U.S. company claims to invent 'universal bitter blocker' that allows you to eat less sugar
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It’s a simple, smart business idea that addresses a real need.
ClearTaste, an odourless, tasteless food additive derived from mushrooms, blocks the action of bitter taste receptors on the tongue, making bitter, sour, and astringent foods more palatable.
Adding it to naturally bitter foods like chocolate, coffee and beer, according to the Colorado-based producer, MycoTechnology, allows the sugar content to be reduced by 50 to 90 per cent.
In an interview, MycoTechnology’s marketing director Josh Hahn declined to describe ClearTaste’s chemical composition, exact mechanism of action, or, citing trade secrets, the types of mushrooms it contains.
And the company’s scientists haven’t published any peer-reviewed research yet, although they say they plan to in the near future.
This poses a bit of a pickle for consumers. Without much information to go on, it can be hard to evaluate whether a product’s claims are supported by sound science.
ClearTaste is already on the shelves in U.S. processed foods, and it’s expected to arrive in Canada as soon as this fall.
Marketed as a “universal bitter blocker,” a boon for diabetics and healthy eaters, ClearTaste has been the subject of some breathless media reports.
“Researchers have finally discovered the key to naturally stripping sugar from all our foods,” gushed Atlantic Media’s Quartz site. “This All-Natural Solution Could Curb Our Sugar Addiction,” enthused PSFK.com.
But Dr. Prashen Chelikani, a professor of oral biology who runs at lab at the University of Manitoba that develops bitter blockers had a word of caution.
He said finding new bitter blockers is expensive, arduous and can take many years. MycoTechnology was founded in 2013.
He also raised a concern about the phrase “universal bitter blocker.”
“In humans we have 25 bitter taste receptors,” he said. “If it’s blocking all 25, they can classify it as a universal bitter blocker. Right now, I don’t know of a blocker that can block all 25 receptors.”
ClearTaste most likely contains one or more of the 13 bitter blockers currently known to science, Chelikani explained, and perhaps something else that blocks sour receptors (those are a totally different thing, structurally speaking).
But there’s no way to know unless the company publishes that information, he said, and “some companies don’t publish.”
MycoTechnology CEO Alan Hahn said the company plans to protect ClearTaste with some combination of patents — whereby more information about how it’s made and what it contains would be made public — and trade secrets, which are, as the name suggests, secrets.
When pressed on the term “universal bitter blocker,” he clarified that the product is “functionally universal”: It works on all the bitter foods and drinks the company has tried it in.
ClearTaste’s biochemical properties are well understood within the company, he added. It binds very tightly to bitter receptors for the ten seconds or so that the food is in your mouth, then washes away easily with saliva.
However, it’s not technically universal, because it doesn’t block all 25 receptors.
University of Toronto genetics professor and open innovation advocate Aled Edwards encouraged consumers to be skeptical of all natural health remedies and functional foods, not just bitter blockers, because the whole industry is rife with exagerrated and even made-up claims.
“Science is used as a marketing tool, not as a discipline,” he said.
It's really hard to know what to trust, when the science isn't out there for people to evaluate — not just the public, but scientists too.
MycoTechnology’s work raises interesting questions about sharing scientific knowledge in the public interest, because there are important applications for bitter blockers.
For example, children’s tolerance for bitter medications is very low, and though nasty-tasting meds are masked with sweeteners, that only works up to a point, Chelikani said.
Plus, he said, bitter receptors exist in other parts of the body, like the gut. Their function is still being discovered. But they could become important drug targets in the future.
Hahn didn’t have much to say about the possibility of other applications of the chemicals in ClearTaste. The company is focused on foods for now. “If there are other applications, we’d like to understand what the possibilities are. It really depends,” he said.
When is ClearTaste coming to Canada?
MycoTechnology is working with B.C.-based GLG LifeTec on a low-calorie sweetener containing its bitter blocker ClearTaste plus stevia leaf, which naturally has bitter and metallic notes.
The company is in the final stages of getting the additive approved by Health Canada, and no toxicity problems have arisen in studies, according to MycoTechnology CEO Alan Hahn.
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