Electric Tongue

An “electronic tongue” at Washington State University is hard-wired to taste wines in a way that human tongues cannot. Unlike human taste buds, this so-called “e-tongue” never tires or takes a day off, even after hours of around-the-clock sampling, said Carolyn Ross, associate professor of food science and viticulture and enology, who runs the sensory evaluation lab on the Pullman campus.

Ross is evaluating Washington wines with Ph.D. student, Charles Diako, originally from Ghana, who is a super-taster himself. Diako is often sought out by lab members for his ingrained expertise at detecting precise tastes. Advanced taste sensitivity is often genetic and he was born with finely tuned taste buds, he said. “You need that to be able to work in this field.”

Charles DiakoDiako appears to have met his match, though, working with the e-tongue to evaluate Washington wines. While humans can detect flavor attributes, the e-tongue identifies taste compounds at the molecular level, Ross explained. “The e-tongue gives an objective measurement of taste profiles and we try to correlate that to what happens in human sensory evaluation,” said Diako.

While human taste buds can get saturated and lose their keen ability to accurately distinguish taste features, the e-tongue never gets fatigued. But that doesn’t mean human taste testers and sommeliers will find themselves out of work. Many companies and institutions, including WSU, employ people to sample products and provide feedback that fine-tunes the development process. “Human evaluation…integrates a huge amount of information and perceptions in response,” said Ross. “This new technology won’t replace human evaluation.”

Just as fortuitous as pairing a good wine with the right food, the new e-tongue has been paired with the right scientist. Diako joined Ross’s lab a year ago, shortly after WSU purchased the e-tongue for a role in Washington’s wine research. While there’s no way to know if the e-tongue enjoys its work, it’s clear that Diako loves what he does in the lab.

The information gathered from the evaluations is important to the Washington grape growers and winemakers to guide fruit and wine flavor development, said Diako. After all, a great bottle of wine begins in the vineyard. Will the e-tongue know if that bottle does contain, in fact, a good wine?

Absolutely, by providing it with a gold standard, said Diako, adding with a smile, “But it doesn’t know the price.”

– by Rachel Webber