Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Please, hold the surprises

Consistent and predictable, those are bywords for food manufacturers and even produce companies. Notice the words manufacturers and companies. They can be large entities with little ideas.

When I first saw this story about “electronic tongues” my curiosity made me rush into it. Somebody or sombodies had developed technology that “boasts 100 percent accuracy over the full range of natural and artificial sweet substances.” That means a sensor that can accurately taste test a lot of stuff.


But then I started to think about it and got a little depressed. These developers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had no doubt tried to make something to improve processes for manufacturers. You know, make things better. The device is the size of a business card, an improvement over the first electronic tongues, and much more accurate.

But to what end will these be put to use? Making things more the same. From China to Amarillo, the candy you eat or soda you drink will taste even more the same than they do now. Where’s the fun?

Now I don’t ask for something crazy like every Red Bull tasting different from the next, but guaranteeing sameness allows for companies to expand. That expansion can chew up the little guy, erasing the variety that is cooked up in smaller batches. It’s like barbecue or enchilada sauces, when you get one that doesn’t taste like it came out of a mass-produced can, no matter how good that stuff is in the can, that new sauce can be a discovery, a revelation, a diversion.

I know, its somehow comforting to walk into a McDonalds and know that, within a certain margin, everything will taste like the last McDonald product you consumed. But does that mean we should banish the Burger Barrel or Arnold's? Should our goal be to become absolutely consistent and safe? That’s what got us the tomatoes everyone curses at the grocery store. They’re reliable and travel well to make for bigger business.


But I still think the idea of an electronic tongue is kind of cool – as a novelty.

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