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Electronic Sniffer For Taste, Aroma

Move over Toucan Sam, there’s a new nose in town.

The parrot in the Froot Loops TV commercials, who “follows his snoot, for flavours of fruit,” has for decades urged children to nag their parents into buying the colourful cereal of dubious nutritive value.

At the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceutical Research, scientists are perfecting a device called an Electronic Nose, or E-nose, which aims to put objective science behind the subjective and highly variable evaluations of taste and aroma in foods.

Nancy Ames, an AAFC research scientist based at the Cereal Research Centre in Portage, but currently working at the Richardson Centre’s labs, said that the device will be used to more quickly and efficiently screen oat cultivars and processing techniques in order to develop better oat products.

That, presumably, would include the development of more appealing oatmeal porridge types – ones that even small children might willingly eat for breakfast.

First off, the electronic nose doesn’t actually “smell,” said Ames. Instead, it uses electrical conductivity measured by sensors to discriminate between identifiable flavours and scent characteristics that are first determined by a panel of human tasters.

“We figured out that if people can distinguish something, then we can go ahead and find an instrumental method to be able to analyze that,” said Ames.

“Instruments are always more accurate than people, but there’s no sense analyzing something with an instrument if people can’t distinguish it.”

Other sensors are able to pick up volatile aromatic compounds which play a role in flavour, or red flags for rancidity. Once they are identified, then researchers are able to investigate further to determine how growing conditions, cultivars, processing and “toasting” methods affect the end product.

“Up until very recently, the only things that were looked at in terms of end-product quality with oats were basically milling yield, hull per cent, and plumps and thins,” she said. “In my program now, we evaluate many, many nutritional characteristics, such as beta-glucans and dietary fibre.”

If kid-friendly oatmeal porridge turns out to be simply impossible, maybe the researchers’ other experiments with oat pasta will open up a new way to get kids to eat oats.

So far, oat spaghetti noodles have shown excellent potential as a new product, and a specially made dish was served as a “made-in-Manitoba meal” at the recent meeting of the Trinational Agricultural Accord in Gimli.

Although it resembles whole wheat pasta in appearance, it is much higher in beta-glucan soluble fibre and features a pleasant “oaty” flavour, said Ames.

Current experiments include ways of combining durum wheat and various oat varieties to come up with the best oat pasta, she added.

If funding for further product development is forthcoming, oat pasta products could start appearing on store shelves within a couple of years.

One nice thing about her work, added Ames, is the availability of high-tech machines in the Richardson Centre’s labs. One of them, an oat flaker, can be used to instantly process a sample of oats into a 10-gram sample of oatmeal in a matter of minutes.

“We can make our breakfast from a very specific variety, from a very specific location,” she said with a laugh.

“Years ago, varieties didn’t get tested for end-product qualities until they were available in mega-tonne amounts. We’re trying to look much earlier at quality from different new varieties.” [email protected]

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