In the future, you might sweeten your coffee by adding a spoonful of powdered fungus. This delicious-sounding solution might be a lot healthier than sugar or artificial sweeteners, because it doesn’t actually sweeten the food at all. Instead, it makes it seem sweeter by reducing bitterness.
The product comes from an Aurora, Colorado startup called MycoTechnology and is marketed under the name ClearTaste. It’s derived from a fungus—or, rather, it is a fungus—the root network that grows under the ground. These "mushrooms" are grown, spray-dried into a powder, and made available to processed-food manufacturers as a way to add less sugar to their wares. The fungus powder hooks up with the bitterness detectors on your tongue and blocks them, making anything else in your mouth taste sweeter.
Sugar is added to many processed foods, including ones you'd never expect. You’ve probably looked at the ingredients on a savory snack and wondered why it has so much added sugar. One reason is that it’s there to mask the bitterness of other ingredients. Wheat-based foods, chocolate, and of course coffee are all bitter, so sugar or high-fructose corn syrup are added to counteract that bitterness.
ClearTaste does that masking without the health problems associated with sugar. By adding the fungus to a food, the manufacturer can include less sugar or sugar substitute. And ironically, ClearTaste can also work in tandem with other sweeteners, both artificial and natural. Stevia, for example, has a pretty nasty bitter aftertaste. ClearTaste fixes that, so you only get the sweetness. It could also be mixed into chocolate or grapefruit juice, with the same results.
If this sounds like hokum, you can try the experiment at home. Salt is another bitterness blocker, and can actually be used as a sweetener. Try this: Take a bottle of tonic water, and take a sip. Then add a little salt, stir, and sip again. Keep doing it. You’ll notice that the tonic gets sweeter and sweeter, right up until you finally add too much and it tastes salty. That’s because the salt is counteracting the bitterness.
ClearTaste says it has deals with as-yet-unnamed manufacturers, and it will eventually appear as a "natural flavor" on food labels. You won’t be able to tell it’s there. The only difference, theoretically, is that the food or drink will have less sugar, and be just as sweet. If you want to get a taste of it, though, MycoTechnology has made a few of its own products that can be purchased directly online—an ultra-low-sugar chocolate bar, and tea and coffee, although they’re not cheap.
But perhaps more interesting are the new foods that might be created. Instead of adding sugar to make high-cocoa chocolate less bitter for instance, you could use this, allowing for different textures not possible today.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.