The preferred way to think about the intersection of science and food lately is like this or this, when the reality is more like what's going on deep inside of PepsiCo, the largest food company in America.
The mission? To basically reinvent the way we taste food, with chemistry, biology, and even psychology. John Seabrook's amazing in-depth Pepsi profile in the New Yorker looks at the way Pepsi's trying to offer healthier food (not because they care about you, per se, but because healthier food is a huge, explosive market segment) while maintaining the indulgent tastes people love. Three interesting things make an appearance in the course of the piece:
• Pepsi's custom-designed a new type of type salt—"15 micron salt"—whose molecular structure is designed expressly to taste saltier (maintaining the "taste curve"), allowing Pepsi to douse Lay's potato chips with less sodium, while delivering the same salty kick. (Fun fact: You only taste about 20-25 percent of the salt on the chips. And no one knows how salt really works.) It's going to show up on Lay's in 2012.
• Pepsi's next major cola product looks to be a still-secret "mid-calorie" soda, with sixty percent less sugar than a regular can of Pepsi, but that still tastes exactly the same as the real thing. The secret? Flavor enhancements. "Biotech products that are not sweet themselves, but increase the intensity of sweeteners," so it tastes like real sugar.
• They've got a robot with genetically engineered tastebuds-it can taste sweet, sour, bitter and umami, though not salt-which is expressly designed to taste hundreds of thousands of compounds in their search for "the holy grail, a natural zero-calorie sweetener that tastes exactly like sugar." Before the robot honed in on things that tasted good to humans, narrowing down the field for human tasters, real people had to do all the work-and Pepsi has looked into tasting everything from beetles to bee larvae.