UK: After robots cooking meals, Cambridge experts make one taste food

It has been trained to taste food at different stages of the chewing process

Photos & video: University of Cambridge
Photos & video: University of Cambridge
File photo used for illustrative purposes
File photo used for illustrative purposes

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Wed 4 May 2022, 4:53 PM

Last updated: Wed 4 May 2022, 8:05 PM

Robots involved in cooking meals or in various stages of food preparation is not new, but experts from the University of Cambridge said on Wednesday that a robot ‘chef’ has been trained to taste food at different stages of the chewing process to assess whether it is sufficiently seasoned.

The researchers trained their robot chef to assess the saltiness of a dish at different stages of the chewing process, imitating a similar process in humans. Their results could be useful in the development of automated or semi-automated food preparation by helping robots to learn what tastes good and what doesn’t, making them better cooks, the university said.

When we chew food, we notice a change in texture and taste. For example, biting into a fresh tomato at the height of summer will release juices, and as we chew, releasing both saliva and digestive enzymes, our perception of the tomato’s flavour will change.

The robot chef, which has already been trained to make omelettes based on human taster’s feedback, tasted nine different variations of a simple dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes at three different stages of the chewing process, and produced ‘taste maps’ of the different dishes.

The researchers found that this ‘taste as you go’ approach significantly improved the robot’s ability to quickly and accurately assess the saltiness of the dish over other electronic tasting technologies, which only test a single homogenised sample.

The results have been reported in the journal Frontiers in Robotics & AI.

“Most home cooks will be familiar with the concept of tasting as you go – checking a dish throughout the cooking process to check whether the balance of flavours is right,” said Grzegorz Sochacki from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, the paper’s first author. “If robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking.”

“When we taste, the process of chewing also provides continuous feedback to our brains,” said co-author Arsen Abdulali, also from the Department of Engineering. “Current methods of electronic testing only take a single snapshot from a homogenised sample, so we wanted to replicate a more realistic process of chewing and tasting in a robotic system, which should result in a tastier end product.”

To imitate the human process of chewing and tasting in their robot chef, the researchers attached a conductance probe, which acts as a salinity sensor, to a robot arm. They prepared scrambled eggs and tomatoes, varying the number of tomatoes and the amount of salt in each dish. Using the probe, the robot ‘tasted’ the dishes in a grid-like fashion, returning a reading in just a few seconds.

To imitate the change in texture caused by chewing, the team then put the egg mixture in a blender and had the robot test the dish again. The different readings at different points of ‘chewing’ produced taste maps of each dish.

Their results showed a significant improvement in the ability of robots to assess saltiness over other electronic tasting methods, which are often time-consuming and only provide a single reading.

The research was supported in part by Beko plc and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.


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