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Hold the Sugar: An Interview with Food Scientist Beverly Tepper on Genetics, Taste, and Bitter-Blockers

The director of Rutgers University's Sensory Evaluation Lab on bitter blockers, nanotechnology, and where food science has gone wrong in the past.

"Food design" can mean very different things, depending on whom you ask. Over the past couple of weeks, we've heard from a design critic, a corporate giant, a Jell-O entrpreneur, and a pair of design provocateurs about the possibilities and pitfalls of redesigning our food—and between them the conversation has ranged from the impossibility of inventing new pasta shapes to the need to rethink agricultural subsidies, and from DIY digestive system hacks to flavor-changing chewing gum.

The food scientist Beverly Tepper is director of the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory at Rutgers University. Her research combines nutritional science and psychology with the genetics of taste perception in order to better understand the links between flavor, diet, and health. We talked about some of the innovations she thinks will reshape our food in the coming years, where food scientists have gone wrong in the past, and what she thinks of molecular gastronomy.

GOOD: What kinds of things do you work on?

Beverly Tepper: At the moment, I'm working with a food ingredient company and we’re looking at some new types of flavors, but I can’t talk about them until we publish our research.

One of my past projects, which I can talk about, was looking into a compound that was intended to be a bitter-blocker. The notion behind the research is that if we could understand how bitter taste is perceived by receptors on the tongue, maybe we could put something in bitter food that interfered with that perception. That way we could decrease the perceived bitterness and reduce added sugar without actually making any changes to the actual compound that’s responsible for the taste. We tested several different kinds of compounds and molecules that taste bitter, and we were able to show a nice effect in caffeine.

In terms of possible real-world applications, there's a certain chain whose coffee is known to be quite bitter. I’m not going to name any names, and many people like their coffee, but a lot of others complain that it’s too bitter. If the chain added this compound to their coffee, some people would still add sugar, but maybe they wouldn’t have to add as much as they did previously because they wouldn't perceive the bitter taste.

Now, I don’t know if this specific compound will make it to market—probably not. But a couple of different companies are testing different kinds of bitter blockers on bitter compounds, so I don't think it will be too long before we get mass-market products that have these compounds in them.

G: From your perspective, what's the social value of this kind food industry investment in R&D?

BT: Technology has its ups and downs. I think that we as a society find our way through to the stuff that’s good and keep it, and we eventually get rid of the stuff that's not.

I think a lot of people have the idea that food technology is inherently sinister. They hear the term and immediately think of things like GMOs or "Frankenfoods." There are a lot of different points of view on genetic modification, but it's undoubtedly true that a lot of people have a negative attitude toward it and that spills over into their feelings about food science and the idea of redesigning food in general.

But from within the field, I get to see a whole range of different approaches in food technology, and so it becomes a lot more nuanced. One area that I think holds a lot of promise is nanotechnology. We're developing technologies that can be used in food that are so small that you can’t specifically see them or taste them but yet they provide some kind of benefit. Often these are in the sensory area, but there are also benefits in food safety, freshness, and so on. A lot of this is still at the research stage, but it is coming down the line.

To give you a specific example, the food industry often uses a technique called encapsulation to protect a flavor that they've placed in a food product. That means you coat it in some kind of material that allows the flavor compound to stay fresh and separate within the food product until you release it by eating it. The next generation of encapsulation uses nanotechnology, which will open up an entirely different dimension in the kinds of technologies that can be placed in foods and food packaging. For example, there are things that you can place on the inside of a food package that act as a sensor to tell you if the food is spoiled or release molecules into the package that fight bacteria.

G: Clearly, there are many reasons why people might feel as though these new technologies are suspicious or unwelcome. My own field—the media—needs to take some responsibility, I think, for the shortage of public, reason-based scientific discussion on the topic. But another thing that might contribute to that mistrust is the fact that so much food design research is conducted in-house at corporations or is funded by corporations. Do you think the fact that a lot of food R&D is not publicly funded and is not in the public domain leads to a lack of transparency?

BT: I do understand that comment. Certainly, what happens in food companies is proprietary. They are businesses, after all. But there is a lot of food research that is happening in the public realm through funding from national agencies. The USDA is a major funder of applied food research—in departments like mine, many of the scientists are supported through USDA grants and other types of publicly-funded grants.

But I think with any commodity, whether you’re talking about pharmaceutical drugs or energy, there is a percentage of R&D that’s going on in the public realm that university scientists are involved in, and then probably the majority of it is going on inside or funded by companies. Now, when companies fund research—and I'm speaking as an academic researcher who has worked with food companies on various projects—generally speaking, there is a clause in our agreements that allows us to publish the results of our studies. There only thing is that there will likely be some wording in there that says that if we find some fantastic thing, there’s an embargo of 90 days during which we’re not allowed to make anything public.

That’s pretty typical of how academic researchers work with the food industry. Personally, I want to publish because that’s extremely important for my career, so I’m much more likely to partner with an industry funder when there’s a publication opportunity down the line.

G: Given that you think that food design R&D offers value to society, do you think there should be more public funding to shape the direction of research, or encourage it in areas that are less immediately profitable?

Tepper: Well, we’ll always ask for more funding. [laughs]

One thing that has happened, unfortunately, is that the USDA, which, as I mentioned, is a major funder for food science R&D, is currently almost exclusively funding research in food safety. Clearly, we have a problem with food safety in this country, and I know they want to make a large effort to address that problem, but because funding is tight, that means there are significantly fewer resources available to pursue other projects, including some of the examples I gave above. I think that tight focus on only food safety is a mistake, but I obviously don’t make policy decisions.

G: Do your academic colleagues overseas have a similar research funding set-up to the one we have here in the U.S.?

BT: They are also funded both by industry and by the government, as far as I know. But it does seem to me that funding in the United States is more competitive than it is in, let’s say, Europe—at least in certain areas. We have more difficulty getting funding for sensory behavioral research projects in the United States. I’ve noticed that my colleagues in Europe seem to be able to get funding for research looking at food attitudes, at taste, and at how one’s emotions affect what one might eat. I think in the United States, funding tends to favor the more basic, laboratory kind of science—results that you can measure with an instrument as opposed to behavioral and psychological studies.

G: Do you personally choose your research topics based on their potential use value to society, or are they just questions that you’re passionately interested in?

BT: I would say it's both. To get funded these days, we have to think about what the implications of our work are to people. I'll admit that sometimes it would be nice to work in a vacuum—to just say "I'm going to do this because it’s cool"—but realistically, we’re always tasked to consider the applications and the implications of whatever it is that we’re doing. Because I do taste and nutrition research, it’s hard not to think about how my research is going to be used by people and whether it is going to help them live healthier, better lives.

G: But if a company wanted you to help them engineer something so incredible that it would blow consumers' minds and no one would be able to stop eating it, would you find that an exciting challenge? Or would you want a higher goal?

BT: [laughs] They maybe want that in their wildest dreams! But to bring it back to reality, I think companies always want to distinguish their products from other products and they want to create something that will capture the imagination of the consumer. That's always the goal, and that's fine with me.

I think one of the areas where we as food scientists could do a better job is that people are often concerned about things that they perhaps don’t understand or weren’t given a lot of information about. I think that's the case with GMOs, and I think that in the case of nanotechnology, we need to start a conversation with the public about what it is and what it might bring to the table, so that we can understand peoples' attitudes towards it and figure out whether it’s really fulfilling something that they think is a valuable goal. It’s one thing for a food scientist sitting in lab to think up this great thing, but if nobody really wants it, then we haven’t accomplished our goal and we just created a problem with our consumer that will take a lot of work to fix.

I think there’s also an issue about labeling. A lot of people want to know what’s in their food, whether or not the FDA judges it safe, or identical to existing products, or whatever. GMOs were placed in many different food products without labeling, and without the knowledge of consumers. Of course, there are many things that are put in food products that consumers don’t specifically know are there, and their knowing can actually be kind of irrelevant unless they're are a chemist. But for issues that strike a nerve with consumers, perhaps we need to have a different strategy for how we acknowledge incorporating that technology into products. I don’t know how that labeling should work, but I think starting a conversation about it would be appropriate.

G: The labeling question is interesting, because labeling becomes a marketing tool very quickly. Then you have people labeling things “All natural, non GMO” and that doesn't help us as a society have a nuanced conversation about what sorts of design we accept in our food, given that "natural" really doesn't mean anything at all.

Finally, what do you think of molecular gastronomy, in which chefs like Ferran Adrià or Grant Achatz are also using science to redesign food, but in a very different context to your work?

BT: I have tasted some of those foods and I think they’re really interesting. A lot of the ingredients that they use are very common in the food processing industry already, but they’re utilizing them in a more exclusive culinary realm and in unique ways. But, in some ways, the only real difference is that industrial food processors are using these techniques in bulk and they haven’t optimized their ingredients.

That said, and I hope nobody gets upset with me for this, I don’t really see a long term future for it. It seems like a fun, one-time, “gee wow” kind of thing, and then we'll just get back to bacon and eggs that look like bacon and eggs, and are really bacon and eggs.

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