A team of researchers in Japan has developed a set of electric chopsticks that uses electrical stimulation to make food taste 50% saltier. The technology, which brings out the sodium ions from the food, could be used by people who like salty food but want to reduce their salt intake.

Image credits: Kirin Holding.

A gadget that alters salt perception

Around the world, people are eating more salt than they should. This once cherished and valuable mineral has now become all too common, and we tend to overconsume it. Health recommendations suggest no more than 6g of salt per day — which is around 1 teaspoon. But most Americans consume at least 1.5 teaspoons of salt per day, or around 150% the recommended intake. Europeans consume about as much on average, while in many parts of Asia, salt intake is even higher. Too much salt consumption can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, and we’re already seeing an “epidemic” of salt consumption.

Can the new chopsticks actually make a difference?

The chopsticks were developed by Homei Miyashita, a professor at Meiji University, in partnership with beverage maker Kirin Holdings. The idea behind them is fairly straightforward: the chopsticks are attached to a wristband computer that uses a very weak electrical current to take sodium ions from food, pass through the chopsticks, and to the mouth, where they create a sensation of saltiness.

Salt consists of two atoms: sodium and chloride; typically, sodium ions are positively charged, while chlorine ions are negatively charged. Because they have an electric charge, they can be transmitted through the current. Essentially, you’re extracting some of the saltiness that’s in the food and bringing it directly to the mouth — it’s a bit like using current and chemistry to redistribute the salt in the food and make it stand out more.

The method works with low-salted food and regular-salted food as well, the Kirin announcement mentions.

“The study confirmed that the intensity of salty taste of the sample imitating low-sodium food was the same as that of the sample imitating ordinary food when electric stimulation was applied… This suggests that when food with 30 percent less salt is consumed, a device equipped with this technology can provide a salty taste equivalent to that of a regular meal.”

Image credits: Kirin Holdings.

The announcement also says that the electricity doesn’t just adjust the function of ions such as sodium chloride (salt), “sodium glutamate, (which is the basis of sweet taste), to change the perception of taste by making food seem to taste stronger or weaker.”

The prototype is, of course, aimed at people who want to consume less salt. Japanese cuisine skews towards saltier foods, but the problem of consuming too much salt is not restricted to Japan at all.

“To prevent these diseases [caused by salt], we need to reduce the amount of salt we take,” said Kirin researcher Ai Sato to Reuters. “If we try to avoid taking less salt in a conventional way, we would need to endure the pain of cutting our favourite food from our diet, or endure eating bland food.”

It’s not just chopsticks, either. According to Kirin, the same approach can be used for other utensils like spoons or bowls, increasing the level of salt satisfaction with low-sodium foods.

Testing the device efficacy. Image credits: Kirin Holdings.

However, whether clients will be receptive to this idea remains to be seen. Consumers may be reluctant to accept eating utensils that pass current as you eat, and the technology is a bit cumbersome with the wrist device. If the device could be directed into the chopsticks themselves, it could make people more inclined to accept.

The announcement hinted at a prototype and a potential commercial product, but so far, nothing concrete has been announced.

Meanwhile, Miyashita is working on several other different projects. Previously, he developed a screen that replicates some tastes and a device that works with dissolved electrolytes that can replicate different food tastes on the user’s tongue.


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