Specialty Food Chemistry at DC’s Fancy Food Show

Chemistry is everywhere, as we're fond of saying in the pages of C&EN. So I was excited to let my taste buds partake in the biochemistry at the Fancy Food Show, which rolled into DC this past weekend. Sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the Show is a mecca for makers of specialty foods such as cheeses, confections, and snacks. It draws the most diverse group of attendees I've ever encountered--on the expo floor I ran into folks from nerd gift emporium ThinkGeek, agribusiness giant Cargill, and the U.S. State Department. Chew on some tidbits of science I picked up at the show, some of which are connected to past C&EN coverage. AUTHENTICATING OLIVE OIL At the booth for Daskara, an extra-virgin olive oil brand from the West Bank, I spoke about olive oil authentication with Nancy Ash, who's participated in taste panels for multiple bodies, including the California Olive Oil Council, and who consults for multiple olive oil producers, including Daskara. As Sarah Everts reported in C&EN in 2009, olive oil is big business, which has made olive oil fraud a big problem. Authentication is important for new producers to succeed in the specialty food market, but "many people feel the current standard is not strict enough and is not well-enforced," Ash says. USDA enacted new standards for grades of olive oil in 2010, but the standards are voluntary. Ash told me the American Oil Chemists' Society, a membership society for researchers studying fats, oils, and detergents, is planning a proficiency testing series for olive oil sensory panels for this fall. (Sensory panels are trained to certify olive oils submitted by producers or importers). I confirmed this information with AOCS spokesperson Emily Wickstrom, who says enrollment for the testing for professional sensory panels should open at AOCS's site this week. SPACE-AGE PACKAGING As someone who loved astronaut ice cream as a kid, I was drawn to a press release from snack company Buddy Fruits, which claimed to use the same packaging techniques as NASA for its drinkable blended fruit products. The pouch-like packaging the company uses is not new, I learned. It's made from a flexible, laminated film with a straw built into the inside of the pouch. Buddy Fruits' containers come from an Italian firm called Gualapack. That company entered the market in 1988, after reaching an agreement with Japanese company Hosokawa Yoko for production and marketing of the packages. Here's a 1988 patent for a "Beverage Container" from Hosokawa Yoko. The patent notes the container body is made from a four-layer laminated film consisting of a polyester film, aluminum foil, nylon film, and polyethylene film. Buddy Fruits was not the only product using this packaging--I also saw it with French baby food Yabon. I'm still looking for the NASA connection. This story from manufacturing trade publication Industry Today mentions NASA using pail liners of a similar design aboard the space shuttle. SUGAR SUBSTITUTES Plenty of products featuring rebiana, the zero-calorie sweetener from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, were on display at the show. But even Stevia isn't immune to questions about its natural-ness, because the extraction procedure for the substance requires ethanol. Now, as far as I'm concerned, a molecule's a molecule no matter where it comes from. But as I've learned from covering the pink slime debacle, when it comes to food, transparency and perception matter just as much if not more than science. I spoke with Roberto E. Tejada, general manager of Caribbean Liquid Sugar, about the "natural sweetener" trend. Tejada's firm produces an invert sugar syrup (pdf), and it also makes a blend of invert sugar and rebiana. Invert sugar contains fructose and glucose in roughly equal proportions. "Our Stevia extracts are obtained using a water-based process by mechanically pressing the Stevia leaves," Tejada says. "This process is free of alcohols or hydrochloric acids and we make periodic visits to our vendors to audit their process." I've contacted the company to ask about the patent status of the extraction process and I will update when I hear back. UPDATE July 3: I've heard from a company representative who says the process is patent pending. SALT AND PEPPER Not all salt's the same, and Chef Keith Keogh knows it. Keogh, a former president of the California Culinary Academy, put people through the paces of salty and spicy tastes at a workshop during the show. Participants tasted a series of different salts and different pepper spices in a defined order, and Keogh explained taste observations along the way. The workshop didn't reveal anything new about taste--it was meant to highlight some observations about flavor that might help in the kitchen or at the dinner party. For instance, Keogh said sea and marsh salts' more complex flavors (as compared to run-of-the-mill table salt or powdery popcorn salt) are due to their more complex ionic makeup. These salts contain small amounts of magnesium, potassium, sulfate, and other ions besides sodium and chloride. "Some people claim that salt that tastes diff is just caused by difference in shape," says Shirley O. Corriher, a biochemist and author of multiple books about applying science in the kitchen. "That's not true, because people can taste differences in solutions of salts." Keogh's taste tests were also set up to show that adding sugar to a spicy pepper, such as chipotle, lessens the pepper's heat, while adding vinegar to pepper enhances it. VEGAN CHEESE It's not easy going vegan. And one of the toughest parts of the process, according to this April NYTimes article, is adjusting to vegan dairy substitutes. I visited the Wayfare Foods booth to chat about what goes into a vegan dairy product. As a post from NPR food blog The Salt explains, cheeses' ability to melt and stretch comes from casein, a protein found in milk. A protein from animals' milk is not an option in a vegan product, so producers have to blend proteins, gums, fats, and solids in just the right way to mimic dairy's texture and properties. Wayfare's products get their protein from different blends of oats, millet, lima beans, and rice. The company makes cheese spreads, sour cream, and puddings. Each product starts with a different combination of grains as its base. Cheeses begin with water and oats, while sour cream starts with a blend of water, lima beans, rice, oats, and oat bran. Puddings start with the sour cream base and add millet to the mix. Wayfare's ingredient list also includes a coconut and safflower oil blend (fats, check!), and locust bean gum, which comes from the carob tree. The cheesy flavor comes from a variety of spices including pimentos and onion powder, as well as nutritional yeast, a form of yeast that is typically grown on molasses. All images Drahl/C&EN

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. thanks for the tidbits on the packaging, carmen! those food pouches have become all the rage for babies and toddlers alike, and although they tout their BPA-free-ness on the label, been wondering (as I feed my infant from them!) what materials they’re made of…

  2. Lisa- glad to be of service. I actually had a closeup of the “BPA-free” logo, but it was blurry, so I chose another photo. That’s what you get with an iPhone in a fluorescent-lit convention center, I guess.

  3. Those food packages are pretty cool, but while I see the allure of them being BPA free and light weight, I don’t think they can be recycled (at least not as easily as cans or jars). I guess everything has a tradeoff!

  4. Good question, Anastasia. I posed it to my contact and I will post their reply.

  5. Hi Anastasia, I’ve heard back from my contact and so far the only information I have is that the containers are recyclable. No info on relative ease of recyclability. And of course, recycling policies differ in different areas. I guess it means chemists still have a few challenges ahead in this area.