Have you ever wondered how freshly baked bread gets its golden brown crust and why it smells so good? Or how nondescript green berries turn into beautiful brown coffee beans with a rich alluring aroma?
The answers to these questions lie in a series of complex of chemical reactions, known as Maillard reactions, which give many foods their familiar flavors and colors. These sensory properties even guide us in how we choose foods and help create our initial perceptions of their quality. Read More
A national chain restaurant once approached McCormick & Company because it wasn’t getting the kind of fajitas sell-through it expected. When VP of applied research Marianne Gillette and her colleagues visited the restaurant, they observed the ritual of the fajita moment: An awe-struck silence would sweep across the dining room as a waiter carried a sizzling fajita skillet to some lucky table. They went back to the office and brainstormed. How can we make this moment even more dramatic? They created a “sizzle sauce,” which made the sizzle louder and the aroma more intense. Sales spiked.
McCormick once made a cedar-plank flavor for a restaurant that didn’t want the bother of cooking salmon on actual cedar planks. Using the same technology it used to create the imitation vanilla, McCormick has created “Ultimate Lemon,” which was formulated using aroma chemicals found in lemon peel, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme, and Limoncello (a refreshing and highly drinkable Italian liqueur). Ultimate Lemon might show up in a beverage, dessert, or salad dressing.
Not that you’ll ever know. Whether it says so on the label or not—and it usually does not—McCormick is in every aisle and on every shelf of the supermarket. The company provides “custom flavor solutions” for nine of the top ten American food companies and eight of the top ten food service companies. (Food service refers to large chain restaurants, companies that sell to smaller restaurants, school cafeterias, hospitals, and so forth.) McCormick is in your pantry, your fridge, your freezer, and nearly every restaurant. Unless you are a hunter-gatherer or have spent your life obtaining calories via feeding tube, McCormick has used the science and psychology of food to make you happy. It’s probably happened in the last week.
By Deborah Blum
It’s been more than a decade since scientists first raised an alarm about arsenic levels in rice—an alarm based on the realization that rice plants have a natural ability to absorb the toxic element out of the soil.
Since then study after study has confirmed that rice products contain more arsenic than those of any other grain. In response, consumer health advocates have pushed for regulatory agencies to set a safety standard for rice (more on that story in my forthcoming feature story in the October 2013 issue of Discover).
China, a high rice-consumption country, has already moved to do so. The World Health Organization is currently taking comments on a proposed safety standard. And last year—in a somewhat grudging response to pressure from activist groups in this country—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was also studying the issue.
And studying and studying, apparently. Although the FDA released some data on arsenic contamination of rice last fall—in direct response to a comprehensive report on the issue from Consumers Union researchers—the agency has yet to provide any further information or to set a deadline on when it might set a protective limit.
In frustration, public health researchers at Consumers Union and the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, last month wrote to the FDA asking why the agency was moving so slowly to protect American consumers, underlining the point that the agency’s preliminary results found the taint of arsenic in pretty much every rice product tested.
Christina Agapakis is a synthetic biologist and postdoctoral research fellow at UCLA who blogs about about biology, engineering, biological engineering, and biologically inspired engineering at Oscillator.
When you factor in the fertilizer needed to grow animal feed and the sheer volume of methane expelled by cows (mostly, though not entirely, from their mouths), a carnivore driving a Prius can contribute more to global warming than a vegan in a Hummer. Given the environmental toll of factory farming it’s easy to see why people get excited about the idea of meat grown in a lab, without fertilizer, feed corn, or burps.
In this vision of the future, our steaks are grown in vats rather than in cows, with layers of cow cells nurtured on complex machinery to create a cruelty-free, sustainable meat alternative. The technology involved is today used mainly to grow cells for pharmaceutical development, but that hasn’t stopped several groups from experimenting with “in vitro meat,” as it’s called, over the last decade. In fact, a team of tissue engineers led by professor Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands recently announced their goal to make the world’s first in vitro hamburger by October 2012. The price tag is expected to be €250,000 (over $330,000), but we’re assured that as the technology scales up to industrial levels over the next ten years, the cost will scale down to mass-market prices.
Whenever I hear about industrial scaling as a cure-all, my skeptic alarms start going off, because scaling is the deus ex machina of so many scientific proposals, often minimized by scientists (myself included) as simply an “engineering problem.” But when we’re talking about food and sustainability, that scaling is exactly what feeds a large and growing population. Scaling isn’t just an afterthought, it’s often the key factor that determines if a laboratory-proven technology becomes an environmentally and economically sustainable reality. Looking beyond the hype of “sustainable” and “cruelty-free” meat to the details of how cell culture works exposes just how difficult this scaling would be.
by Richard Wrangham, as told to Discover’s Veronique Greenwood. Wrangham is the chair of biological anthropology at Harvard University, where he studies the cultural similarities between humans and chimpanzees—including our unique tendencies to form murderous alliances and engage in recreational sexual activity. He is the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
When I was studying the feeding behavior of wild chimpanzees in the early 1970s, I tried surviving on chimpanzee foods for a day at a time. I learned that nothing that chimpanzees ate (at Gombe, in Tanzania, at least) was so poisonous that it would make you ill, but nothing was so palatable that one could easily fill one’s stomach. Having eaten nothing but chimpanzee foods all day, I fell upon regular cooked food in the evenings with relief and delight.
About 25 years later, it occurred to me that my experience in Gombe of being unable to thrive on wild foods likely reflected a general problem for humans that was somehow overcome at some point, possibly through the development of cooking. (Various of our ancestors would have eaten more roots and meat than chimpanzees do, but I had plenty of experience of seeing chimpanzees working very hard to chew their way through tough raw meat—and had even myself tried chewing monkeys killed and discarded by chimpanzees.) In 1999, I published a paper [pdf] with colleagues that argued that the advent of cooking would have marked a turning point in how much energy our ancestors were able to reap from food.
To my surprise, some of the peer commentaries were dismissive of the idea that cooked food provides more energy than raw. The amazing fact is that no experiments had been published directly testing the effects of cooking on net energy gained. It was remarkable, given the abiding interest in calories, that there was a pronounced lack of studies of the effects of cooking on energy gain, even though there were thousands of studies on the effects of cooking on vitamin concentration, and a fair number on its effects on the physical properties of food such as tenderness. But more than a decade later, thanks particularly to the work of Rachel Carmody, a grad student in my lab, we now have a series of experiments that provide a solid base of evidence showing that the skeptics were wrong.
Whether we are talking about plants or meat, eating cooked food provides more calories than eating the same food raw. And that means that the calorie counts we’ve grown so used to consulting are routinely wrong. Read More