Food science is more than knowing how to boil water and certainly there’s more than one way to fry a fish. The scientific reactions we’re used to creating in our home kitchens are legacies that have arrived from a long line of tried and true steps that became what we simply call recipes.
Depending on what part (or parts) of the world you’re from may determine which cooking techniques you are most familiar with. But in reality, all cooking methods for centuries have been mostly some variation on processes that use heat, salt, acid, or sugar. As our society has evolved so have our tools, giving us new ways of using the same ingredients. The scientific laws that make cooking possible are not changeable - they are laws of nature and until recently, we have mostly been keen to always apply those same laws to get the desired result. But what happens when we apply different laws that might also achieve a “cooked” result by definition, but achieves a unique experience we may not have had with that food? This is where food science and technology can make you feel like you’re stepping into fantasy.
Food science and technology and molecular gastronomy
While almost everyone has heard of molecular gastronomy, the science is an art that goes beyond liquid nitrogen ice cream and simple tricks that can now be found in molecular gastronomy or food science books made for home cooks and enthusiasts.
In the past, pairing flavors using essential oils was the easiest way to create unique taste profiles but it was also limited by the state of technology. The perfume industry was the most advanced group, having centuries to perfect sophisticated methods of combining aromatics until the mid 1800’s when the flavor industry became the dominant buyer and seller of essential oils.
Beginning with coumarin in 1868, the key aroma in spices like cinnamon and tonka beans, chemists were able to isolate flavors and begin to manufacture them in mass quantities, maintaining longer shelf lives. Most manufacturers of candies, perfumes, and other products that use aromatics were quick to make the change from natural ingredients to synthetic for the lower cost and reliability.
But these substitutes were also of lower quality, lacking the complexity of essential oils without the range of molecules that are the carriers of true flavor. The synthetic versions however could be used to re-create a world of new combinations and applications from sauces, to drinks, to meat - all wildly popular with the public. So popular in fact, that by the 1960’s synthetic ingredients were routinely used and preferred, a practice that has now given way to the testing of more than three thousand other flavor substitutes currently being developed thanks to food science biotechnology like gas chromatography (GC), which separates elements on the molecular level.
As the topics of food science, nutrition, and health have become more important and talked about in recent times, the study of how these substitutes affect us are still in their beginning stages. Evolving at a lighting speed pace, technology has come a long way since the ‘60’s. Food science and human wellness have become close cousins, using innovative methods to improve health and wellness while also considering sustainability.
Events are happening around the world, showcasing new technologies not only in what we eat but also how we eat. Experts are coming together to give form to the rapidly growing subject. Forums like the Food Science Festival in Italy bring together experts that give us direction on what new discoveries are being made, inspiring the imaginations of the next generation of flavor-makers.
And it’s not only the flavor of our food that is of interest but also how that flavor is delivered. Ever thought of having microscopic robots salt your food? Nanotechnology has been creeping into the food tech world as food science and human nutrition find new ways to support each other. Salting nanobots for instance, may be able to break down the individual structure of the salt molecule and disperse the flavor more evenly in your mouth, allowing for less consumption of blood-pressure-spiking, but flavorful seasoning.
Or why bother cooking at all? For as long as humans have been dreaming of a life like the Jetson’s, speeding around in our individual space pods, with robot maids cleaning our orbiting apartments, and machines making casseroles, we have never been closer to that reality. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology will continue to play an important role in the evolution of food technology and as it expands so will our relationship to food, bringing us always closer to new ways to innovate on a human’s most unifying quality, our need to eat.