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US: Senomyx's Fake Flavors


by By Melanie WarnerNew York Times
April 6th, 2005

Several big food and beverage companies are looking at a new ingredient in the battle for health-conscious consumers: a chemical that tricks the taste buds into sensing sugar or salt even when it is not there.

Kraft Foods, NestlÚ, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup are all working with a biotechnology company called Senomyx, which has developed several chemicals, most of which do not have any flavor of their own but instead work by activating or blocking receptors in the mouth that are responsible for taste. They can enhance or replicate the taste of sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in foods.

By adding one of Senomyx's flavorings to their products, manufacturers can, for instance, reduce the sugar in a cookie or salt in a can of soup by one-third to one-half while retaining the same sweetness or saltiness.

Now, for instance, a 10 3/4-ounce can of Campbell's Home-style chicken soup, which the company says contains two and a half servings, has more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. That would probably be cut to a little over 1,500 milligrams when the chemical is added. (The government recommends consumption of no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day.)

Unlike artificial sweeteners, Senomyx's chemical compounds will not be listed separately on ingredient labels. Instead, they will be lumped into a broad category - "artificial flavors" - already found on most packaged food labels.

"We're helping companies clean up their labels," said Senomyx's chief executive, Kent Snyder.

Senomyx, based in San Diego, uses many of the same research techniques that biotechnology companies apply in devising new drugs. Executives say that a taste receptor or family of receptors on the tongue or in the mouth are responsible for recognizing a taste. Using the human genome sequence, the company says, it has identified hundreds of those taste receptors. Its chemical compounds activate the receptors in a way that accentuates the taste of sugar or salt. It is still experimenting to determine the most potent compounds, its chief scientist, Mark Zoller, said.

While food safety experts applaud efforts to reduce salt, MSG and sugar, they expressed concerns about the new chemicals, saying that more testing needed to be done before these were sold in food.

But Senomyx maintains that its new products are safe because they will be used in tiny quantities.

Kraft, NestlÚ, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup have contracted with Senomyx for exclusive rights to use the ingredients in certain types of food and beverages, although the companies declined to identify those categories.

Elise Wang, an analyst at Smith Barney, said that Kraft was planning to use Senomyx's sweet flavoring to reduce the sugar in powdered beverages like Kool-Aid by one-third. Campbell Soup, she said, is looking at cutting sodium levels by a third with the salt flavoring.

"There's applicability for our soups, sauces and drinks like V8," a spokesman for Campbell, John Faulkner, said.

A Kraft spokesman declined to offer specifics on the company's relationship with Senomyx, but said that Kraft was committed to reducing the sugar and salt levels in many products. NestlÚ and Coke also declined to comment.

Senomyx's salt enhancer, in particular, has the potential to be a boon to the food industry. For years, corporate scientists have been looking in vain for ways to reduce sodium levels in packaged food without losing flavor.

"It's a real challenge," said Christine M. Homsey, senior research food scientist at Food Perspectives, a consulting firm in Plymouth, Minn. "Nobody's come up with anything even close to ideal."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, is seeking to get the Food and Drug Administration to pay more attention to the high sodium levels in packaged foods. In February, it filed a lawsuit seeking to force the F.D.A. to regulate salt as a food additive. The effort, if successful, could spur companies to limit salt in their products.

Mr. Synder said that Senomyx's salt enhancers were still in the development phase and would not appear in foods for at least two years. The company's most advanced product, he said, is its replacement for MSG, which last month received safety approval from the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. He expects food items with this product to appear in supermarkets sometime in the first half of next year.

While doctors and consumers have recognized the dangers of too much salt and sugar, MSG is not as well understood as a potentially harmful food additive. Used as a flavor enhancer, it is found in flavored chips, sauces, dry soups and meat products.

According to Sara Risch, a food scientist and professor at Michigan State University, food companies are eager to find replacements for MSG because some people are allergic to high levels of it.

"There's a negative consumer perception held by some people regarding MSG," said Mr. Snyder, who came out of retirement in 2003 to become Senomyx's chief executive. "Some school districts, for instance, won't sell MSG-containing snacks."

In the 1970's, after it was shown to induce brain lesions and nervous system disorders in laboratory animals, baby food manufacturers removed it from their products.

Mr. Zoller, the company's chief scientist, said the replacement for MSG could also be used in place of common flavor enhancers like hydrolyzed vegetable protein and autolyzed yeast extract. These ingredients have been closely linked to MSG because they contain high levels of glutamic acid, the main component of MSG.

Since Senomyx's flavor compounds will be used in small proportions (less than one part per million), the company is able to bypass the lengthy F.D.A. approval process required to get food additives on the market. Getting the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association status of generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, took Senomyx less than 18 months, including a 3-month safety study using rats. In contrast, the maker of the artificial sweetener sucralose spent 11 years winning F.D.A. approval and is required to list the ingredient on food labels.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, endorsed Senomyx's ability to reduce salt, sugar and MSG, but cautioned against a new chemical entering the food supply without rigorous testing. "A three-month study is completely inadequate," he said. "What you want is at least a two-year study on several species of animals."

Senomyx responded that in contrast to artificial sweeteners, which are used at levels of 200 to 500 parts per million, its flavorings would be added in such small quantities that they would pose no safety risk. These low-use levels are also what allow Senomyx's chemicals to be classified as artificial flavors.

According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Kraft Foods, NestlÚ, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup have collectively paid Senomyx $30 million to finance research and development. When the flavorings are incorporated into foods, Senomyx has said it will collect royalties of 1 percent to 4 percent of a product's sales.

Although the company is several years away from turning a profit, its stock price has nearly doubled since it went public last June, closing yesterday at $11.91. Last fiscal year, Senomyx lost $19.7 million on research revenue of $8.3 million. Ms. Wang of Smith Barney has projected that royalties from food product sales will be $50 million in 2008.





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