A culinary nutritionist, a food ingredient marketer, and a food science professor walk into a bar . . .

. . . to open up Pandora’s Lunchbox. They decided to respond to some of the questions raised in last week’s blog. We welcome your responses. For more details on the process, scroll to the bottom of the post.

Cast of Characters:

Culinary nutritionist: Linn Steward, RDN. trained in the culinary arts with degree in Nutrition and Comparative Literature form Berkeley. She also is the owner of Gourmet Metrics LLC.

Food ingredient marketer: Karen Penichter, MS in Food Science from Rutgers University. 35+year career in development and marketing of specialty food ingredients including encapsulates, hydrocolloids, flavors, and seasoning blends.

Professor: retired from the University of Georgia after 30 years in teaching and research with particular emphasis on food chemistry and food processing.

Q&R

ingredient list from the back of a Trix breakfast cereal package featuring many unpronounceable ingredients.
Ingredients in Trix breakfast cereal
  1. Are unpronounceable additives unsafe?

Food ingredient marketer: The United States has strict regulations for the labelling of food ingredients and additives. Food ingredients and additives must be accurately identified in as simple and direct terms as possible. For example, concentrated milk, reconstituted milk and dry whole milk are declared as “milk” on food labels. Red seaweed or Irish Moss, used in dairy products, must be called “carrageenan” on a food label. Less pronounceable but required. Food manufacturers have responded to consumer interest in the safety and function of the food additives in their products and have responded by simplification of labels and increased transparency.

Professor: No! When I helped a fifth grader with his reading after school, we came across words that were hard to pronounce. We used it as a learning experience by looking up the definition and learning how to pronounce it. The common practice of rejecting ingredients with chemical names is an example of dumbing down America and ignoring the science behind the use of a specific additive. Synthetic chemicals can be purer than natural ones—no contamination. Is corn sugar any safer than high fructose corn syrup? Is caffeine safer than trimethylxanthine? Each pair refers to the same chemical.

Culinary nutritionist: Contrary to popular characterizations, the safety of an ingredient is unrelated to the length of its botanical or chemical name. What is at work here is additives with unpronounceable names are unfamiliar to most folks. It’s my personal view that food activists have done a disservice to the general public by demonizing the unfamiliar rather than using the opportunity to encourage intellectual curiosity.

  1. Do we really need texturizing agents in foods?

 Food ingredient marketer: Texturizing agents function in a wide range of fresh prepared foods and shelf stable, refrigerated and frozen foods. Adding flour to pan drippings to make gravy is an example. Food scientists use texturizing agents in formulations for many functional reasons: improving cling of dressing to salad, providing creamy mouthfeel to chocolate skim milk, enabling ice cream to withstand freezing and thawing. Convenient, shelf stable, refrigerated or frozen foods utilize texturizing ingredients to maintain quality and palatability during shelf life and distribution.

 Culinary nutritionist: As per my Google search, these agents are used to make the foods we eat creamier, thicker, more viscous. Examples include emulsifiers, stabilizers, binders, thickeners, gelling agents. Do we need them? No, we don’t. Mayonnaise, salad dressings, and baked good can be freshly prepared and consumed in a timely fashion; nut butters can be stirred after opening; ice cream can made with egg yolks instead of emulsifiers or thickeners. Do we want them? That’s a different question.

Professor: Color, flavor, and texture are the three ways home cooks, chefs, and food processors entice us to eat their wares. A food’s appearance and its aroma call us to taste it. The combination of its taste and aroma in the mouth give us pleasure, disgust, or meh. But nothing can turn us off quite as much as bad texture. Think boiled okra as it slithers down our throat. Or soggy lettuce. Or crunchy pudding, Or grisly steak. Lack of appropriate texture is the difference between on-the-plate nutrition and in-the-stomach nutrition.

  1. Can packaged breakfast cereals be part of a healthy diet?

Professor: Why not? A high-fiber cereal with milk can be a balanced breakfast. Most cereals have a strong portfolio of vitamins and minerals. Sugared cereals eaten without milk are merely a poor substitute for candy. Even sugared cereals may be reasonably low in sugar. A serving of cereal containing 10 grams of sugar is the equivalent of 2.5 teaspoons in the morning cups of coffee or the sugar in a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. The biggest drawback for sugar consumption at breakfast is portion size. How much sugar we consume relates directly to how much cereal, coffee, jelly, or honey we consume.

Food ingredient marketer: Food manufacturers offer a spectrum of packaged breakfast cereals ranging from highly flavored/sugar sweetened to unsweetened/unflavored and many varieties in between. The combination of cereal and milk is part of a convenient, healthy and balanced breakfast. How we select the food we eat is driven by personal choice. The cereal aisle in the supermarket is an example of the offerings provided in response to demand for choice. The varied and abundant supply enables us to choose food based on our lifestyle, our health needs and affordability.

Culinary nutritionist: That all depends on how you measure healthy. When healthy = nutrients, breakfast cereal looks pretty good as long as the total sugar content is equal to or below 21.2 grams of sugar per 100 grams of cereal, the maximum level the USDA has established for the Child and Adult Care Food Program. When healthy = minimally processed, only cereals like steel cut oats, old fashioned oatmeal, Swiss Muesli, or other simple cereals make the grade.

  1. Are intact ingredients better than added ones?

Culinary nutritionist: When I use the phrase intact ingredients, my reference point is whole, minimally processed, bred and grown for flavor, and preserved as close to their natural state as is safe for human consumption. Taste being 100% subjective not all will agree but for me the more intact an ingredient is, the more an ingredient reflects the place it came from, the better the chances are for a more nuanced flavor. And I admit to being suspicious of flavor additives that may confuse my sensory abilities to appreciate say a perfectly grown and tree ripened peach.

Professor: Food scientists like to break down food substances to smaller ingredients and put them back together again. Chefs and nutritionists like to keep their ingredients as close to whole foods as possible. Strict adherence to intactness of ingredients eliminates many commercial foods as well as many made at home. Traditional culinary ingredients such as table sugar, salt, flour, vinegar, and spice blends are reductionist ingredients. Most baked goods and sauces do not contain intact ingredients. I see benefits of combining intact and reductionistic ingredients.

Food ingredient marketer: Home prepared or restaurant prepared foods have limited shelf-life, typically 2-3 days when refrigerated. When “leftovers” are frozen and reheated, the functionality of the intact components of food i.e. carbohydrate, fat, protein, flavor, can degrade resulting in off flavors, odd texture and possibly issues of food safety. Added ingredients function to restore the safety and palatability of shelf stable, refrigerated and frozen foods that intact ingredients frequently cannot deliver. Hence, longer shelf-life foods generally needed added ingredients where fresh prepared do not.

  1. What happened to the flavor of chicken in the last 50 to 60 years? 

Food ingredient marketer: Over 60 years chicken has changed in breed, diet, meat composition (protein/fat) and age of meat, all impacting cooked chicken flavor. Over 60 years the parts of chicken we eat has also changed: breast, thigh, drum, tender, wing, bone in or boneless, skin on or skin off. These varied choices impact flavor. Chicken is the cheapest globally produced meat and is one of the few proteins without religious restriction. Having high value in the basic need to feed people, chicken is a renewable source of affordable protein consumed globally in a myriad of delicious recipes.

Culinary nutritionist: Chickens today are flavor challenged. Home cooks, line chefs, processors must compensate by adding flavor back in. Since the 1950’s, the goal has been efficiency. Chickens on pasture eat what they please, grow slowly, are expensive. Industrial chickens are vertically integrated, mass produced, selectively bred, and nutritionally fed to maximize growth efficiency. The chicken industry has met their goal, exceeded expectation. Chickens today require half as much feed to reach twice the market weight in half the time at a cheaper cost per pound than their slower growing pastured raised counterparts. The price for efficiency however has been flavor.

photo of a delicious plate of roasted chicken
Photo taken at Le Coq Rico, a Manhattan restaurant located in the Flatiron District that serves heritage breed whole birds and pays tribute to American farmers and local terroir.* Photo by Linn Steward, gourmetmetrics.com

Professor: Oldtimers tell me that chicken flavor ain’t what it used to be. I don’t know. I have had some bland chicken and some flavorful chicken. Memories are funny things. Nobody made cookies and pies like my mama did! A sensory panel on varieties of apples revealed that older colleagues liked the traditional varieties. The younger ones rejected them. A guest lecturer from South Africa talked about his experience with hyena meat. He processed it using advanced techniques instead of traditional ones. Tasted good but not like hyena. Chemical analysis showed that toxic, oxidized fats were responsible for hyena flavor.

  1. Are synthetic vitamins equivalent to natural ones?
Ascorbic acid
Chemical structure of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)

Culinary nutritionist: Yes and no. Had British sailors been able to pop vitamin C pills, they could have avoided scurvy. So yes, for treating malnutrition or deficiency disease, synthetic ascorbic acid in a capsule works as well as a lemon. However, that lemon has multiple other chemical components all of which may or may not have value.

Professor: The key measure of a vitamin or a mineral is its bioavailability. Will that nutrient be absorbed across the intestine walls? Will it perform a useful function when transported to appropriate cells in the body? We learned the importance of vitamins through tests of synthetic and natural compounds. Deadly diseases in the American population all but vanished through fortification and enrichment of processed foods. Some vitamins are more available in intact fruit or vegetable tissue. Others are inhibited by the presence of natural toxins in food from plants.

Food ingredient marketer: Many scientific publications have studied equivalence of synthetic and food-derived vitamins. While the vitamins are equivalent chemically, bioavailability is enhanced by ingesting them in whole food. This is particularly important with fat soluble vitamins A, E and K. There is a long history of food fortification or enrichment to address nutritional deficiency caused by food insufficiency, medical issues, or reduced absorption due to aging. Vitamin B12 and folate are good examples. Synthetic vitamins have increased potency and lower cost than naturally occurring alternatives providing effective and affordable supplementation.

  1. Why don’t food scientists want to become chefs?

Culinary nutritionist: Being neither a food scientist nor a chef, I decided to answer this question with a Google search and here’s what came up. Chefs tend towards the creative spontaneous end of the spectrum whereas food scientists tend towards methodical procedural thinking end of the spectrum. Some chefs go back for a food science degree but it’s rare for a food scientist to go back for a culinary degree. Pure speculation on my part, but I would guess the reason is earning potential. Food scientists tend to be much better compensated than chefs.

Food ingredient marketer: Food Science and Culinary Arts live on the same continuum but in different spaces. Both disciplines focus on creating good tasting, healthy, and safe foods. Food scientists by using science and math and chefs by using artistic expression. The blending of culinary arts and food science is called “culinology”, elevating food product development. The food scientist, focused on chemistry and engineering can gain culinary insight by using flavor pairing, ethnic flavor authenticity and cooking technique as provided by chefs.

Professor: Some food scientists were chefs before they went back to school to be a food scientist. Too often they were assigned menial tasks such as unloading trucks to match receipts with what was ordered. If they were lucky, they moved up to line cooks. Advancement was difficult. They learned that the food industry valued the skills they gained in culinary school, and that they would receive much better compensation. Most food scientists are not foodies. They are interested in food safety, composition of food, and food preservation. My pickup line when recruiting food science majors was “Do you like science?”

The Process

I, the Professor, posed 13 questions from my reading of Pandora’s Lunchbox that seemed to frame the ongoing debate between food scientists and dietitians. The three of us narrowed the selection to 7 questions. We each responded to these questions without being able to peak on each other’s papers. Some of the answers were predictable, but others did not fit expectations. One of us had trouble staying within a 50-100 word limit! All of our answers were virtual. Karen and Linn know each other. All of my interaction with them has been strictly online. The bar is completely illusionary. Maybe we should have gone to a virtual juice bar instead.

* The photo of roasted chicken was taken before the pandemic. Unfortunately the restaurant did not survive the pandemic so I can’t check the menu for a price. As memory serves me, I think the restaurant priced that rotisserie chicken about $90. It’s a French heritage breed Brune Landais pastured in New Jersey for at least 120 days to reach market weight–Linn Steward, the culinary nutritionist.

Next week: Pejorative food buzzwords and the message they send

4 thoughts on “A culinary nutritionist, a food ingredient marketer, and a food science professor walk into a bar . . .

  1. Pandora’s Lunchbox was published almost a decade ago. The disparaging picture of food science / food processing it depicts is as relevant today as it was back then. If anything, the conversation has gotten more vitriolic and contentious. And guaranteed if you come from a food science background, the book will make you angry.

    Now try to imagine three professionals sitting around a table to hash out a controversial issue. No cancelling allowed. No one left the table. Just engagement and the sharing of different perspectives.

    My personal thanks to Rob and Karen for engaging in the process.

    Like

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