If you grew up in India, or anywhere in the world for that matter, there isn’t a chance that you have not eaten anything inedible. It is a universal fact that kids like to take anything they can get their hands on and put it in their mouth.
According to Tedium, a company called Aqua Dots came up with an idea to prevent kids from swallowing their toys. They coated their toys with a chemical called Denatonium Benzoate.
And how did that help? The chemical, which is known by its brand name Bitrex, is known to be the world’s most awful tasting flavour. What is going to surprise you is that Bitrex is all around your house, from perfumes to household cleaners. And it is really awful. One molecule of Bitrex can make a million molecules of water taste horrible.
It seems unlikely that something that hurts the taste buds so bad could be useful. However, there are many things that Bitrex is useful for.
The US Army was one of the first organisations to discover a potential use of Bitrex. They used it to destroy food items. That is a really intelligent move in a war, just add a little bit of Bitrex into the enemies’ food stock, and render them inedible. They even filed a patent for “a method and composition for degrading foodstuff.”
Here’s what it says in the patent:
“This compound is several magnitudes more bitter, and the bitter taste persists in the mouth for a considerable time. Rice which is contaminated with this chemical in amounts of 0.10 pound per ton is inedible. The bitter taste was so nauseating that no one who tasted the boiled rice was able to consume as much as a teaspoonful.”
Soon, after reports of children being hospitalised for accidentally swallowing their toys came out in the 1980s, Bitrex found another popular use. Kids aren’t exactly known for listening to what their parents tell them about eating or not eating things. The logic was simple. If you make dangerous chemicals taste bad, kids won’t eat or drink them.
In a 1985 article, A New Scientist explained:
“The sensible answer, then, is to make these household chemicals taste so repellant to a child that its immediate reaction if it puts some in its mouth is to spit it out. What is required is a compound so vile in taste that it cannot be tolerated. There are, in fact, several such substances, both natural and man-made, but one that stands out above all others is denatonium benzoate, or Bitrex, as it is commonly known. This white, non-toxic powder, which is soluble in both aqueous and organic solvents, is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the bitterest substance known. Adding just one teaspoon of powder to a tankerful of water would make the water undrinkable.”
Even then, adding the chemical to all the household items that were potentially harmful to eat wasn’t a given. A woman called Lynn Tylczak from Oregon learnt that Bitrex was being used in a lot of cleaners made in Europe, and she wanted to bring that to the US was well. So she started writing letters to chemical manufacturers and politicians. But none of them seemed interested. She then went to her neighbours, and talked to them about how the worst flavour in the world could help them with their children’s health issues. About 20 of her neighbours were convinced and started reaching out to the media to help raise awareness about Bitrex.
“I wrote to about 20 of the big newspapers, then I wrote to consumer groups, magazines, health magazines, insurance magazines, the people I thought would pick it up,” Tylczak told the Los Angeles Times in 1989.
Her efforts paid off. After doing extensive market research in the 80s, FMCG giant Proctor & Gamble found that children were susceptible to drinking two of their laundry detergents. And they decided to add Bitrex to them.
These days, almost anything that you shouldn’t consume has Bitrex in it. And whenever you eat something that has Bitrex in it, you’ll immediately want to spit it out. that will save you from a lot of harm. And you need to thank Lynn Tylczak for that.