Friday, February 02, 2007

Think It's Easy Getting Cheese in a Can?

Some thoughts on food science:

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)


sydbristow said...

I'm off McD's stuff, have been for a month now. Unbelievable (to myself). Enjoyed the article and your take. I liked his opening salvo: I'm giving you the answer here but am going to spend another couple thousand words anyway .. gutsy. (fwiw, my wife recommends his Omnivore's Dilemma)

Aside, look what these guys say about my Atlantic link. ("Where are you?")

rgtaa -- rigatoni agitates as[stop!]

Keifus said...

Good for you syd, that shit'll kill ya.

As for the Pollan article, it's all grandiose of saying what you can turn up any cantankerous grandmother for: "them scientists with their formulas and coats, can't agree on nothin. All you really have to do is..."

Which of course doesn't make the understandign and research pointless. Not at all. (And of course, the researchers are probably the people least culpable in propagating health misinformation.)

(How long will it last they ask? I'm appreciating it on a few levels while it does.)

Omnivore's dilemma: on the list. May work out soon--have some similar non-fic I want to peruse.

also, thanks.

gomwkx: General Mills owes me Kix(TM)
(I shouldn't be seeing these)

twiffer said...

i used to have a link to an article explaining how, scientifically, heinz was the epitome of ketchup. alas, i think the link expired.

Keifus said...

that woulda been awesome, twiff.

sydbristow said...

aside cont'd: look at the impact of that Untruth article: *

weird stuff, that's all I can say. also, thanks for those kind words re my newfound good eating habits. as i tell anybody who'll listen: it's damn hard (for some of us prone to addictive behaviour types!)

lnikcg -- like now i know correct grocering

TenaciousK said...

Think It's Easy Getting Cheese In A Can?

You think that stuff in a can is really cheese?

ddnowscy: Didn't know science yet.

obfuscati said...

Think It's Easy Getting Cheese in a Can?

best. post title. ever.

food science isn't quite the same thing as research in nutrition. food science, as practiced at large southern land-grant universities with huge ag schools, is often about "how can we produce more calories per acre?" and "how can we use up all this waste that's left over from milling this __[insert foodstuff here]__?"

i'm all for useful research that leads to improved food preservation, and i'm all about reduce/reuse/recycle [head cheese, anyone?], and so forth and so on, but much of "food science" is carried on under the auspices of the agribusiness industry, which doesn't give a flying taco about nutrition.

ps. i love that suff in the can, be it cheese or not. dogs do too. excellent training bribes/treats.

nlrwde: nearly raw and delicious
dpcmytvf: drop the chalupa! that's my tv food!

Keifus said...

syd: I've found it easier to get up early and swim a mile four days a week than to change my diet. (And I've never been real big on the highly addictive stuff.) You've got my sympathy, man.

TK: technically, it's "cheez" but who's counting.

obf: [hehe, thanks, at least Prince Albert won't starve]

I'm more fascinated by the food engineering (hmm, being a chemical engineer?) than by the ag science bit. I think my favorite example of the latter though has got to be selling white flour, and then selling bran separately. Talk about a marketing coup.

Sounds like a fun job, getting the right proportion of chemicals to get the flow properties of the cheez just so (shear-thinning, or more like Bingham flow, I wonder) making the flavor corpuscles burst on the tongue just right. But to do that, I'd be working for the devil. (So instead I live off of tiny DoD contracts.)

OT to anyone: What on earth justifies an hour-and-a-half Monday morning meeting, when we just had a two-and-a-half hour Friday afternoon meeting on the exact same project? The crux of Friday's meeting: how is your idea different than anyone elses, cuz we need to market it. Of Monday's: I don't care if you're repeating other people's work--we need results.

K (I kind of hate my job these days.)

obfuscati said...

twf? 'zat you?

joiaooq: joy of ooky queso

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