Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thoughts on Food Science

Or, how to get cheese in a can:

I wrote an aborted reply* to this article on Slate earlier today. Unlike as is usual there, the headline "survival of the yummiest," is a better thesis than Dan Engber’s articulate but rambling commentary on Michael Pollan’s strikingly dumb article in NYT magazine. They both share the qualitative point that we’re evolved (or designed) to eat plants and run around a lot. Pollan’s happy with the truism and condemns two decades of nutritional science. Engber’s OK with people doing research to find out the details of why that is. (Good for you, Dan.)

I think both of these people miss how food science has been developed, namely to maximize profit. Nutritional science can explain food interactions and relationships with human health, but the body’s a complicated system, and these explanations have been hijacked or hidden by the food producer's R&D as is convenient. There’s not the same sort of money for that thing, especially since you can make money by lying. If eating real food is as old humanity, hawking false curatives is at least as old as civilization.

I’m not doing research here (though I’m drawing a little on some ancient classwork), but I see food science as having been enormously successful in a number of ways:

-Satisfaction Optimization
Imagine the chemical engineering that goes into a McDonald’s french fry. You have the fry scent piped into that thing; you have your extra-crispifying coating; you have that oily burst calibrated just so; the optimum salt, the optimum sugar. You even have perfectly ergonomic paper fry caddies.

You can take the Pollan route and say that, sure, fat and sugar sells, dude, but don’t doubt that those components have been reduced, dissected, and reassembled in Ronald’s dark laboratory for optimum addictive potential, flavor, and a short arc of satisfaction that will get more fries in your hands as quickly as possible.

-Quality Control
Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get the same product on your plate every single time. If you’re thirsty enough to pop a can of Bud, think how amazing it is that these twelve ounces of fizzy yellow stuff are completely indistinguishable from the last 96 or so. Brewing is a bitch--there are a million minor side reactions that will create off (or just different) flavors or colors, and all must be carefully controlled to get the exact same calculated frisson in every can.

This is especially true with paler beer. I think one reason American pilsener took off as a preferred beer style, at least in those early post-Prohibition days when beer was surfacing as the country’s choice hooch, is because it was challenging to brew, and it represented the apogee of the craft. (Later, it surely succeeded due to marketing and the fact that rice is cheaper than barley.) I’ve read long papers on industrial brewing science. It’s an enormous field. (Well, it was once. Pretty mature by now, I imagine)

-Shelf Life
My local NPR affiliate did a segment last month on Asian grocery chains and why they’re so immensely cheaper than the Safeway. Short answer: it’s because they sell ripe product. Asian people tend to buy and cook on the same day, so they can get away with that. For the more typical American habits, those peaches would go bad by the time they were dug out of the fridge.

Preservation of food is a modern science. We’ve got six decades of it under our belts by now to show you how keeping the food fresh-looking is way more important than keeping it healthy. Producers will make the most money if the stuff can sit more or less indefinitely on the supermarket shelves, just looking pretty, until it’s finally sold. That’s why we have nitrites, BHT, and those fucking cardboard tomatoes from the other side of the goddamn world. It doesn't have to be edible. It just has to look edible.

So did our tastes evolve? Yeah, but it wasn't nutritional Darwinism, it was marketing Darwinism. Perpetuation not of the fittest, but of the tastiest, hte most consistent, the longest-lived. Food science is driven by the free market. You expect health science to keep up with that? Especially since in order to sell something as intangible as health, you only need ever need to fake it.

*because really, what’s the point? (Also, I was busy)


symbnt said...

Keifus Re: Your links not working - your using “smart quotes” and not “straight quotes”. Look them up in your Microsoft Word help.

Keifus said...

Bring me the head of Bill Gates! (Lab computer, sorry.)

The irony's perfect though, isn't it?


Keifus said...

Update: since I forced myself to consider the science of American pilseners yesterday afternoon, I allowed myself to splurge tonight.

It's a little early in the year to be sipping on the mountain goat, but I have fond memories of Saranac from those upstate New York college years. Black and Tan was the cheapest beer you could buy that didn't suck. Head downtown, and you could get Dark Forest on tap. (One of Troy's joys, in those days anyway, was a hole in the wall called Holmes and Watson's. Decent food, and a couple hundred fine beers. A lot of wonderful scotches too. The year after I graduated, I made regular trips up to hang out there with my buddy--and to see the girl I was dating at the time, I guess--but circumstances of geography prevented my pursuit of the beer map no matter how hard I tried, even though with my grad student stipend I could almost, kinda, afford it.)

I'm also not much of a lager guy, but as it turns out, those malty German styles suit my wife pretty well, who's big on the malty, but not so much on the bitter, nor on the hoppy nose. If I can get her to share, it's like I'm committing no sins, much like a shared cheesecake has no calories.

So...bock it is. Sort of criminal to even drink a lager this cold, however.


(Hey Ender, feel free to cut the previous comments where you call me on being a retard. I'll delete mine if you delete yours.)