ANNOUNCER: Previously, on Freakonomics Radio.
Nathan MYHRVOLD: Then you cook it to perfect medium-rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep-fry it. We pop it in a deep fryer. Or we use a torch on it, a blowtorch. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen that prevents it from overcooking, so you get the perfect medium-rare hamburger.
Alice WATERS: I am so hungry for the taste of the real that I’m just not able to get into that which doesn’t feel real to me. It’s a kind of scientific experiment, and I think that there are good scientists and crazy old scientists that can be very amazing. But it’s more like a museum to me. It’s not a kind of way of eating that we need to really live on this planet together.
Alice Waters is the owner of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and she’s a champion of simple, slow, organic food. The guy who wants to build the perfect hamburger — one tank of liquid nitrogen at a time — that’s Nathan Myhrvold. He runs an invention company called Intellectual Ventures. He trained as a physicist — and also as a chef. He is about to publish a cookbook — a six-volume, 2,400-page, $625 cookbook – called Modernist Cuisine. It’s a celebration of molecular gastronomy, the high-end practice of turning ordinary food into works of art. The book is also a serious effort to bring the scientific method into the kitchen. Myhrvold thinks that science and food go together like … like peanut butter and jelly. Like corned beef and cabbage. Like white beet soup with liquid-nitrogen -rozen crab-apple spätzle.
MYHRVOLD: Well, like it or not, physics happens, OK? So, you know, I think that informing people, whether it’s chefs, or it’s foodies, or it’s the average person, informing them on some of the ways that stuff actually works, I don’t see how that is a problematic notion.
Alice Waters, she’s not a fan of molecular gastronomy. She thinks people like Myhrvold are making a mistake by bringing their chemistry sets into the kitchen. Food science? For some fans of slow food, of organic food, those two words — food science — don’t belong in the same sentence. But you know what? If it weren’t for food science, you might not be here today, listening to this program. If it weren’t for food science, your grandparents might not have been born because your great-grandparents would have starved to death — or maybe died from some food-borne disease. And who should you be thanking for your existence? Well, for starters, Napoleon Bonaparte.
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John FLOROS: What I would say that in the last probably couple of centuries, or a century and a half, some of the most important developments was really the ability to put a food in a container and sterilize it or pasteurize it. And this, this came in the era of Napoleon in France.
That’s John Floros, who runs the food science department at Penn State University.
FLOROS: One of his scientists developed the methods to really can food and sterilize it so that Napoleon could actually transfer the food to his armies, and therefore can move forward to longer and longer distances.
Floros is talking about Nicolas Appert, known today as the father of canning. Appert did not invent canning out of the goodness of his heart: Napoleon offered a large cash prize. It took Appert about 10 years of experimentation before he reached his goal.
FLOROS: So Nicolas Appert, I would say, and the invention of really putting food in a jar or a can, closing it and sterilizing it — it’s probably the most important invention probably in the last couple hundred years with respect with food because it completely transformed how we consumed food.
DUBNER: And that was a dividend of war, then, yes?
FLOROS: In some respect it was, yes.
But canning could only do so much. Go back just a few generations, to America in the 1920s, and you’d be shocked by the state of the average diet.
FLOROS: We did not have all the fruits and the vegetables that we have today. In particular, we did not have those available all year long. There were a lot of preserved foods such as dry material. There were a lot of things that you made and you consumed right away, maybe some cheeses and milks and the like. Uh, some meat, although meat was not as available as it is today, because it was very difficult to grow the animals; and it was fairly expensive. And at the time, not only in this country, but all around the world, there were a lot of diseases that today most people have never even heard of.
Simple food, it turns out, wasn’t always so simple. You might have to check your neck for swelling every morning; make sure you weren’t developing a goiter from iodine deficiency. Thousands of men were rejected from military service in World War I for that reason. And then: We started putting iodine in salt, and the goiters disappeared. Another common affliction was rickets – bowed legs from weak bones. And then: A food scientist in Wisconsin figured out how to get vitamin D into milk.
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 have 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.
That sounds borderline miraculous — all that food, available almost anytime, almost anywhere. So how’d it happen? Well, people like Norman Borlaug made it happen. During the 1960s, Asia was on the verge of a mass famine. Borlaug, a plant chemist, developed new and heartier strains of wheat that drastically increased crop yield — and he’s credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone in history. In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. Years later, he established the World Food Prize, a sort of Nobel for food science. Here’s one recent winner:
Philip E. NELSON: I’m Philip E. Nelson. I was a professor, I’m now a professor emeritus at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I worked there for 50 years, and actually retired last July.
Phil Nelson is a soft-spoken grandfatherly type, who lives in a modest green house in snowy northern Michigan. He grew up on a tomato farm in Morristown, Indiana. Like a lot of farms, it had its own canning plant. Every season, there was a struggle to let the fruit ripen up until the first frost but then having to hustle to process the tomatoes before they started to spoil.
NELSON: Here was the problem: One was getting them at the peak of their quality to get them into the can. Then once we would harvest, be able to run day and night to be sure that we were able to save them. And then of course, you were guessing what you were putting in the can. Was it going to be puree, whole pack, juice, ketchup. And of course, your competitor down the road was guessing the same thing. So you ended up having too much canned juice and that would be a drag on the market, but you already had it in the can you couldn’t do anything about it.
There was another problem. The canning process was a sterilization process, which you achieve by heating up each can of tomatoes to kill bacteria. In the service of food safety, you sacrificed taste and nutrition. Wouldn’t it be nice to do something about that? Nelson went off to college, at Purdue.
NELSON: I decided I didn’t want to stay on the farm, so I was going to get a degree and probably go on into industry. But things happen. You know how these unexpected events occur, and the result was I ended up getting my Ph.D. and staying at Purdue, because I had a research interest to see if I could come up with a way to help those tomato processors.
Nelson got to work on a process that could pasteurize food in a thin layer as it passed through a series of sterilized pipes and valves, and into a large sterilized tank. Using that thin layer allowed for a gentler temperature, which didn’t kill off all the flavor and nutrition. This was called “bulk aseptic processing.” If it worked, it could buy farmers time to make a better decision about the market’s demand for their crops; and it could safely preserve the food without stealing so much of flavor and nutrition. But nothing like this had ever been done on an industrial scale. Nelson had a hard time finding anyone else who thought it could work. Think of all the moving parts, and the precise temperatures you needed because if just a few bacteria slipped in, or a few mold spores survived, the whole tank could be ruined. Nelson asked a lot of people to work with him until finally someone said yes: a Cincinnati company that made beer tanks.
NELSON: So I had them make me five little tanks, hundred gallon. And without going into the detail of they were all different, so I had to choose the right one. And when I was successful, brought industry in to look at the product, this hundred-gallon tank. And when the Heinz, and Hunts, and Campbells came in, they said great project, but way too small, we’d fill those tanks in minutes.
DUBNER: Hm. What’d you do then?
NELSON: Well, you know, I could’ve have stopped then because I had some patents and some publications, and would have been promoted, but I guess it’s my background that said, “Well let’s try scaling it up.” So I put a thousand-gallon tank outside of the building, really didn’t ask anybody, and couldn’t get by with that today. Fortunately back then, you know, no one really minded. And so this was a thousand-gallon tank. For us to do that in our lab, to process enough tomatoes, it was really difficult. And, of course, my students that were working with me back then all remember the days of the tomato, as we were filling this thousand-gallon tank. Fortunately, I brought the companies back, after we held the product in there: This was the chopped tomato product, for 18 months, good vitamin C, color flavor, everything was good. But again the industry said, it’s just not big enough.
DUBNER: Still too small! A thousand gallons is still not big enough for these guys.
NELSON: That’s correct, still not big enough. So I found a company in Pennsylvania, nothing in Indiana or Ohio, but in Pennsylvania. 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 saying, “We hate to tell you Dr. Nelson, but all thirty thousand 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. Fortunately we had kept good records. We realized that you can’t be half aseptic; it’s got to be total. And we had made a glitch in our process, and we thought we were OK and went ahead, but we weren’t.
DUBNER: What was the glitch?
NELSON: The glitch was the process temperature dropped. It was just a little drop in the process where we got below what I would call sterilization temperatures. And so we allowed some organisms then to slip into the product. And they let us come back the second year. We filled those tanks up again, and fortunately we were successful.
The food industry, so slow to embrace Nelson’s idea at first, was quick to see its potential. The people who make orange juice, for instance. There was a time, not so long ago, that most orange juice had to be heated and canned, or shipped in frozen concentrate, and then reconstituted with water.
NELSON: But in 1984 a company called Tropicana came to my office and said, “Do you think it will work for orange juice?” And with my fingers crossed, I said, “I think so.” And so, we actually changed the citrus industry with the not-from-concentrate orange juice.
DUBNER: So, thanks to Philip Nelson’s work, you can buy a refrigerated cardboard box of real orange juice any time, in any season, at just about any grocery store in America. And the treats kept coming. Fruit-on- the-bottom yogurt. Juice boxes for the kids. Wine in a box! Thank you, Phil Nelson. Now, none of these may be your idea of the ultimate food. But even if you’re the kind of person who likes to roll your own dough and grow your own herbs and squeeze your own juice, isn’t it nice to know that people like Philip Nelson have been working so hard for so long to feed the rest of us?
Coming up, we look forward to the wild future of food. For instance: a food “printer” that can create an almost limitless array of dining possibilities — all from a few toner cartridges.
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So food scientists have done things that, a few decades ago, nobody would have thought possible. What’s the food future look like?
Pablos HOLMAN: My name is Pablos Holman, I work at the Intellectual Ventures lab as an inventor.
You might remember Holman’s boss at Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold, the physicist/chef/inventor with the 2,400-page cookbook. Holman made his name as a computer hacker:
HOLMAN: You know what hackers are good for is just discovering what’s possible. The mindset of a hacker is that they’re good at figuring out all the things that are possible that the manufacturer never intended. The question is: What can I make this do? I’m going to take all the screws out of the back and open it up get inside, and break it into the pieces. But then I’m going to figure out, what can I build from the rubble, right? And that’s the mindset of hackers, and I think that, you know, it’s the fundamental part of technology, discovering what’s possible, and hackers do that all the time with everything. It’s kind of like being a scientist just without all the formal training and accountability.
Here are some of the projects that Holman has worked on: commercial space flight, building the world’s smallest computer, making self-sterilizing elevator buttons for hospitals, trying to stop destructive hurricanes from reaching land. One thing he wasn’t that interested in was food. But for the past few years, Holman has been sitting right next to the big experimental kitchen where Nathan Myhrvold and his comrades try out their new recipes …
HOLMAN: They feed me quite often, and I have no idea what I’m eating. You know, it’s always some bizarre thing where they took an entire moose and distilled it into, you know, a coffee bean and, you know, infused it with whipped cream. I don’t know.
This got Holman to thinking a bit more about how Americans eat – and it didn’t take long to spot a lot of inefficiencies. Behind every supermarket, there’s a dumpster full of expired food, and pounds and pounds of packaging. By some estimates, between one-third and one-half of all food produced in America is never eaten.
HOLMAN: The inefficiency is consolidated around the last mile of how we eat. So we’re really good at efficiency on an industrial scale. We’re good at agriculture, and we’re good at agricultural efficiency. We are not good at efficiency in the last mile where we take those ingredients and prepare them and serve them.
A smart, young guy frustrated with inefficiencies in the food system? Sound a little bit familiar? Phil Nelson was upset about all those wasted tomatoes in the first mile they traveled; for Pablos Holman, the last mile was the problem. So he decided to do something about it.
HOLMAN: So my original vision was this kind of ATM machine that you walk up to and it shows you three buttons. You know, what I ate yesterday, what my friends like, or “I’m feeling lucky.” And you just push one of those buttons and the machine has toner cartridges of frozen or dried and powdered foods, and it goes down and puts a little pixel of powdered food down, hydrates it with a needles, zaps it with laser to cook it, and rinse and repeat for every pixel, and it prints a meal.
Doesn’t that sound absurd? Kind of how it must have sounded absurd when someone suggested an ATM dispensing cash, instead of a bank teller? What Holman has in mind is, essentially, a 3D printer that can print food. Now, 3D printers have been around for years – they’re called “rapid prototypers.” In fact, Intellectual Ventures already uses them, to make plastic models of a brain aneurysm so the neurosurgeon can study its shape and size before cutting through a patient’s skull. What if you could use a rapid prototyper to print food?
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, right? But I control every single pixel, right? I can use a laser to cook a pixel of food and get it exactly as warm as I want, exactly as slow or as fast as I want. And again, I think by comparison, what has been done in cooking is Neanderthal, right? It’s very primitive. I mean, we don’t have that kind of resolution and control of our cooking. And there’s a lot of other advantages. So, in this system, all my ingredients are prepared on an industrial scale. And they’re preserved at the point of origin. If you go to the best restaurants in the world, they don’t serve you market-fresh produce, they serve you produce that was ripened on the tree, picked riped and flash frozen on site. And that’s because that’s an optimal way to preserve all the flavor and all the nutritional ingredients that are in there. And so what I want to do is bring that to everybody. So in my system, all the ingredients come from the farm, directly off the tree, they’re frozen or dried on site and powdered. You know a lot of dried foods can last 25 years on the shelf. If you look at rice and flour and things: There’s no water in there, nothing bad can grow and those ingredients can live a long time. So I take that, I put it in a sealed toner cartridge, the FedEx guy comes by once a day and swaps out the empties in the machine, and so when it’s making you a meal it’s using optimally preserved ingredients.
If you’re thinking Holman sounds like someone who’s read too much science fiction, well, yeah:
HOLMAN: Chefs can be designing meals in CAD programs and it can print out, you know, tessellated 3D fractal hamburgers if they want. You can do something here that’s not been possible before. I can make a meal where maybe you have a meal the size and shape of a Snickers bar, but you start at one end with an appetizer and work your way through an entrée and then end up with dessert at the other end. I can start to do some pretty interesting things there by applying Photoshop filters to food.
But the more you listen to him — or at least the more I listened to him — the more you realize how thoroughly he’s thought this through, and even if the invention he eventually winds up with is only one percent as good as he’s hoping for, it seriously might start to change the world.
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 every day. 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 what I had yesterday. It just won’t taste exactly 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. Yeah, it sounds like science fiction, but think about how our current food system might have looked to someone 100 years ago, to someone with a goiter on his neck the size of a grapefruit, 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 down in the root cellar. And no, children, you won’t be having any fresh, calcium-fortified orange juice from Brazil this morning – or any other morning.
By the way: Pablos Holman is not alone in thinking about a food printer. A group of engineers at Cornell has got a prototype in the hands of a New York chef. And can you imagine how nice it would be to have a few of these printers, or maybe a few hundred or thousand food printers, that you could airlift into some disaster zone after a hurricane or an earthquake?
DUBNER: All right last question, what’d you have for dinner last night?
HOLMAN: So last night I had a … I live in Seattle, there are parts of town they have street vendors selling hotdogs with cream cheese and I love those things. They’re unbelievably good.
A hot dog with cream cheese? That may not be your idea, or my idea, of a great meal, but you know what? It works for Pablos Holman. And not just the food itself — but the very, very low opportunity cost.
HOLMAN: It was fast, you know. It took me probably three minutes to buy it and eat it. And those other 57 minutes of that hour that somebody else might have spent shopping or cleaning, or cooking, you know, I got to spend salsa dancing.
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Freakonomics Radio is a co-production of WNYC, American Public Media, and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Jeff Mosenkis and mixed by David Herman. Our producers include Suzie Lechtenberg, Chris Neary, Bourree Lam, and Collin Campbell. Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep. You can find more audio on freakonomicsradio.com. And, as always, if you want to read more about the hidden side of everything, go to freakonomics.com.