Rats and Machines Enlisted to Test Sweeteners

Rats and humans have more in common than you might think.

ByJon M. Chang
August 13, 2013, 6:25 PM

Aug. 14, 2013 — -- A cornucopia of artificial sweeteners is available in the grocery store: Equal, Nutrasweet, Sweet'N Low, Splenda and several others. To make it to the shelf, each had to go through a thorough research and development phase. Somewhere along the line, those companies enlisted people to taste each sweetener and see how it stacked up to regular sugar.

Opertech Bio, a startup in Philadelphia, says it can take humans out of the testing process and replace them with rats and machines. Kyle Palmer, the chief science officer of the company, says that the Microtiter Operant Gustometer, or MOG, could test hundreds to thousands of different flavor compounds quickly and easily. The design and results of the company's initial test runs are published in the journal PLoS One.

It may seem strange to use a rat to test for flavors that people might like, but the two palates have more in common than you might think. Alfredo Fontanini, a neuroscientist at Stony Brook University in New York, said that even if the foods that we eat are different from the garbage that rats feast on, there are still similarities. "As a rule of thumb, humans and rats dislike bitter, sour and very salty things," he told ABC News. "But we both like sweet and savory things too."

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