Over many years of being shown new gadgetry in Japan, I have invented a range of mental buckets in order to guess their ultimate fates.
There’s a bucket for brilliant ideas surely destined for world domination (the pre-smartphone i-mode mobile internet), one for nutty ideas doomed to failure (dog-bark translators) and one for technologies that seem life-changing but mysteriously never take off (TVs that broadcast different channels depending on which part of the sofa you watch from).
In which of these will an experimental pair of electrified chopsticks end up, I wondered last week, as I headed to the HQ of its maker Kirin, Japan’s second-largest drinks company.
The thesis is that Japanese people consume, on average, about twice the volume of salt recommended by the World Health Organization, and that addressing the problem would improve the public’s health.
The solution, presented by Homei Miyashita, a professor in the School of Science and Technology at Meiji University, is to manipulate the eating experience so that the tongue tastes more of the salt already in the food being consumed.
Prof Miyashita has a theatrical flair for boffinry – in December, he unveiled a lickable TV screen that purports to deliver imitations of complex flavors.
Alas, he wasn’t on hand to demonstrate the chopsticks, which as their improbable bulkiness confirms, are still at the prototype stage. But researchers working with him were.
I learned from them that the lower of the two chopsticks, as held in the hand, is attached to a battery currently worn on the wrist.
Its job is to deliver an extremely mild, computer-controlled electrical current when a circuit is completed by the lips, tongue and the food itself.
The current affects the sodium chloride ions in a way that, according to the researchers, makes the food taste roughly one and a half times saltier than it really is, allowing the actual salt content to be significantly reduced.
To test this, the researchers provided me with three bowls of miso soup. (Yes, to eat with chopsticks.)
The first had the normal saltiness I know and love; the second, designed for people with high blood pressure, had 30 per cent less salt; and the third, which had a 50 per cent salt reduction, was of a type served in hospitals to recuperating patients.
There are four strength settings on the chopsticks and you can, when you know it is there, feel the electrical current on all of them.
It causes no discomfort but there is a distinct tingling. It did not help that, during the researcher’s explanation, she mentioned the kind of spasming muscle-stimulator gizmos that promise washboard abs.
But the effect was extraordinary.
Even on the lowest strength setting, the normal miso tasted like seawater: Inedible after a mouthful or two.
When consumed on the highest strength setting, the bowl with 30 per cent less salt tasted very close to normal.
The 50 per cent version, which tasted like dishwater originally, proved largely resistant to the chopsticks’ trickery.
Kirin aspires to commercialize the chopsticks in 2023, once the battery is miniaturized.
In a country where a quarter of the population is aged over 65, its domestic customer is less young beer-swiller and more supplement-fed retiree.
If they launch, the chopsticks will join an ever-expanding array of tech that is being evolved for a market defined by the demographics and health concerns of the world’s fastest-aging society. It’s probably time to add another gadget bucket to my list. FINANCIAL TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Leo Lewis is the Financial Times’ Asia business editor.