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Got crisp? U of M's artificial mouth tells all to food companies

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Food companies are changing. In a trend that's been noted by the Wall Street Journal and Fortune among others, food makers are adjusting some of their old established formulas to take out salt or artificial colors or preservatives that many consumers would rather avoid.

But how do the companies know if these changes will hurt the precise crispy or crunchy quality the buyers of these foods have come to expect?

After chewing it over for awhile, some have decided to answer that question by visiting the University of Minnesota. The U of M's School of Dentistry has a Research Center where a machine that's been around for more than 30 years replicates the chewing motion humans make when we're eating.

Except that while we make that chewing motion about 300,000 times in a year, ol' motor mouth at the U can handle that many chews in less than a day, the university says.

It's been a good way to test the durability of materials dentists use to restore teeth. The Artificial Oral Environment was even named by a research group as one of the most significant new products of 1983.

What's this got to do with food?

When the public radio show Marketplace visited the chewing machine – or "chewbot" – earlier this month, it was munching on some puffed cereal.

As the show reports, food companies – which the university prefers not to name – have discovered that computers connected to the chewing robot can measure the audio frequencies from the sound of the crunch. Comparing frequencies from the old and new formulas of your cereal, candy, snack food, etc. can reveal whether the changes have compromised crispness.

The machine is unable to chew with its mouth closed, as you can see below.

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Having found a way to measure crunchiness, U of M scientists tell Marketplace they're working on developing a similar measure for taste. Capturing the vapors emitted when the fake mouth chews could reveal information about how much flavor is in the food, they say.

Who knew a chewbot in its 30s could tell us so much? And without a tongue, at that.

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