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Food Ingredients

Fishing out the chemicals that make fugu delectable

Scientists reconstitute the flavor of the potentially deadly puffer fish delicacy

by Bethany Halford
January 27, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 4


Chopsticks lift a piece of raw fish.
Credit: Shutterstock
A dozen compounds give fugu, prepared here as sashimi, its flavor.

Fugu is not for the faint of heart. The delicacy, which comes from the flesh of the puffer fish, can be deadly if the chef preparing it doesn’t know how to remove the piscine parts that contain tetrodotoxin. For those who want to get an idea of what makes fugu so tasty but don’t want to risk death, scientists in China have identified a combination of puffer fish-derived chemicals that can approximate fugu’s flavor (J. Ag. Food Chem.2019, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.8b06047). The team, led by Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Yuan Liu, ground up muscle tissue from the puffer fish Takifugu obscurus and turned it into a liquid extract. Chemical analysis of the extract revealed 28 compounds that could be contributing to the fish’s flavor. They then conducted taste tests with a panel of trained fugu experts and figured out that a combination of 12 of those components—glutamic acid, serine, proline, arginine, lysine, adenosine 5΄-monophosphate, inosine 5΄-monophosphate, succinic acid, sodium, potassium, phosphate, and chloride—came close to puffer fish’s flavor. Adding a pair of flavor peptides made the chemical brew taste even more like fugu. Eight of the chemicals identified are commonly found in seafood, so perhaps less-daring diners have already eaten food that tastes at least a little like puffer fish.


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