Artificial intelligence to predict the taste of food
31 March 2022
The Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence USI-SUPSI is an academic partner of VIRTUOUS (Virtual tongue to predict the organoleptic profile of Mediterranean ingredients), a project launched in 2019 under the European Marie Curie program, for the prediction of the organoleptic properties of Mediterranean ingredients from their molecular composition.

Often taken for granted, the sense of taste is one of the most fascinating: despite the possibility to agree on the taste of sweet, bitter or salty, there are different perceptions triggered by various foods and influenced by genetic, social and cultural variables. It is thanks to the complex mechanism of taste perception that nutrition becomes not only a necessity, but also a pleasure.

VIRTUOUS (Virtual tongue to predict the organoleptic profile of Mediterranean ingredients) is an international research project within the Marie Curie European program for the realization of an “artificial tongue” able to predict the organoleptic properties of foods starting from their molecular composition.

Launched in 2019 under the coordination of Politecnico di Torino, the four-year project involves 8 industrial and academic partners, from Italy, Greece, Spain and Switzerland, including the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence USI-SUPSI.

VIRTUOUS is a multidisciplinary project that combines different research areas such as chemistry, molecular modelling, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biophysics and bioinformatics.

In this context, the contribution of the Dalle Molle Institute is twofold. «At the molecular level, we are concerned with the physico-chemical study of molecules, the mechanisms of reception by cellular targets located on the tongue and palate, and the processes of determination of the different taste sensations», explains Gianvito Grasso, Biomedical Engineer and Researcher at IDSIA. «We are also interested in understanding the pathway and interactions of these molecules within the human body».

From an AI perspective, IDSIA deals with the creation of models to predict the organoleptic properties of foods from their constituent molecules.  

«Our AI models are not black boxes, but rather are explainable and interpretable - underlines Dario Piga, Senior Researcher at IDSIA - This means that they allow not only to predict the characteristics of the molecules that determine taste, but also to explain and interpret their functioning».

Together with IDSIA, in Switzerland VIRTUOUS also includes as industrial partner the Ticino-based company Missing Tech for the development of the software architecture that will host the molecular models and AI algorithms created within the project. «We're happy to bring our experience in building cloud-based software platforms to the project, as well as hosting researchers from the international working group. Working with IDSIA team quickly created good feeling among us. The technical integration between the purely scientific part and the software infrastructure we are developing looks very promising», says Emanuele Mottola, founder and CEO of Missing Tech.

Currently, the project has developed AI models for the prediction of the taste of molecules with reference to sweet and bitter tastes, while the molecular analysis also includes receptors for the perception of salty tastes.

At this stage, researchers are focusing on the study of oil and wine, typical products of the Mediterranean diet and susceptible to significant taste alterations if subjected to small molecular changes. In order to verify the accuracy of the algorithmic predictions and train the artificial intelligence, a group of experts also evaluates the real sensations perceived.

In the future, the project aims to extend the prediction capacity of AI algorithms to understand, for any given food molecule, whether it is sweet, bitter or salty. This could have significant spin-offs in various areas, such as health and wellness for the preparation of balanced and tasty diets, but also in neuroscience for the study of brain processing mechanisms of taste and related sensations.

An interesting field of application of the VIRTUOUS project concerns the possibility of developing new foods by combining the functionality of certain molecules with the taste of others, for example by joining the properties of milk and its high calcium content with the appetizing taste of junk food.

Last but not least, VIRTUOUS will help to establish a stronger relationship with the territory: once identified the molecule responsible for a specific taste, it can be selected among local products generating positive effects on the regional economy.