May 5 (UPI) -- Scientists in Quebec have developed an artificial tongue that can taste the flavor profiles of maple syrup.
The plasmonic tongue is a fairly simple colorimetric test featuring gold nanoparticles. The flecks of gold found on the assay can identify unwanted flavors.
Scientists detailed their invention in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Analytical Methods.
"Gold nanoparticles have striking colors that are easily detected by visual inspection, providing a naked-eye test very similar to a pH test for swimming pools," study co-author Masson Jean-François, professor of chemistry at the University of Montreal, told UPI in an email. "Adding a few drops of maple syrup to the gold nanoparticle can lead, in the presence of off-flavor compounds, to aggregation of the gold nanoparticle and a color change from red to blue of the solution."
If syrup turns the artificial tongue blue, it doesn't mean it's useless. While off-flavor syrup can't be sold in bottles directly to consumers, it can still be used as a sweetener in the food industry.
Scientists used their tongue to taste more than 1,800 samples of maple syrup, but researchers suggest more testing is necessary.
"We need to validate the test with a larger number of samples," Masson said. "For example, Quebec produces on the order of 300,000 barrels per year, such that the test was only performed on about 0.6 percent of the production."
Once validated, the tongue could be used to help producers sort different quality syrups.
"We are working in collaboration with the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers to implement the plasmonic tongue as a tool to assist the producers and the industry," Masson said. "While we do not have a fixed time frame for the commercial use of the test, we surely hope that it will be available in the next few years."
Researchers are also testing a sophisticated version of the artificial tongue, as well -- one capable of picking up on compounds responsible for a syrup's unique flavor profile. Different maple syrups can yield a variety of flavors -- earthy, smoky, woody.
"For more accurate detection and monitoring more subtle changes in taste, we use a portable spectrophotometer -- similar to the ones already used in the assessment of the color of maple syrups -- that is connected to a laptop computer. This can be easily installed on the production site," Masson said.
Eventually, the technology could be adapted to analyze the flavor profiles of wine and cheese, as well.