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Without much fanfare, a new scientific journal, the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, came into being this past December and filled a niche spot in the science world. Upon hearing the word “science,” people tend to infer the textbook-like complexity of polysyllabic monikers and Greek roots. A field like food science risks being overlooked, if only because the terms it uses are deceptively straightforward. So what is “food science,” really?
“A bunch of it is looking at food in a different way,” Harry Flager, a junior in CC, says. “Whereas a cook would see flour and eggs and butter, a food scientist would see nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium—the composition of food.” Flager transferred from Cornell, where he spent his first year as a food science major, but ultimately decided that the intensive program was too concentrated on preparing the students for careers at large food companies. Flager himself is part of a small-but-growing percentage of chefs who are gaining a foundation in food science in order to inform their work. Food scientist and acclaimed chef Heston Blumenthal, for instance, operates the Fat Duck Restaurant, a British eatery where he employs nontraditional processes and ingredients in his self-taught cooking.
Flager is now an anthropology major at Columbia, where food science programs are not provided. With the exception of Cornell, food science programs are not provided by any other Ivy League institution. Within New York City, NYU comes the closest with its humanities-based food studies program. When Flager was looking at colleges, his options were fairly limited. In the US, the major four choices for food science are Cornell, Purdue University, the University of Florida, and Penn State.
Despite the limited educational opportunities for budding food scientists, the field may be more relevant than ever. In a country increasingly focused on what it’s consuming—employing terms like “trans fats,” “organic,” “freerange,” “preservatives,” “local,” and their ilk with ever-greater frequency—food science is increasingly ubiquitous in mainstream media and discourse.
A large part of what food scientists are concerned with is the mass production of food in all its stages. According to Pamela Koch, executive director of the Center for Food and Environment at Teacher’s College, simply understanding how food gets from “farm to table” is key to our well-being: “If everyone did have a better understanding of the food system, then we would have citizens who could critically examine issues about food and participate in making decisions about the future direction of the food system.”
Koch cites the recent issue of “pink slime” as a wake-up call for citizens to become more aware of what goes into making the food we eat. A term given to cheap ground chuck, “pink slime” is the result of ground-up cow parts treated in an ammonia bath, which removes the antibiotics fed to the cows and gives the meat its pinkish tint. “Once people understand the process, they can make decisions about if they want to eat beef produced in this way,” she adds.
“Chicken, and poultry in general, is not naturally that very nice pinkish color you see,” Flager says. “It’s actually much darker than that. But because people have come to expect it, they run it with arsenic to get that color. Same thing with skim milk—when you take whole milk and you take all the fat out of it, you also remove the pigment of the milk, and it becomes this really nasty gray color, and you actually then have to take the skim milk and bleach it again, because no one would buy it. That’s a lot of food science.”
In a world where the act of purchasing groceries is reduced to picking the most attractive packaging, consumers rarely realize how often artificial scientific processes come into play. “There’s some statistic like 98 percent of everything you eat, not on a daily basis, has been tampered with from its natural state,” Flager explains. “The only way you get that 2 percent is if you’re eating organically.”
Perhaps this new International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science is the present-day equivalent of the processing-centric Journal of Food Science, founded in 1936. This earlier iteration anticipated that the oncoming post-WWII era would bring a new surplus of food, thus necessitating food science to answer the question of how to efficiently use and preserve all of it.
Beyond the basic media hype and commercial purposes, Flager sees a variety of applications for food science. One of these is the production of cosmetics, which could benefit from the technology the manufacturers of Lemonheads use to extract oils from lemon skins and process it into a powerful concentrated form. “The chemistry and the process of extracting essences of flavors—that’s a part of food science, and a lot of people go from that into cosmetics,” Flager says.
Food science is everywhere—and its influence is growing. NASA, for instance, requires specially produced freeze-dried food vital to space exploration. Researchers at Cornell developed the real-life equivalent of Mean Girls’ Kalteen bar, which is packed with calories, to distribute to famine-stricken countries. Food science is changing the culinary landscape: Kitchens are now staffed by the starched white of lab coats of scientists.
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