Food For Thought

My time is almost at an end here in the world of Chemistry of Food. I won’t soon forget my time here; that much is certain. Before I go my last wish is to leave some advice for the future food chemists here at Centre. Beware: in this Centre term class, you actually have to work. There is no room here for those who want little homework and days off of class.

The most challenging part of the class is that it constantly keeps you thinking about how your food is made and how this impacts your personal diet. Between reading, blog posts, class discussions, presentations, group work, field trips, and the grand finale video project, you’re thinking about your food almost nonstop for a few weeks. You will learn interesting facts, enlightening facts, and a few facts you frankly wish you didn’t know. Those bacon bits at Cowan that you put on your salads don’t have any bacon in them. I know, first time I found out I shed a few tears too. No shame in that.

Once you accept the challenge of the class it can be a pretty enjoyable experience. The class isn’t based on a read this and take a test over that equation. It is a class built upon discussion and communication between your peers that helps build skills even those with zero interest in chemistry can use. Everyone can improve on presentation skills. Everyone can improve on collaboration skills. The class definitely has plenty to keep those with interests in chemistry and biology more than satisfied, but don’t think those are the only people this class is for.

My final advice for future students is pretty simple: go all in with this course. This doesn’t mean to show up an hour early to each class or to read every assignment over and over again until you can recite it word for word. Going all in means asking questions, putting thought into your blog posts and video project, and just having a positive attitude in class. It is a pretty simple list of things to remember even when you wake up five minutes before class. Try not to do that though.


Same Goal, Different Roots

 Maker’s Mark and Wilderness Trace Distillery both take great pride in making their bourbon. Each of them have respect for Kentucky’s bourbon heritage, passion for implementing chemistry into their bourbon, and commitment to making what the customer wants. Both distillers even use the same type of distilling systems (column stills). Yet at the same time, Maker’s Mark and Wilderness Trace Distillery couldn’t be more different.

Wilderness Trace Distillery only recently began producing their own spirits. They started out by consulting other distillers about how to produce their spirits more efficiently and even how to make them taste better by relying on knowledge of chemistry. The chemistry concepts they focused on were boiling points, which flavors came from which feedstocks, and what compounds needed to be extracted from the newly charred oak barrels to get the right taste. Actually producing alcohol for consumption was more of just a hobby until they decided to produce it in bulk for the public.

Maker’s Mark is almost the polar opposite of Wilderness Trace. Maker’s is the oldest running distillery of bourbon in the world. Their history of producing bourbon spans eight generations now and they still preserve the yeast that they used for the original batch. Bourbon isn’t a business they are just getting into now; they’ve been using time-tested techniques such as a sour mash in wood planks that have sat unmoved for decades. Even with their rich tradition, Maker’s knows it can get better consistency in their spirits by investing in chemical research. Right next to the distillery sits a chemistry lab that works to make sure the bourbon tastes the same each time and is free from impurities.

Wilderness Trace is taking what they know in chemistry and applying it to their bourbon. Maker’s Mark is coming in the opposite direction and learning chemistry that they hope can improve their already famous bourbon. Each are creating a great product, yet it is evident that the two distillers have very different styles.

Butter Bites Back

Butter is not the healthiest food in the world. We all know that companies have been scrambling for years to make a healthy, tasty butter, and these attempts usually have centered around finding the healthiest fats to put in our beloved spread. But who knew that the biggest danger to our health wasn’t a complex compound in the butter, but the taste of butter itself?

The organic molecule diacetyl (C4H6O2) has a very strong buttery taste. It is formed during fermentation in alcoholic beverages, sour cream, and cultured butter. Diacetyl is also found naturally in many foods in small amounts and added to many processed foods, most famously microwave popcorn. So why does diacetyl put us in danger? It turns out that eating diacetyl is a very small risk. There has only been one man who has ever been sick as a result of consuming diacetyl, and he received millions of dollars in a lawsuit against his supplier of microwavable popcorn (which he consumed at an outrageous rate to begin with). When diacetyl is inhaled, however, the story changes.

Diacetyl in its volatile state wrecks havoc on your respiratory system. Epithelia are groups of cells that line your respiratory system. When diacetyl comes in contact with epithelia they inhibit ion transport and subsequently result in the loss of epithelial function. These cells are responsible for keeping your respiratory system moist and free of harmful pathogens. This loss of function is called bronchiolitis obliterans, an incurable lung disease. Those afflicted by this disease usually require a lung transplant in order to survive.

Since processing foods with diacetyl involves diacetyl being in a very volatile state, the food industry is phasing diacetyl out of our food as much as possible. Other compounds such as acetoin (C4H8O2) have been found that can mimic the taste of butter and are being substituted for diacetyl as we speak. The only hope for diacetyl at remaining relevant in society is as an antimicrobial agent. Ongoing studies have found that diacetyl may be helpful in preventing mitosis of gram-negative bacteria, a trait that could help sanitation everywhere.

Great and Glorious GMOs

Unforgettable! Amazing! Fantastic!

Okay so amazing and fantastic might be stretching it a bit, but genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are definitely an unforgettable topic that we have covered in class. The discovery of the ability to take genes from one organism and place them in another organism has transformed the world’s food system more in the last 50 years than any other period in human history. We could not come up with enough food for all the people on the planet today without GMOs.

The sheer brilliance behind the idea of GMOs is amazing. Let’s say a corn field in Kansas is having trouble with insects. The farmer that takes care of this field must spray the field with deadly pesticides that grow more powerful every year, which contain chemicals he/she can neither understand or pronounce. All the farmer knows is that their pesticides are washed away in the rain, carried into the streams and rivers, and are causing serious pollution. A lab halfway across the country then places a gene inside of the corn that will give the corn the ability to give off its own pesticide. The farmer no longer has a need for spraying the pesticides and the corn thrives.

You are probably thinking about what could be better than this science. I’ll tell you what is better: the controversy, the gossip, the rumours. This is when the real fun starts. There is a crowd of people in opposition to the GMO industry, which is understandable. Humans have evolved to eat food as it is and perhaps an all-natural diet is better. But what is all-natural these days? Its not the term organic, as companies can put plenty of chemicals in food and still call it organic. GMOs. Trying to find the perfect diet without any modifications is quite tricky.

The rumours are very intriguing. One rumour is that GMOs are less nutritious for us than ordinary food. The FDA has researched GMOs in depth and found this to not be true. GMOs are just as nutritious and may in the future be even safer in terms of carrying pathogens. My favorite piece of gossip is that GMOs will create super-insects and super-weeds when the genes in the GMO crops are passed to these organism. Genes can’t magically pass from one organism to another, they need to be inserted, often with another gene to promote the gene so it can be coded for. GMOs could lead to stronger insects and weeds via the evolution route, but this threat would develop slowly and could be carefully monitored.


A Better Bourbon

The taste of bourbon is often decided in the very first step of making bourbon; choosing the feedstock. All bourbon must contain 51% corn to officially have the label of being bourbon. The remaining 49% can be any combination of wheat, rye, or malted barley, allowing bourbon producers to come up with creative and distinct flavors. The feedstock once chosen is ground and mixed with water to create a mash. If the mash is combined with mash from a previous mash, the mash is called a sour mash. Sour mashes are used by some companies to keep a constant pH in their mixture.

Adding yeast to the mash begins the fermentation process. Yeast is a microscopic eukaryote that consumes the sugars from the feedstock and produces ethanol, esters, and carbon dioxide. Ethanol is the alcohol component of bourbon and esters are the chemical compounds that produce flavors in the bourbon. The fermentation process typically takes a few days. Wilderness Trace Distillery lets their bourbon ferment for three days.

After fermentation the mash goes through a distillation process. This originally occurred in a pot still, but now companies are opting for a column still for a more precise product. In these column stills steam (Wilderness Trace uses a hot water bath) and alcohol from the mash are heated and cooled as they pass through a series of columns. The alcohol and water are repeatedly evaporated and condensed to separate the two and get a high proof of alcohol in the product. This product is then place in a new, charred-oak barrel. Here the bourbon will gain flavors from the oak as it ages through the years.

What I learned from the visit to Wilderness Trace Distillery is that chemistry and biochemistry play key roles in industries that you wouldn’t normally think of. Wilderness Trace has developed all their technology based on science, and is even trying to make genetically modified yeast that will help them make better bourbon. The people that make our spirits aren’t just following recipes that have been passed through the generations, they are trying to make better-tasting and higher-quality drinks.


Thinking Food

Between The Unsettling of America, the visit to Marksbury Farms, watching Food, Inc., and learning about GMO’s, I’d have to say the visit to Marksbury Farms had the biggest impact on how I view food. The past two weeks have all been about how what we eat is important, but what we eat eats and how we cook it may be even more important. This doesn’t really sink in, however, until you visit an actual farm.

It may have been a small sample size but all of the food at Marksbury Farms was great. Raising the animals in pastures on grass instead of in barns on corn may not have everything to do with the taste, but it sure seemed like it. The food got me thinking about how if Marksbury Farms can make this good of food with a mission of sustainability and local productivity, then why can’t everyone do it? I found two reasons why. One is the scale of production. Marksbury Farms can only supply one Chipotle restaurant and a handful of other buyers. We would need a lot of Marksburys in order to supply the whole country. The other reason is price. In the Marksbury store all the food seemed to be double the price it would be in a normal grocery store. The all-natural process can’t take the cost cutting shortcuts that the industrial process takes.

I’m not sure if what Marksbury Farms does can ever be replicated on a large enough scale to feed the entire country. Agriculture is no longer in the spotlight of the American dream with the way farmers are being taken advantage of by companies. In order to change our food system, the government would have to devote an enormous amount of resources to agriculture to make Marksbury Farms quality food be able to compete with McDonalds in price. The fact that small farms like Marksbury are still finding success does leave a glimmer of hope though, that one day we may be able to find the resources and a way to topple the food corporations.


Berry’s 99 Problems (And Our Character Ain’t One)

In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry asserts that there are three crises in America; a crisis of character, of agriculture, and of culture. Berry’s ideas are hit-and-miss to say the least, but his commentary does bring up questions to ponder about our future. While there is a crisis of agriculture, its roots are in the crisis of culture. America’s agricultural production in terms of sheer numbers has never been better. The crisis is that this production is dominated by genetically modified corn and soybeans. Not only does this limit consumer choice, but it leads to the promotion of “so-called efficiency at the expense of community (and of real efficiency), and quantity at the expense of quality” by forcing small, family-owned farms to conform to industrial standards and ideals (Berry, 42).

This crisis in agriculture is a result of a crisis in culture because our society is lowering its standards. As Berry notes, agriculture has gone along with the rest of society when it “has shifted its emphasis, and its interest, from quality to quantity” and “has substituted a simple dutifulness” in the place of hard work (42, 44-45). It needs to be noted that this crisis of culture is not all-encompassing. There are many people that try to eat healthy, try to produce the best quality products that they can, and still believe that nothing replaces hard work. We need to be mindful of the other fraction of American people, however, and we see this fraction daily. This is the fraction that is content with eating fast food routinely, doing just enough to get a passing grade in classes, and is rather apathetic to how the world is changed in their lifetime as long as their wants are taken care of. Solving how to motivate this fraction and solve the cultural crisis would take care of the agricultural worries.

The fact that not everyone in America is involved in the crisis of culture undermines Berry’s idea of a crisis of character. Berry defines the average American citizen as only having “two concerns: making money and entertaining himself” (20). Berry goes on to list other frankly morbid qualities of the average American, saying, “he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor… he does not care much and does not know why he does not care” (20). To describe the majority of America as depressed and morally corrupt is an exaggeration in order to scare readers into agreeing with Berry. Not all Americans have poor character and are in need of an attitude adjustment. America does need to monitor its culture and change its agriculture back into agriculture, not industry.

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1996. Print.


GMOs With Granny

If I had to explain genetically modified organisms to my family at dinner, the conversation honestly wouldn’t last too long. Us kids all play sports and our parents are on enough boards and committees to make your head spin, leaving us so busy that fast food is almost a staple in our diet. The fact that scientists are playing with our food wouldn’t create much of a disturbance in the household. My grandma, however, the queen of cooking, would throw a fit if she knew that biotechnology has been redefining food over the last twenty years or so. For my pretend conversation I will therefore travel to my grandma’s farmhouse.

Grandma: Alex, my favorite grandchild, will you please go out to the garden and pick some tomatoes for dinner?

Me: Yes ma’am! Still eating your own vegetables I see.

Grandma: I do go to the grocery store, but there’s just something different about the produce there.

Me: Well you can thank science for that. A lot of the foods we eat in this country aren’t made of what we think they are anymore.

Grandma: Really? Go on my intelligent grandson.

Me: As it turns out, scientists have found a way to take pieces of DNA from one organism and put them into another one. This genetically modified organism, GMO for short, then has the trait that piece of DNA gives it.

Grandma: Good gracious! Why on earth would they want to do that?

Me: Well take tomatoes for example. Tomatoes grow best in certain climates at certain times of the year. Scientists took a gene from a fish that lives in the arctic and put it in tomatoes, letting tomatoes grow in cold weather. This lets us have tomatoes year-round at a cheaper price. They can also put genes in tomatoes to make it resistant to insects or to give off its own pesticides. That way we can spray less chemicals in fields.

Grandma: I better go see my doctor about these foods…

Me: Based on what we know right now, these foods don’t hurt us at all when we eat them. They’re just as healthy as normal foods.

Grandma: Still, I think I’ll avoid them for now.

Me: Well you can try…

Grandma: What is it?

Me: Foods that contain GMOs don’t have to tell you that they contain GMOs on their label. You probably have been eating GMOs for years.

Grandma: 🙁

Me: Its okay grandma, these foods really won’t hurt you. I’ll go pick those tomatoes and we can shop at the farmer’s market later today.

Grandma: 🙂

Just imagine if she had heard about Monsanto.


My Appetite on a Rollercoaster, Thanks Science

One week ruined my appetite indefinitely. I came into the course happily satisfied with what I thought my food was. Sure, I knew a lot of things that I ate weren’t the healthiest for me and that I could eat a few more salads and a few less fries. Who knew, though, that what I was eating was probably 99% corn and chemically-engineered flavor?

In the beginning of the class everything was okay. Learning about how saturated fats were unhealthier than unsaturated fats due their lack of double bonds and ability to be packed close together didn’t disturb me, these fats were abstract concepts. Then the fats came alive! I found out that saturated fats were plentiful in meat and dairy products, my two favorite food groups. I love some good sausage and some good cheese. I also found out that unsaturated fats can turn into unhealthy trans fats while cooking, and I much prefer cooked food to uncooked food. How am I supposed to find a balance between the good fats that I need and the bad fats that could give me health problems for life?

If all I had to worry about were fats, I think I could make it. Then came along Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry made me feel like I was in the middle of a war between massive food companies and small town farmers. To even think that there is a possible movement towards the “militarizing of food… that will encourage the destruction, by overuse, of farmland” and that I am encouraging it by purchasing the food of these companies was a little disturbing (Berry, 9). Is there any good news in the food world?

As it turns out there is a glimmer of hope. The egg. Eggs have the proteins to do anything and everything that I want. They can be boiled, beaten, or poached. They can be in your cakes or be the ultimate emulsifying agent. Eggs do much more than protect a chick, they are a stable force in recipes that the food industry has yet to ruin for me. My appetite may yet be salvaged.

As my idea of food and how we get our food has constantly been changed recently, I have had to rethink how I view science. I always thought of science as a force for good. Science has had its share of mistakes and false assumptions, but I never thought of the consequences of science gone wrong. If we put dangerous things in our food or don’t realize what we are eating, our health and the health of our planet could suffer. I still support exploring all scientific avenues but we need to watch where we tread and what we eat.

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1996. Print.


Quite a Difference Between Two Chickens

Quality? I’ll pass. Cheap price? I’m your man!

Is there a difference between the McDonald’s meal and Polyface Farm’s natural meal that Michael Pollan eats in The Omnivore’s Dilemma? You tell me.

The McDonald’s meal Pollan and his family eats is a product of the industrial food chain. His son’s chicken McNugget in addition to chicken contains the antioxidants “sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate” as well as dimethylpolysiloxane, an “anti-foaming agent” (Pollan, 113). What does the chicken McNugget taste like? In the words of Pollan’s son,“they taste like what they are, which is nuggets”(112). The McDonald’s food isn’t comprised of what its marketed to be and doesn’t taste like what it is supposed to be. Quite a meal.

Now compare that to the meal Joel Salatin helps provides locally, with chickens living like chickens and free of chemicals. Pollan cooks the chicken with only olive oil, salt, and pepper. None of the preservatives or extremely long-named chemicals are necessary. The chicken once tasted is “moist, dense, and almost shockingly flavorful” (Pollan, 271). One of the people eating the meal describes the chicken as “more chickeny than chicken,” of which Pollan concludes that the meal had met the “idea of chicken we hold in our heads but seldom taste anymore” (271). The natural meal clearly surpasses the McDonald’s meal in flavor and quality.

The fact that a nearly all-natural meal surpasses the standard of McDonald’s is not shocking. Why hasn’t America joined Pollan then, and left McDonald’s in the past? Time and money. For Pollan to enjoy his wholesome meal from Polyface Farm, he had to travel to Virginia from his home in California. To have enjoyed the meal at home the healthy food would have gone through the industrial chain just like McDonald’s and needed preservatives. McDonald’s is also much cheaper than Pollan’s investment in dinner. Most families in America will choose the dollar menu over spending a vast amount of time shopping and cooking the ingredients themselves.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.


Skip to toolbar