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