University of Illinois researchers Soo-Yeun Lee and Shelly Schmidt are trying to solve a mystery: Why doesn't diet soda taste more like regular soda? Can a well-trained panel of "taste testers" pinpoint the exact problem? And can food scientists do anything to fix it?
"If we could make diet soda taste better, it would be a big step in fighting the obesity epidemic," said Shelly Schmidt, a U of I professor of food chemistry. "Many people know they should cut calories, but they won't drink diet pop because they don't like the taste."
Consumers may claim they don't like diet soda because of artificial sweeteners, but Schmidt and sensory scientist Lee think people are also influenced by a subtle difference called "mouth-feel." Think body, fullness, thickness; regular soda contains high-fructose corn syrup, diet soda doesn't.
What makes these scientists think mouth-feel is the culprit? For one thing, artificial sweeteners have been greatly improved and extensively studied. "Taste profiles for artificial sweeteners now closely match the one for sucrose, which humans describe as the perfect sweetness," Lee said.
But the most compelling piece of evidence is the verdict of Lee's sensory panel--12 people trained for four weeks to use a 15-point scale in order to rate the characteristics that contribute to the mouth-feel of diet and regular soda. Lee called her panelists "highly trained instruments" because they could detect significant differences in the mouth-feel of 14 samples that the scientist's super-sensitive lab instruments identified as very, very small.
"We worked with solutions of sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, asking panelists to detect when beverages began to differ from water in mouth-feel. And they were able to accurately identify varying degrees of viscosity on our 15-point scale," Lee said.
"The human mouth cavity appears to be a super-rheometer (the lab instrument that measures viscosity or
Contact: Phyllis Picklesimer
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign