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Science of egg and bacon ice-cream

Molecular gastronomy could help us all eat healthier, say Copenhagen researchers, as they take a closer look at the scientific side of space-age food

Until now, the foams, powders and dry ice fog of molecular gastronomy has been the domain of celebrity chefs and world-renowned restaurants.

Now, Copenhagen researchers at the Faculty of Life Sciences are exploring the newest culinary craze as a research discipline, which could promote healthier eating habits on a larger scale.

The researcher group, which include a physicist, chemists and a ‘sensory scientist’ (see fact box to the right) are delving into the brave new world of molecular gastronomy, to take a closer look at flavour, pleasure and food.

The taste of memories

The flavour of food and how much enjoyment we derive from eating it is a complicated matter.

In terms of chemistry, food preparation and consumption are extremely complex processes. Many of the reactions involved can be mapped, tracked and described scientifically. However, food enjoyment is more than just chemistry, as flavour is constructed in the mind based on memory and cues from all senses.

For example, colour sets up an expectation of flavour: red fruits seem to be riper, green vegetables fresher and purple meats more perfectly cooked.

We taste what we expect to taste, based on memory, previous knowledge, eyesight and a whole range of other factors.

Emerging discipline

A group of Faculty of Life Science researchers have now published a review paper with the title Molecular Gastronomy: A New Emerging Scientific Discipline.

In the paper, they explore how taste and food enjoyment in relation to chemical processes, molecular gastronomy, is an important new discipline in the food sciences.

See the paper here.

Molecular gastronomy attempts to bridge the gap between work in physics and chemistry and sensory perception and pleasure.

»I think it is important to develop foods with a high sensory variation,« says professor of sensory science Wender Bredie. »Nowadays a lot of the food we consume is produced industrially, and is limited in terms of flavour and texture by having to be stable for long periods of time to have a long shelf life.«

Molecular gastronomy turns this around, making restaurant food that is not very stable, but that is surprising and interesting to eat, he says.

Combining pleasure and chemistry

The analysis of psychological factors along with the chemical aspect of food preparation is where the discipline of molecular gastronomy comes in, explain the authors of the paper.

Joining different sensations in space and time to obtain optimal pleasure is central to the emerging field.

»Studying molecular gastronomy adds an important aspect to traditional food science as it looks at the underlying pleasure of food. Traditionally, we look at the technical aspect but forget that it is important to develop things that are interesting for consumers to eat,« explains Wender Bredie.

Nitrogen ice-cream a no no

However, the researchers also pose the question of whether it is really necessary to study such exclusive and complicated food, which, with its added chemicals and laboratory instruments, may never be a part of everyday home cooking.

»At the moment molecular gastronomy is only in top restaurants such as Noma in Denmark and the Fat Duck in England«, admits Wender Bredie, and continues »but gradually some parts of it could move into more restaurants and even into the homes of consumers.«

»People could buy some basic equipment and experiment at home, although there are of course limits. Making liquid nitrogen ice-cream at home is not going to happen,« he says.

More taste, less greed

Suggesting potential applications for the new field of study, the authors of the paper suggest that if people eat extremely tasty food, such as that on molecular menus, they may actually eat less.

Further research on flavour, pleasure and appetite could determine whether high levels of flavour and sense stimulation in a meal will lead to a smaller energy intake because the person eating will be satisfied with smaller portion sizes.

»If this could be demonstrated in a number of cases, so that ‘quantity’ could be replaced by ‘quality’, it may become possible to encourage more appropriate eating behaviour in an environment with high food availability,« they write.

Taking myths out of meals

Understanding the processes of molecular food could also take away some of the food myths found in dusty old cookbooks and make cooking successes repeatable.

»A lot of cooks can make something delicious in no time, but they can’t tell you exactly how. They add a little salt here, change temperature there. We can recreate and record these processes to find optimum flavours and textures to give a more nuanced understanding of food,« says Wender L. P. Bredie.

When it comes to food enjoyment, research has shown that we are born with very few specific food likes and dislikes. Newborns have simply a preference for sweet and fatty taste and a dislike for bitter taste.

»This demonstrates quite clearly that food preferences are learned and not inborn, but there might nevertheless be more fundamental underlying principles which determine what brings pleasure to humans,« write the researchers.

Element of surprise

Factors such as anticipation and novelty seem to increase food enjoyment. And novelty is the name of the game in molecular food.

Famous examples of molecular gastronomy such as Heston Blumenthal’s smoked bacon and egg ice cream and Noma’s edible dirt are proof that in the molecular food world, anything goes. The unexpected is definitely in, and, in time, it could well make us want to eat less.