Books: In Defense of Food Science

I took a break from reading new to me fiction, as part of NaJuReMoNoMo or whatever it is called, to read Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food. I will review it in a few days but now I have this burning desire to defend my vocation, food science. When I wrote this original post, food science needed introducing to people not defending. There still seems to be confusion as to what is food science. In the last month, I have read articles or books that malign food science unjustly.

Over Christmas in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 I read Patricia Gadsby’s Cooking for Eggheads which had originally been published in Discover magazine. It is a great article about Hervé This and Molecular Gastronomy. She ably describes molecular gastronomy. Gastronomy is part of the title evoking the spirit of Brillat-Savarin and the molecular part was added by This and Kurti to evoke the chemical units that make up food. In addition:

Molecular had a dynamic, modern ring to it, perfect for ushering gastronomy into a new era. Besides, molecular gastronomy sounds so much more fun, sophisticated, and cultured than plain old “food science”, a field with which it somewhat overlaps but is largely geared to the mass-market needs of the food industry

This last week, I read Pollan’s new book, which is a great read despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he claims that the problem with our food, in the US, is caused by the twin evils of nutritionism and the food industry. He concentrates more on the former than the later and when it comes to food science he gets confused been food science and food technology. for example:

Very often food science’s efforts to make traditional foods more nutritious make them more complicated, but not necessarily any better for you. (p153)

Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to sells us more food by pushing our evolutionary buttons – our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These qualities are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that processing induces us to consume much more of these ecological rarities than is food for us. (p 149-150)

This is the problem is with both essays. Food science is another academic subject; like biology or physics, just slightly (ahem) more applied. It cannot be blamed for the mass production of food any more than physics is to blame for the development of the nuclear bomb. Neither can food science be praised for producing the flavorful fast foods. Food scientists may have been instrumental in developing shelf-life extenders and flavors so that food could be mass produced and taste good* at the same time.

Molecular gastronomy is a part of food science; in the same way that food technology is part of food science. They are branches off the main trunk. Molecular gastronomy is more concerned with chemical changes, including rheology and flavor; and food technology is more concerned about engineering and processing. Food science, plain and old, includes both these and food safety as well.

As with other sciences, food science is not to blame for the reduced quality of the American diet. Scientists may have developed low fat yogurts and no-carbohydrate pastas; but a science cannot be blamed for that. As a food scientist I am interested in what happens when food is processed by any means – home, factory, restaurant. I am, admittedly, an academic and have the luxury of being able to ask why.

I do not deny that there is a problem with the American (and perhaps the British) food supply chain. We, as consumers, have moved too far away from production. This will be solved in many different ways, but I will be surprised if food science is not part of the solution.

*Tasting good needs a rejoiner. It would be great if mass produced food tasted as good as home cooking but it has some way to go. I still hope that one day we can have healthy tasting mass produced food.