Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup, Part 2 (Ep. 20)

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Intellectual Ventures Animal? Vegetable? Mineral? Answer: tomato gel spheres, from Modernist Cuisine.

Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup! (Part 2): What do a computer hacker, an Indiana farm boy and Napoleon Bonaparte have in common? The past, present and future of food science.

Last week, in Part 1 of our “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup!” podcast, we looked at the movement to bring more science into the kitchen, embodied by the efforts of physicist/chef/inventor Nathan Myhrvold and his forthcoming cookbook Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. We also heard from Alice Waters, the champion of organic and slow food, who thinks we need to get back to basics, with less technology in our food.

In Part 2, we get out of the kitchen and take a broader look at the past, present and future of food science. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the link in the box above or read the transcript here.)

First, we hear from John Floros, a food scientist at Penn State who co-authored a paper on the history of food science. (Special thanks on this episode go to the Institute for Food Technology.) He explains why we have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for canned food.? He also explains why anyone who’s alive today might want to thank a food scientist:

Floros: Lack of vitamins for example, lack of nutrients were causing a lot of different diseases back then, that we have pretty much eliminated today.? And the biggest reason that we’ve eliminated them is the fact that we have plenty of food available, the right kind of food available year-round all over the country — and in most parts of the world actually, not just in this country.


Philip Nelson in Peru, where tomatoes are produced 11 months of the year. He tried to help them ship tomato paste aseptically to preserve taste and nutrition while cutting down on waste.

Then we talk to an unsung food hero named Philip Nelson (all right, not totally unsung, but hardly a household name), who started out as a frustrated farm kid in Indiana and wound up changing the way food travels around the globe. Alas, there were a few hitches:

Nelson: And we put in two 15,000-gallon tanks and filled them one summer with pizza sauce, 30,000 gallons.? Well, I’ll never forget in the fall I got a call from this processor that said, we hate to tell you Dr. Nelson, but all 30,000 gallons of your product is spoiling. So, was I glad I was in the hills of Pennsylvania, because we had to spread that red wasted tomato all over the hills out there.

But he kept experimenting, and now there are 3-million-gallon tanker ships that transport orange juice around the world. Along with juice boxes for kids, fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt and … wine in a box. Thanks, Phil Nelson!


Nelson built a 1,000-gallon tank without permission outside his Purdue lab and filled it with chopped tomatoes to test his theories.


Pablos Holman, hacker-turned-food scientist.

Finally, we hear from Pablos Holman, an accomplished hacker who now works as an inventor at Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold’s firm. Holman grew frustrated at how much food Americans waste (by some estimates, 30 to 50 percent of all the food gets thrown out), so he decided to start inventing a device that would give you exactly the food you want, whenever you want it. It’s a food printer:

Holman: So what would happen is, just like an inkjet printer you have at home, instead of putting down droplets of ink, I’m putting down droplets of food.? But I control every single pixel.? I can use a laser to cook a pixel of food and get it exactly as warm as I want, cooked as slow or as fast as I want. … I think by comparison, what has been done in cooking is Neanderthal, it’s very primitive.? We don’t have that kind of resolution and control of our cooking.

It gets even better:

Holman: So when I print your meal, I get your allergens accounted for, any dietary restrictions are avoided, I might incorporate your pharmaceuticals, I might be sending a report back to your doctor that you might be getting the right dosage of these things everyday. And then I can do really cool things. Once you’re eating from printers every day like this, the fundamental part is that we’ve networked your food consumption. Now we know a lot more about what you eat, and we can use that to help you out. So we can have apps that wean you off of sodium or cholesterol, things that you might be having a problem with now. Just imagine if you had a problem with too much sodium. Well, I can just ratchet it down a few milligrams a day over the next few months to get you down closer to zero, and you’ll never even notice it’s happening, because every time you eat something it will taste exactly like I had yesterday. It just won’t taste like what you had last month. So, those possibilities don’t exist in the way we eat now.

Networked food consumption. Eliminating food waste by producing just-in-time meals — which, potentially, could help keep you healthier. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but think about how our current food system might have looked to someone 100 years ago, someone with a goiter on his neck the size of a grapefruit from iodine deficiency, to someone who ate a piece of meat once a week if he was lucky, to a mom who could only count on feeding her family whatever happened to be in the root cellar. That said, I’d be really impressed if Holman’s printer could churn out something like this:


Intellectual Ventures From Modernist Cuisine: braised short ribs come out perfect every time when vacuum-sealed and cooked for 72 hours in a water bath set to a precise 140 degrees Fahrenheit.


Yeah, sure, great. Science rules.

Just don't let the little details ( juices from the concentrate are not even the same species as freshly squeezed (or better yet, the whole fruit) by any measure, from taste to ingredients; eating all the right vitamins year round makes our bodies weaker on the long run (what happens if the everyday supply is interrupted?); about the only "food ink" you can put in the printer is something like HFCS and such, etc., etc., etc.) to stand in the way of this great development that worked so well for everyone in the last half of the XX century.

Tracy Baker

Leon, that is absolutely the dumbest thing I have read in quit awhile. Fruit concentrate comes from the juice of fruit, and then goes through a heat treatment to remove water. The only thing that is not present in fruit concentrate is the water, and fiber. Everything else is retained. If not for Food Scientist you would be gathering acorns in your backyard tonight for dinner. Next time you have something to say, please speak from knowledge!!! Otherwise keep coming across as ......


We've been making edible menus in my culinary classes (food coloring with flavor essences added in the ink-jet printer, printed on rice paper) for years. There's no reason amino acids, lipids and other nutrients couldn't be added as well. After all, they use TPN (IV nutrition) in hospitals. Our industrial design department has a 3-D printer that will make a plastic copy of anything it scans. Copying your amuse bouche in the photo isn't that far off.

The other area that is in its infancy but holds promise for the future is nutrigenomics. When we can link our diet to our DNA, we'll gain some control over the environmental factors that contribute to chronic disease. Imagine having a 3-D printer that makes a look-alike, taste-alike filet mignon (or Big Mac, if you prefer) that optimally meets our nutrition needs!



Could you tell me where can I get more information on "food printouts?" Thanks.


@ Tracy Baker

> that is absolutely the dumbest thing I have read in quit awhile.

That's a great way to start an intelligent discussion.

> Fruit concentrate comes from the juice of fruit, and then goes through a heat treatment to remove water.

That's simplified to the point of being incorrect because "the heat treatment" not only results in loss of some micro-nutrients but also changes some of the less stable compounds and they're actually the guys you want to have in your juice (vitamin C, antioxidants). You can do a bit of research on that (so you can please speak from knowledge) but better yet just get some fresh fruits or vegetables, squeeze your own juice and compare the taste. All of which actually doesn't matter because no juice in the world is as good for you as the whole fruits or vegetables.

> If not for Food Scientist you would be gathering acorns in your backyard tonight for dinner.

1)No true - rather advanced agriculture was around for thousands of years before "Food Scientist" got involved and 2) is it a proven fact that as species (and individuals) we wouldn't be better off as hunters-gathered than we are now? I'm not saying we would but since you can't prove that we wouldn't, it's not a good argument. Not to mention that the other species would definitely be much better off if we stuck with picking acorns.

I'd love to further help you with your food education but this is hardly the right place. Please feel free to send me a personal email (zima3000@google.com) if you wish to continue.



Sounds like some neat stuff, and no doubt the future hold many improvements to the way we get our food.
A word of caution though: Don't get ahead of yourself and Never Ever think that science has it all figured out. Food scientists in the 19th century thought they had it all figured out when they divided food into starches, protiens and fats. Then they created "the perfect food" to keep factory workers at maximum productivity. Then they couldn't figure out why all the workers were incapacitated by vitamin deficiencies.
I know many biologists who do basic research, and the things we Don't know about the way diet affects physiology are staggering. And that's just the "known unknowns"


How can you seriously talk about science in food (and cooking education) and not mention Alton Brown? Wow.


Well, Holman can print with edible inks, and he may even be able to procure edible papers (matzoh?), but ca he make something come ut of a printer TASTE good? As yet, doubtful. But remember, this is the guy who waxed rhapsodic in the last part about the baked potato with butter and chive foam. Compared to that, stuff out of a printer might constitute sustenance to him (if not to me).

Winfield J. Abbe


How many of the food scientists mentioned read the above article on Vitamin C at high doses by
Fred Klenner, M.D., published in 1971? Vitamin C is much more important than for just preventing scurvy with low doses of 60 mgm per day.

How many of them have read the paper published in 1969 proving that Vitamin C at high doses, of the order of hundreds of grams per day, kills cancer cells without harming normal cells? How many of them know that this therapy has been used successfully to treat advanced cancer patients, but not in the U.S. because the prejudiced scientists and cancer generals are and have been looking in the wrong places for cancer answers. Here is a reference:

"Cancer and Vitamin C Therapy for Patients" by Reagan Houston, Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Aug./Sept., 2007.

How do we know that most disease today is not caused by nutritional deficiencies? In 1994, Joel Wallach, D.V.M., co author of a 1300 page book on nutrition of exotic animals (Saunders and Co.), gave a speech called "Dead Doctors Don't Lie". In that speech, which has been recorded as a tape, he stated that everyone who dies of natural causes dies of a nutritional deficiency. He stated we all need 90 vitamins and minerals in regular amounts every day.

How many food labels state the minerals in foods or the minerals and vitamins which have been removed from heating to high temperatures during processing, or adding chemicals to extend shelf life?

How many farmers add 90 vitamins and minerals back to the soil? N, P, K , Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium is all they add isn't it and we are lucky if they add enough of those.
A corn plant can look perfectly normal to the eye but have mineral deficiencies..

How many of the food "scientists" above have read anything about cancer, for example, than what the failed cancer generals have promoted for the past 40 years? They have squandered over $100 billion and not only cannot tell us scientifically what cancer is, but how to cure and prevent it in the human body either.

Most of the cancer generals have negligently failed to read and understand the seminal discoveries on cancer by the genius in Germany Otto Warburg, M.D., Ph.D., decades ago. How many of these food scientists have read any of his 500+ scientific papers on all subjects? After all, most of the cancer generals haven't read them, so it is likely they have not read them either. How many of them know that cancer is caused, not by genetics, but inadequate energy transfer into living cells. This explains why the cancer rates are skyrocketing because the food supply had been adulterated of essential fatty acids which make up most of the cell wall linings which, in turn, are responsible for oxygen transfer into the cells and hence energy production and hence, cancer prevention.

These statements are based, not on genetic speculations, but experiments and facts performed before 1923 in animals, and the next 40 years for humans. Here is a current reference discussing this information:

"The Hidden Story of Cancer" by Brian Peskin with Amid Habib, M.D., Pinnacle Press, Houston, 2006-2010.

The NYTimes article above is largely hot air propaganda. It cites prevention of goiter by iodine. But what if iodine had not been added to salt before the FDA Gestapo? We would all be walking around with goiters while the corrupt FDA "scientists" continued debating this. They have only approved Vitamin C at the trivial dose of 60 mgm per day but you cannot even buy any supplements lower than a half a gram. Linus Pauling was right after all. He took about 18 grams per day. The U.S. FDA is a corrupt criminal cesspool, corrupted by drug and food processing companies.

Winfield J. Abbe
A.B., Physics, UC Berkeley, 1961
M.S., Physics, California State University at Los Angeles, 1962
Ph.D., Physics, UC Riverside, 1966
Athens, GA.


Joseph Hale

So what if this guy's printer makes pleasant enough xenofood. This is the demo the inventor made for himself. Imagine the scaled-down-for-retail version; it would look like plastic crap, nobody would buy it, and anybody who did would be cruelly mocked on these pages. The exact kind of people this device is aimed at are guaranteed to hate it.

Derek Shanahan

This has stirred up a fun debate in our office, simply around eating behavior and the matter of people adopting such a new relationship with their food consumption. We're of the mind that these more 'intentional' methods of feeding ourselves in the future don't really address the a)social nature of our food consumption and b) most of our attempts to 'create new food' in order to get our diets/health in order ultimately fail miserably to good old Mother Nature (who's kept us alive for quite a while). Nevertheless, we're technologists too, and the Holman project is certainly intellectually compelling.

It got us talking about how we'd play a role in that new paradigm, as we're a company dedicated to transparency and information knowledge within the food system. Would our printed 'tomatoes' become so standardized that origin source or production methods no longer mattered? It seems hard to imagine we'd all be willing to also give up that natural variance we're used to, to the point at which the attributes surrounding each piece of food went away, and a 'tomato' was just a 'tomato', with no defining uniqueness.

To the future!


Brother Bill

Certainly the basic ingredients to the nutrient 3D printer are shelf-stable. Nothing fresh and alive, because they could rot.

If you cook your food, then what difference does it make whether it is fried, baked, broiled or extruded in a 3D printer? It is all dead.

Compare that to fresh fruits and vegetables, with all their life and enzymes.

You can eat your Frankenfood. I will enjoy a fresh grapefruit.


I want a printer that will print real tomato flavor on a winter purchased supermarket "tomato"

M. Steve

What a surprise, an article and podcast about advances in food science bring out the Gastro-luddites. Remember, those of you who are undecided: the unspoken corollary to all anti-food science, pro-Slow Food, anti-"Frankenfood" rhetoric is human die-off. Most supporters implicitly, if not explicitly, bemoan our "unsustainable population". Only the most uninformed, willfully ignorant believe that we can feed 7 Billion People without bringing science into the equation. These neo-Malthusians of the left should be ashamed of their elitist, anti-people, anti-third world beliefs, but shame has never been present within the ranks of the middle- and upper-class leftist.


I'm a little disappointed you didn't talk to any actual chefs in this piece. I suppose that's because they are much less divided between these extremes, even the chefs at Chez Panisse or Alinea. Dave Arnold at the FCI in NY has done a lot more to integrate the kind of work that Myrrvold is doing into actual restaurant kitchens.


Interesting. I generally trust the research discussed on Freakinomics but the statement that the top restaurants aren't using fresh vegetables but rather those that are flash frozen just isn't true. I would challenge you to find even a few restaurants in the top 20 in NYC that do so. Some canned goods? Certainly. Babbo uses plenty of high end canned tomatoes. Some produce that has traveled from far away? Yes. The asparagus at Daniel in the winter is certainly not local. But to imply that the very best restaurants are using produce that is frozen and thawed is just not correct.


Same in CA or Seattle where the guest is from. You can see the chefs at the farmers markets every Wednesday and Saturday.

They also left of the description of "Patent Troll" for Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold’s firm.


When I first came along this story I was interested in learning more about Food Science, having some cursory knowledge beforehand.

What I didn't expect was a biased presentation of 'Food Science vs Organic.' The cards are severely stacked against organic, being that Alice Waters is shown as a science-phobe and is only present as contrast to 'molecular-gastronomy,' also with no chance to express the ideas behind her movement (air time about 5 mins). This story also presupposes that the science of food is defined by molecular-gastronomy, which in itself is a gimmicky scientific experiment (whom would bother to vacuum cook/freeze with liquid nitrogen/deep fry a burger to cook it 'perfect medium rare,' when all you really need is the right temp and a thicker patty, this is ridiculous)

The fact is that science has always been a part of the kitchen, will continue to be, and is a big part of the organic movement. By seating science solely behind the 'molecular-gastronomy' corner we have a lopsided and confusing conversation where suddenly organic enthusiasts believe the earth is flat and science is a farce (or as implied in the story that everyone not interested in molecular gastronomy is scared of dispelling the magic of cooking, or whatever).

I don't understand the need for the dichotomy presented in this story between science and cooking, and I don't believe that the people involved see things that way; that there are two camps, one led by Myhrvold the other by Waters (Waters actually sounds like she could care less about Myhrvold's cookbook, though he sounds rather defensive of his study).

I'd really like to hear more about both of these movements in food, but not if it's presented as if the two are mutually exclusive. This doesn't have to turn into a contest, that angle of approach to this topic brings in to question the integrity of this program.



@JeremyEG, I've probably overstated the use of flash frozen produce in top restaurants a bit. Still, Heston Blumenthal, voted best restaurant in the world in 2005, is famous for his use of Bird's Eye frozen peas in various dishes. He is on record on many occasions for making the point that the flavor and sweetness is superior to even those that are so-called "farm fresh." Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 has used flash frozen fruits and vegetables. We would argue that canning food does far more to alter the flavor of a food than flash freezing.