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Category → food science

Visions of a fictional #foodchem future

As Thanksgiving approaches, I know I’m not alone in having an intensely nostalgic view of food. Certain foods will always be strongly associated with memories of my childhood and inextricably linked to my family as my children grow. Or rather, now that they are grown.

As I look fondly to the past, I also wonder what the future of food will look like. It is certain that chemistry will play some role here, because, food, like everything else, is made of chemicals.

When I was a young boy, all technology, including chemistry (!), was chic and modern, or, rather, mod. The food industry was creating product after product that, to me, seemed cool as cool could be, and I literally ate them up. My experience of this era mirrors that of Michael Pollan, writer of “books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.”

In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Futures of Food,” he wrote:

“all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.

The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology.”

Sadly, this love fest with technofood was short-lived:

“What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization.”

Over forty years later, although food technology has continued to proceeded, the concept of synthetic food has not regained any luster. The opinion that processed food is to be avoided has transcended the counterculture, and has been embraced by the popular culture and medical establishment. Whole, natural, fresh foods are the healthy dietary high road for you to travel.

There has been much controversy in particular regarding genetically-modified organisms (GMO) contained in our food products. Any discussion of the future of food would have to include this. But having just opened that particular can of worms, I’m going to attempt to reseal it and approach the subject of food’s future from another tack, taking a very sharp turn toward a lighter, fluffier view. Like a soufflé. Hopefully it won’t collapse.

We are now well into the 21st Century. So, how did those 1960s predictions of our Food Future turn out? I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy all my food in pill form. I find it’s a good idea to eat light before flying in my rocket car, at least until my personal robot gets its pilot’s license.

Since many of these predictions have turned out later to be more-or-less fantasy, perhaps more reliable visions of our future in food are to be found in the world of fiction. So, below, I’ve compiled a small list of film, television and book titles—some are SF, some not, but all have a vision of the future or parallel present, dystopian or otherwise. In all these works, there is at least a moment where food plays a part. Please join me and scan the following menu:

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Flavor chemistry: The science of deliciousness

Meet Bethany Hausch: chemist, food scientist, and my good friend! Courtesy photo.

Profile: Bethany Hausch, chemist, food scientist and technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours

We are quickly approaching the holidays and it only seems appropriate that I blog about food, since it’s such a crucial component of the season.

More specifically, this blog post is about food science, and about how a good friend of mine, Bethany Hausch, took her chemistry skills into the world of flavor science. We met when Bethany was studying at the University of Illinois, and I’m so happy that I get to blog about her journey!

Bethany is a technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours in Beloit, WI. She works in the Analytical Lab at Kerry where she uses various instrumentation to analyze flavors and study the composition of foods.

“Each day is different and depends on the tests requested from R&D scientists,” Bethany says. “Most days I work on three or four projects.    This could include identifying the source of an off-flavor in rejected product or comparing the flavor of samples in a storage study.  I might also spend part of my day determining the sugar profile of anything from coffee syrups to baby cereal.”

In undergrad, Bethany majored in chemistry (B.S., 2008), but when she looked at the traditional career options available to chemists, none seemed to be the right fit. Food science seemed to have more direct applications to everyday life, so she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Food Science & Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois in 2010 and immediately landed her job at Kerry.

What Bethany loves most about her job is the element of discovery and the fact that she’s learning new things all the time. Since the Analytical Lab provides support to all divisions of the company, Bethany learns about a lot of different types of foods and about the compounds that give them their flavor.

“I enjoy this field because I see the beauty of science while working on projects that are practical and have direct consumer applications,” she says. Continue reading →