Some researchers say the usual way to test taste buds isn't as accurate as it could be... So they've turned a common item into something they hope will help gain insight into the sense of taste.
Melissa Monosoff dips a big spoon into a stainless steel bowl, and as she lifts the spoon to her mouth, says, "Let me taste this one again."
Monosoff makes her living with her sense of taste. As the wine expert at Maia in Villanova, Monosoff is in charge of coordinating the restaurant's food with wine.
It's a matter of finding balance, "How a wine can partner with that dish and not only make the dish better, but make the wine better, too."
She worries that some day, her finely-trained palate will fail, and she'll lose that keen sense of taste. It can happen as people age, smoke, take certain medications or face certain illnesses.
But up until now it's been difficult to test sense of taste. That's why Temple University researcher Dr. Greg Smutzer developed these paper-thin testing squares. He got his inspiration from the popular breath-freshener strips.
It came during a visit a few years ago by a friend who is also a lab equipment repairman. The friend was showing Dr. Smutzer something brand-new - breath freshener strips.
"I put one in my mouth, and it dissolved. I said - wow, this would make a great test," remembers Dr. Smutzer.
With a laugh, he says, "It was sort of a eureka moment and it's my only one so far ..."
After several years of work, the strips are almost ready for commercial production. They could replace older methods of taste testing-- which are done with liquids, in what's called a 'sip & spit' method.
Dr. Smutzer says, "These types of solutions are bulky, and they are hard to transport out of the lab."
The new strips use the same compound as the breath strips - with a tiny bit of chemical added ... As testers place them on their tongue... they'll either taste.... sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory.
The mixture is poured into teflon-coated trays where it cools into a clear, thin film.
It's then cut into 1-inch squares- they're cheap, don't need refrigeration, and last up to 6 months. And Dr. Smutzer says the strips are 10 to 100-times more sensitive than the old test.
He has big plans for the tiny squares. He wants to detail a new map of the human tongue. He says it could help diagnose some medical disorders.
Dr. Smutzer says, "There's some indication that people who have schizophrenia may have an altered bitter taste."
They could also be used during drug trials to determine whether the medicines being tested interfere with taste.
The squares may even help us eat healthier. If we lose our sense of taste... We may not be eating the nutrients we need.
Or enjoy what's being served, including the wonderful meals Melissa Monosoff adds her talents to.