Dale Buss

aroma

©Softulka/iStock/Getty Images Plus

aroma

©Softulka/iStock/Getty Images Plus

From Cyrano de Bergerac to “the nose knows,” our olfactory organs long have been telling us they shouldn’t be regarded as the Rodney Dangerfield of the senses. Now, a bevy of tech startups is emphasizing the crucial nature of olfactory capabilities by harnessing the biology of smells to boost success in the development of foods, beverages, and fragrances, and the ingredients in all of those. There are other applications, including in disease diagnosis, drug detection, and bomb sniffing, but applications for the food industry have strong potential.

“The industry has always relied on human tasting panels,” says Josh Silverman, CEO of Aromyx, one of at least three startups that are early contenders for the lead in this emerging technology. “But humans are terrible measurement tools. It’s very noisy and poor data, and trying to make conclusions based on that is a very trial-and-error process—and very inaccurate. And it may or may not have any relationship to what consumers at large like.”

How It Works

Among the leaders, Aromyx and Aryballe have taken two different tacks in their nose-mimicking approach. Aromyx is taking a biotech approach by harnessing different forms of living tissue, while Aryballe’s methodology involves using chips that detect and differentiate among organic compounds.

Food scientists long have understood the power of scent in the appeal of their products—a particular coffee-house grind, a Thanksgiving turkey, the smell of sizzling bacon. And unique olfactory sensations depend on only about 500 receptors in the nose and tongue. But no one has come up with an adequate “artificial nose.” There were electronic devices in the 1990s and later with names such as Cyranose and AromaScan, but they fizzled out.

Aromyx clones bioreceptors, puts them in lab dishes, bombards them with foods, beverages, and components, and tracks results. AI and machine learning crunch the data gathered by this process and render verdicts on how humans would respond to a stimulus, classifying them into standard descriptors used by professional tasters.

One of the challenges in identifying universally appealing tastes even with all this data, Silverman says, is that olfactory bioreceptors stem from “some of the most diverse genes in the genome. In any two people, they’re only about 70% identical.”

In any event, the California-based startup has pushed through these and other obstacles and at Food Technology’s press time was planning to announce an agreement with a large fragrance company that would allow it to match individual consumers’ preferences, sort of like how many e-commerce companies predict purchases based on data. Aromyx scientists tested each of the perfumer’s products with its bioreceptors and figured out which key notes were driving responses and even what groups of people, based on their genomes, would be most receptive to a particular scent.

Digital Olfaction

Aryballe is a French company with backing by International Flavors & Fragrances as well as Korean giants Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor. It’s built on a silicon photonics platform with electronic sensors that within seconds pick up and interpret organic elements that make up unique odor signatures. Aryballe has been selling its NeOse handheld sensor to industrial customers such as Hyundai—which uses it to detect odors in cars—for several months. Its early development efforts in food include work with alt-meat companies “to assess the aromatic specs of real beef and chicken and see where alt meat fits into the flavor spectrum,” says Aryballe CEO Sam Guilaume.

“Whatever your nose is or isn’t sensitive to, we are—or aren’t,” Guilaume explains. “Our sensor can be connected to any IoT device you can think of.”

And so what may become of the fine art of sensory testing that some humans, after all, enjoy? “Our device doesn’t get sick or have a headache and isn’t subjective at all,” Guilaume says.

About the Author

Dale Buss is a veteran journalist who writes about the food industry from Rochester Hills, Mich. ([email protected]).