Of the four samples of V8 I blind-test, I can easily detect the full-sodium version, and I find the low-sodium version to have a tinny, artificial taste. Of the two samples mixed with the potassium-chloride blocker, one is bland and the other is more tomatoey and savory. I have experienced the result they desired: The bitter blocker has made the juice taste more satisfying. “Many people are already upset about what they consume. Won’t this make them more upset?” I ask Salemme. “We’re not manipulating your genes,” he replies. “All we’re doing is saying, ‘You already add aspartame or saccharine to your coffee to block the bitter taste.’ There was a large component of serendipity in finding those compounds. Before, you could test maybe two hundred new compounds a year, because you were reliant on human testers—and they’re prima donnas. Now, with the genome, we can re-create that process artificially.” It takes me a moment to absorb the information. “So,” I say, “this means you can put taste molecules onto receptor molecules in the lab and see exactly how the receptor molecules respond.”
“Yes. And this way we can test a thousand times that number of new compounds,” Salemme clarifies. “It’s a sea change.”
If anything, diners may soon confront yet another level of science—make that science fiction—in their food. For years, chefs such as Ferran Adrià, at El Bulli, in Spain, and Heston Blumenthal, at The Fat Duck, near London, have mixed chemistry and biology in order to assert the primacy of flavor over form. Blumenthal, in fact, who serves beet jelly and bacon-and-egg ice cream, has a flavor manifesto on his website that is longer than this article. “Lots of chefs have said they don’t care about this stuff,” says Chris Young, a chemist who worked as a food-research manager at The Fat Duck. “They just care how the food tastes on the plate. That’s fine. But this research will eventually trickle down to every level of cooking.” So can he imagine using a taste blocker at a high-end restaurant? “Sure. Savory ice cream. Sugar is inherently necessary to get the particular texture that ice cream has. You need it to depress the freezing point and give you enough solids. But for a true savory ice cream, you’d need to use sugar but block the sweet taste.”
“So in five years,” I say, “can you imagine a situation where I tell you my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and you design a meal just for my DNA?”
“Absolutely. When I worked at The Fat Duck, more than half of our clientele flew from someplace other than England to dine. This presented a problem. If we served rice pudding to American or English people, most would like it. If we served it to a Japanese person, it would be revolting. The goal in the restaurant world is to make each client feel like they’re the most important person in the world. If understanding your genome allows chefs to understand, in advance, your possible likes and dislikes, that would allow them to personalize the experience even more. There’s a greater chance of your saying, ‘That was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I feel like the chef was cooking just for me.’”
And in this case, with my DNA doing the ordering and a chef-chemist doing the cooking, he’d be right. The only figure left out of this double helix? Me. My DNA may tell me I’d prefer a carob-tofu brownie, but I’ve just had a bad day. I want the double-chocolate surprise.
We are Family: The Human Genome Project
Humans are 99.9 percent identical to one another—and to the archetype mapped and sequenced by the international Human Genome Project (which had nothing to do with genetic engineering). The nucleus of each cell in our bodies (except mature red blood cells) contains the entire genome, and the genome’s DNA (composed of 3 billion chemical components) is arranged in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which, in turn, contain 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Genes only comprise about 2 percent of the genome; the rest serves other functions, including regulating the production of proteins, the molecules that perform most of the work of the cell. By isolating each taste receptor of the human genome, scientists can now begin to see how they react to every flavor known to humankind.