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February 3rd, 2012 at 10:16 am

Better Food Through Science — The Kitchen as Laboratory

The Kitchen as Laboratory

“We strongly believe that the proper use of the scientific method in the areas of food design, production, and distribution can be of great benefit to society.”—Cesar Vega and David J. McClements

We conclude our week-long feature on The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking, edited by Cesar Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden, with an excerpt from the final chapter “On the Fallacy of Cooking from Scratch.” The authors of the chapter Vega and David J. McClements argue for the importance of science and scientific research to provide more nutritious food and better distribution. They challenge the conventional view that food science is somehow opposed to healthy eating by producing “food-like substances.”

We also wanted to let you know that Cesar Vega will join two of the book’s contributors, Anne McBride and Thomas M. Tongue Jr. in a discussion of the book at the 92nd Y in Tribeca on February 17th at 12 pm. Seats are still available for the event!

Better Food Through Science

We strongly believe that the proper use of the scientific method in the areas of food design, production, and distribution can be of great benefit to society. Indeed, as candidly put by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) and extrapolated to the realm of food, this is our responsibility as scientists. The benefits—which are often overlooked or taken for granted—range from the production of a diverse range of ingredients and foods to the generation of stimulating insights into the reasons different foods look, taste, and feel the way they do. This knowledge complements the insightful observations of food scholars around why we eat what we eat.

As scientists, with a deep sense of responsibility toward the community we live in, we strongly oppose Pollan’s (2008) and other food writers’ and activists’ denigration of the food science profession. One would get the impression that food scientists spend all their time in corporate laboratories creating “foodlike substances” to trick consumers into purchasing more fat, sugar, and salt. This is far from fair and does not give an accurate and thorough view of what food scientists actually do. It is true that some food scientists work for food companies, developing or improving processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. It is also true that overconsumption of these foods leads to a poor overall diet that negatively impacts health. Nevertheless, even these foods—for example, ice cream, potato chips (crisps), soda, and hamburgers—can be enjoyed for their desirable sensory attributes if they are consumed in moderation. Food scientists are involved in many other activities that demand the application of the basic principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering to improve the manufacturing, storage, distribution, quality, safety, and nutritional attributes of foods.

Think, for example, about the multitude of naturally occurring chemical constituents within foods. And think about how these constituents interact with one another and with the human body to produce the characteristic physical and sensory attributes we associate with particular foods, including their unique taste, texture, and appearance but also their nutritional value. Food scientists work to understand this. Their aim is also to understand how foods and their constituents are changed by the various processes—mixing, kneading, stirring, frying, grilling, baking, boiling, microwaving, chilling, freezing—we subject them to during food preparation (at the factory and at home). The fundamental knowledge gained from these studies greatly benefits society, particularly those with limited access to food.

There are also many food scientists involved in understanding the complex physicochemical, physiological, and psychological processes underpinning the sensory perception of foods, such as appearance, texture, mouthfeel, and flavor. These scientists are trying to answer questions such as: What makes a food taste creamy, thick, or rich? Why does the flavor of a food change when the fat is reduced? What is the relationship between taste and appearance? Why are apples crisp or cookies crunchy? (Answers to some of these questions can be found in chapters 2 and 9.) Establishing the fundamental scientific basis for how foods are perceived will enable the design and manufacture of foods that are both of high quality and nutritionally responsible—for example, lower in fat, salt, and calories, while providing a pleasant sensory experience.

One of the most exciting new areas in food science today is a hybrid of sensory science, chemistry, and physics: molecular gastronomy. This food science amalgam came out of the realization that the phenomena occurring during cooking and eating were neglected by physical chemists. Today, its objectives are the understanding of the technical, artistic, and social components of cooking. In this sense, molecular gastronomy truly attempts to bridge the gap or, more correctly, close the loop among the sciences, humanities, and arts. It should also be noted that it is not a type of cooking, as is commonly and wrongly assumed (see chapter 30). Answering questions such as why ouzo (pastis) goes white when water is added to it, why the pulp around tomato seeds is so tasty, and why it is better to whip egg whites in a copper bowl is the objective of molecular gastronomy. Food science enables simpler and more daring cooking by clarifying and removing old culinary mysteries, which in turn can invite more people like you and like us into the kitchen.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The changing role of women in the kitchen over the past century or so is a key factor that at least partially explains the changes in Americans’ relationship to food. Traditionally, the planning, preparation, and cooking of food was an arduous process that could take up a significant part of a woman’s day. Innovations in home economics and the introduction of processed foods helped reduce the time and effort required to prepare meals. This increased convenience has been particularly important to many working families who have little spare time because both parents have to work to sustain the household. It is ironic that processed food is often unfavorably contrasted to home-prepared food, given that home cooks use a wide diversity of ingredients in their kitchens that are the result of food processing. These ingredients include vinegars, flavorings, oils, milk, cream, butter, margarine, chocolate, sugar, molasses, soy sauce, baking powder, maple syrup, flour, and so on. Even fruits and vegetables have been picked, stored, transported, and sold under carefully controlled conditions optimized through scientific studies to maintain their freshness and quality prior to consumption. Within this context, it is important to stop and reflect that food, through the act of cooking, is undeniably attached to culture. Cooking has the power to reunite the human being with nature; it makes us appreciate nature’s bounty and kindness. Preparing food can be an enjoyable, creative, and rewarding activity, and a good meal can be an important family occasion. However, priorities vary among us. A large proportion of the American population choose not to devote their attention to the eating experience—the conscious selection, preparation, consumption, and enjoyment of food. One consequence of this choice may be an unhealthy diet. It is therefore important to acknowledge responsibility at the personal level for our diets and health.

Imagine that all processed foods and beverages were suddenly removed from the shelves of your kitchen and supermarket. What would you eat and drink? Where would you get your food? How much would it cost you? Could you trust it to be safe and nutritious? Would the food be available in winter? Would there be enough food to feed you and all your neighbors? How much time would you be willing to spend gathering, storing, and preparing your food? Considering these questions highlights how the application of science and technology to the manufacture, storage, and transport of foods and beverages has undoubtedly had a positive impact on our lives.

While many of the problems exposed by Pollan (2008) are legitimate, their roots (and solutions) reside mainly within sociological, cultural, and personal contexts. There is nothing inherently wrong with a food being inexpensive or convenient, but sacrifices in quality, nutrition, animal welfare, and sustainability must often be made to achieve this. The question then is: What compromises among quality, nutrition, cost, and convenience are consumers and society willing to accept?

We see good science as an essential part of the solution to the problems associated with the modern food system, like improving the ways nutrition-related claims are reviewed, boosting food quality, addressing the sustainability issue, and reducing the heavy reliance on fossil fuels and water in food manufacturing. Improvements to the food system require that consumers demand higher-quality foods (and a willingness to invest in their health, through food), governments establish appropriate guidelines and regulations, and society fosters a culture of food (through radical changes in school-lunch programs, for example)—and that the food industry responds to meet these demands by using science wisely. There is no better way to put it: each and every one of us has the power to make this happen by choosing wisely and, hence, responsibly, three times a day, every day.

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