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Playing with Food: Adventures (and Misadventures) in Food Science

Shira Isenberg

Over the course of your life, you will consume about 35 tons of food — most of which is made possible by innovations in food science. But do we really want scientists playing with our food? In many cases, the answer, surprisingly, is yes!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

food scienceYou eat science every day — in fact, you had it for breakfast this morning. Before arriving at your table, your cereal underwent countless procedures developed by food scientists: grinding and processing the grains, baking, flavoring, mixing with other ingredients, preserving, and packaging.

Then there’s your milk, which was heated at very high temperatures to ensure its safety, homogenized to prevent it from separating, fortified with vitamins A and D, and bottled in a specially designed container to preserve riboflavin. And unless you happen to live inBrazil,India, orAfrica, food science gives you access to coffee beans for your requisite cup of joe.

Indeed, food is safer and more widely available today because of developments in food science. And advances in food processing — a catchall term synonymous of late with adulterating — enable us to make food both more quickly and less expensively.

What Is Food Science?

Food science conjures up Frankenstein-esque images of flasks overflowing with smoky liquids in a dark basement. It sounds scary, like scientists are manipulating our food in ways that are unnatural or unhealthy.

The reality, in most cases, is the opposite. Food science is an applied science — it takes biological and chemical principles and applies them to practical aspects of food production to make it safer, healthier, quicker, or better in some way. It’s become a necessity for modern life.

When people began leaving agricultural lifestyles for urban, industrial ones, they needed ways to obtain food they couldn’t grow themselves. And not just raw ingredients; people in cities didn’t have access to the mill, for example, and so they needed wheat that was already ground into flour. Over time, we began to expect food in readier states, like bread that was already baked and cheeses that were ready to eat. Demand for healthier and safer food also grew.

All of these seemingly regular foods require processing. Unless you picked your apple directly off a tree in your backyard, “Everything we eat has been processed in one way or another,” asserts John Floros, PhD, dean of theCollegeofAgricultureatKansasStateUniversity.

Processing means handling the food in any way — even just washing, cutting, or packing it — and despite popular belief, processed foods can comprise a healthy diet. There are multiple levels of processing: minimally processed foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables), foods processed for preservation (e.g., tuna), foods mixed with other ingredients (e.g., salad dressings), ready-to-eat foods (e.g., cheese and yogurt), and, finally, prepared foods (e.g., frozen dinners).

 

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