe a lot of their popularity to trans fat.
Video bonus bonus: And how could the subject of trans fat be broached without paying homage to the greatest doughnut lover of all.
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November 8, 2013
You never hear much talk of a war on Alzheimer’s disease because, frankly, we haven’t been putting up much of a fight.
It’s been more than 100 years since German physician Alois Alzheimer first described what he called “a peculiar disease,” and while scientists are pretty certain about what causes it—a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain—they still don’t have an answer for how to prevent or cure the unrelentingly grim condition.
Last year, the pharmaceutical company Baxter International said it was discontinuing the testing of a drug called Gammagard after it proved ineffective in slowing the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients. That followed the failure in clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s treatment developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and another by Eli Lilly and Company.
This is the kind of news Baby Boomers on the cusp of old age hate to hear. Already, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to jump another 40 percent by 2025 and triple by 2050.
But there may be a glimmer of light. A team of Swiss and Polish researchers say they might have come up with a way to attack the clumps of amyloid proteins that disengage the brain. Their technique involves using multi-photon lasers that are able to distinguish the destructive proteins in the brain from the healthy ones.
The researchers found that while healthy proteins are optically invisible—meaning the laser light passes right through them—the amyloids absorb some of the light.
Eventually, they believe, doctors will be able to use lasers to not only detect the bad protein cells, but to actually remove them and cure the patient. “Nobody has talked about using only light to treat these diseases until now,” said Piotr Hanczyc at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “We have found a totally new way of discovering these structures using just laser light.”
Currently, doctors use chemicals or surgery to remove amyloid proteins—but that can damage healthy tissue. The laser treatment, which Hanczyc feels could also help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, could greatly limit that risk.
It sounds promising, but Alzheimer’s is one tenacious foe.
When genes break bad
Still, there’s a bit more positive news on the Alzheimer’s front. Based on the largest ever genetic analysis of the disease, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have identified 11 more genes linked to Alzheimer’s, doubling the number now known to be connected to the disorder. As recently as 2009, only one Alzheimer’s gene had been identified. That study, published in the journal Nature Genetics late last month, was based on a DNA scan of more than 74,000 elderly people in 15 countries.
The more genes associated with a disease, the more potential targets for a drug to attack. As Gerard Schellenberg, a professor of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s researchers, recently told the Washington Post, “Not all are good drug targets, but the longer the list of genes that you know are implicated in a disease, the more likely you are to find one that might be a good candidate for a drug.”
This too sounds promising. But Schellenberg also pointed out that it could take another 10 to 15 years to develop an effective Alzheimer’s drug therapy from what they’ve learned.
With luck, it will be worth the wait.
Here are more recent developments in laser research:
- Imagine a deer in these headlights: Engineers at BMW have developed headlights that are able to convert intense blue laser beams into tightly concentrated—but non-laser—cones of white light. The car company says those lights will make it easier for drivers to pick out objects in the dark and should reduce eye fatigue.
- That’s right, drones with lasers: DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, is funding research to find a way to arm drones with lasers. The immediate goal is to give drones a way to protect themselves against surface-to-air missiles, but some experts believe this is the first step toward using drones as an anti-missile system.
- Get real: UK scientists have developed a technique using laser printing to help detect fake merchandise. Each printed laser can be designed to give out its own unique optical signature. Because lasers can be printed on all sorts of surfaces—such as plastic, paper, metal and glass—the technique could be used to authenticate many kinds of products.
- Taking the long view: University of Michigan engineers have invented a laser that can identify the chemical composition of an object from as far as a mile away. This could help military aircraft locate different types of targets, but also could be adapted for more benign uses, such as allowing full-body screening systems at airports to better identify hidden objects.
- Well, it’s about time: Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford were able to user lasers to surgically make holes thinner than a human hair in the heads of live fruit flies, allowing researchers to see how the flies’ brains work. The researchers also successfully tested this technique on worms, ants and mice.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of a U.S. Navy ship using lasers to shoot a drone out of the sky.
Video bonus bonus: Before they fade from pop culture history, here’s one last look at the laser cats that had their fleeting moment of fame on “Saturday Night Live.”
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