Why Preserved Food is So Bad: "Retort Flavor"

By Sarah Zhang | May 14, 2012 8:29 am

Autoclaves—would you cook a turkey in this?

At Popular Science is a profile of food scientists given an impossible task: make year-old mashed potatoes taste good. Food that lasts a year on the shelf needs to be sterilized, and that is a battle against extremophiles. Our most effective weapon is a very blunt one—heat. 252 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact.

Writer Paul Adams tours a food science lab and gets a taste of “retort flavor” in his sterilized mashed potatoes. The unappetizing term refers to the retort, a machine that obliterates microbes and flavor in one fell (and very hot) swoop:

The potatoes look right, once we’ve fluffed them up a bit, but the wholesome earthy taste and smell of fresh potatoes is almost gone from the dish. In its place there’s a tired, wet-paper flavor with notes of old steam pipe. This side effect of confined high-heat cooking is known in the trade as “retort flavor.” Stuckey’s theory is that it’s just underlying parts of the flavor coming through. Before food is retorted, she says, the dank base notes present in it are masked in part “by the beautiful aromatic volatile notes that we take for granted. When the retort destroys these low-molecular-weight flavors, what’s left is the ugly insides.”

How do you make retort-treated food taste better? “The easy answer,” Lin laughs, “is lots of salt and fat.” But for the product to sell, a crucial part of the potato mission is to keep each serving low enough in sodium and fat to stay competitive in the market.

To put flavor back into the dank potatoes, the industry has also chemical flavors like “sodium bisulfite” and “natural chicken pan dripping type flavor—for experimental use only.” That totally sounds, uh, appetizing. Read all about the chemical tricks over at Popular Science

And to a reformed biologist like me, the retort really is just the food industry version of an autoclave, the steam machine scientists use to sterilize lab equipment. See, what’s why I was always skeptical of those autoclave turkey stories of bio lab lore…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • http://www.thealders.net Doug Alder

    Wouldn’t irradiation accomplish the same goal without destroying the flavor?

  • Nils

    Slow food for the win !

  • Redshift

    People don’t want to buy irradiated food, and you can’t lie about it or they’ll run you out of town when they find out!

  • DS

    Doug, in the U.S. at least, irradiation is only allowed in very few products. It is currently not allowed in canned goods. Lots of validation studies would need to be done for years.

    There is a very serious risk of botulism in low acid, shelf stable products. The FDA or USDA (if it has meat in it) has very stringent rules for retort products to prevent this. They would have to be convinced beyond doubt that irradiation has killed every single pathogen and spore and does not create anything harmful.

    I agree that irradiation can accomplish this, but it will be very expensive to prove and very expensive to impliment. In the mean time, there are very good canned goods out there, unfortunately most of it is only availble to the food service industry – the retail stuff is mostly garbage.


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