This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
When I was first becoming a foodie in college I decided to switch my major to food science. I registered for most of the required basic science courses, as well as the intro class for majors. Unfortunately that class is why I'm not a food scientist. It was taught by a former head food scientist from Kraft and you could have retitled it "how to sell massive and ever increasing amounts of garbage commodity foods to Americans." I remember in one lab we toured they were making crispy puffs out of some soy byproduct that they told us would otherwise go to waste. I ate my bag and went back for more, but I otherwise remember nothing about that "food."
Some of my friends in neuroscience study how to prevent addiction, food scientists at these labs were studying how to encourage it. The End of Overeating documents their extremely successful methods.
I decided food science was not for me and ended up not switching my major. In fact, I decided that food science was evil and I wanted nothing to do with it.
But is food science going to be saved? Since I've started getting into modernist haute cuisine, I've noticed a movement from within to turn food science back into quality rather than selling people mass quantities of commodities. Ferran Adria of elBulli was an early pioneer of using food science in the haute cuisine kitchen and Harold McGee brought food science to conscientious home cooks through On Food and Cooking. Now Ferran has retired from the restaurant business to teach a form of food science known as "culinary physics" at Harvard and research gastronomy there. Super rich internet entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold funded the development of the "bible" of Modernist Cuisine, using his millions to assemble a team of chefs and scientists to figure out how to perfect food as an aesthetic experience. Here is a Ted talk from one of the authors, Chris Young, a biochemist.
And now there is a new open-access academic journal called Flavor that had an article that caught my eye yesterday: Seaweeds for umami flavor in the New Nordic Cuisine. Turns out it's a collaboration between a physicist at the University of Southern Denmark and the Nordic Food Lab, which was started by Rene Redzepi, who runs the restaurant Noma. Noma took the mantle of "best restaurant in the world" after Ferran entered academia. I suppose Rene is trying to do academia and restaurants at once, with some successful results from his own Nordic Food Lab.
I think now that the concept of "food reward" has come into popular consciousness in the evolutionary blogosphere, some people have confused high "food reward" with good. That's the interesting part- foods that are high "food reward" are not often particularly aesthetically pleasing. They are not "good" in any way. Few writers are going to wax poetic on a cheeto the way you can about ikura or fine wine. High food reward foods stimulate compulsion. They hit the parts of the brain that make you want to eat more.
As I wrote about in my Paleolithic Post-Modernist Cuisine post, Ferran conceptualized food that hit not only the taste buds, but also had intellectual value " in which other elements come into play, such as sense of humour, irony, provocation, childhood memories, or -- a very important point."
A major difference between the modernist cuisine* type of food science and the food science that has led to the creation of bran flakes and Cheetos is that the former is all about quality, whereas the later places more of an emphasis on creating foods people want to eat more of.
When your ingredients cost as much as $6000 a lb, the last thing you want to do is create dishes that make the eater crave more. I remember eating one of the rarest mollusks in the world, abalone, at Manresa. It was a tiny tiny sliver, but I'll remember more about it than I'll ever remember about the fried chicken I used to binge on in the dining hall in college.
This is why I think it's vital for the neuroscientists who study food reward to collaborate with the nascent scientists of the modern gastronomy movement. While I think Whole Health Source is one of the best blogs out there, the low-reward food diet seems kind of harsh to me.
"Eat only single ingredients with no flavorings added. No spices, herbs, salt, added sweeteners, added fats, etc. If you eat a potato, eat it plain." When I have tried a diet like that, it triggers anhedonia and I can't keep it up. I also simply don't think that "low-reward" has to mean miserable food. Reward is about triggering a system of compulsion, not about aesthetic reward.
Stephan says that "You may initially feel deprived, but you should become more satisfied by simple food over time." But I think for those of use who are very hedonic, this is unrealistic and why would I want to give up the pleasures of truly luxurious food if I don't have to? Maybe it's because I come from a family of people unusually attuned to risk and pleasure seeking and my dopamine receptors are insane.
The dishes I have eaten from the kitchens of the modern gastronomists have plenty of flavor and aesthetic reward. But they do not leave me craving more. They are not dishes that stimulate compulsion, but appreciation of beauty, complexity, and the unique flavors of each quality ingredient.
Here is a "dish" I ate at a 14-course meal at ElIdeas here in Chicago. It was titled "roe - katsuobushi / tapioca / coconut." katsuobushi is also known as "bonito fish" and is one of the foundations of traditional dashi, the broth that is the nucleus of Japanese cuisine. It is the quintessential "umani" ingredient, imparting savory flavors. But unlike purified umami, which is MSG, it has a complex heavy somewhat-fishy flavor. It's made of mackerel after all.
At ElIdeas the guests are invited to participate in the kitchen, where I happily saw that the chef was using the whole dried fish, shaving off flakes by hand. Most Japanese restaurants in the US use commercially-made "bonito flavored" flakes that are often mostly MSG. The real thing is not easy to find, it's not something you want to create a dish with where the eater will crave more, but one that highlights the unusual and rich flavors of each ingredient.
The food science that has dominated the industry and academia for so long is mainly concerned with making crap better. The new modernist food science is mainly concerned with getting the best out of wonderful things. I hope they can collaborate to work out culinary principles for food that tastes good AND doesn't hijack the senses in order to trigger compulsive eating. That's going to be hard, because everyone seems to have different triggers.
In my own kitchen, the practical applications of what I've learned from fancy food are pretty easy to spot. I cook with only the best ingredients and favor complex and unusual flavors, like spicy mustards, heavy misos, real high-quality fish sauce, seaweeds, and offal. Interestingly, haute cuisine shares elements and flavors with ancient peasant cuisine, probably because despite their divergent costs, they both have the same goal of making the most out of small amounts of things.
An simple recipe I enjoyed for breakfast today was Trader Joe's smoked wild salmon wrapped in roasted seaweed (I used seasnax), drizzled with some spicy mustard. Delicious, pretty, and satisfying.
* I would note that this movement is seperate from the gastropub and new american food movements, which often do feature compulsive little snacks like fries with aioli
I finally finished The End of Overeating. It has some great sections, but overall I had trouble finishing it because of the dry writing style. A lot of the food in the book blamed for overeating is meat. But if you keep reading, it's not really meat so much as a flavorless factory-farmed protein matrix for sugar and soybean oil engineered to induce exccessive consumption. Now that I only eat homemade pastured meat (and occasionally meat at some very good restaurants that source responsibly), I never gorge on meat. But I confess that before I cleaned up my diet, I did have trouble restraining myself with things like General Tso's Chicken and fried Buffalo Wings. When I see a study that shows meat causes weight gain, I kind of want to know "what meat?". If you mean this kind of garbage, that's not meat or food at all, that's an industrial product:
In China, dishes like orange-flavored chicken and sweet-and-sour chicken are widely available, but again, all the sugar is an American contribution. The dish we call "General Tso's Chicken" is loaded with sugar, much to the consternation of the Taiwanese chef who created it. "The dish can't be sweet," he insisted. "The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet."
The Orange Chicken is described on the menu as "tender, juicy chicken pieces lightly battered and fried, sauteed in a sweet and mildly spicy chili sauce with scallions." Preparation of the dish begins in the factory, where the meat is processed, battered, fried, and frozen. Like many processed meats, the dark chicken chunks contain as much as 19 percent of a water-based solution; oil and salt are added as well.
Boxes containing eight four-pound bags of ginger-citrus sauce, each with a refrigerated shelf life of about four months, are shipped to Chili's restaurants to accompany the chicken. The ingredients in the sauce sound relatively benign: sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch, and orange juice concentrate. But sugar is the dominant nutrient, and salt is listed three times.
About the Boneless Shanghai Wings, he said, "Taking it off the bone is like taking the husk off the nut." That processing step reduces the need for chewing, making the food faster to consume. Those wings contain a solution of up to 25 percent water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, and sodium phosphate. The water is in there for several reasons. First, it bulks up the chicken-the industry calls this "reducing shrinkage." Second, water is cheaper than chicken breast, so it's less costly to produce. And finally, water makes the food softer and chewing easier. Before the chicken is shipped from the manufacturing plant, it's battered, breaded, predusted, and frozen. This creates a salty coating that becomes crispy when fried in fat. "All this stuff absorbs fat, dries out this batter and breading, and replaces water with oil. So now you've got batter and breading that is probably 40 percent fat," according to the food consultant. The crispy coating, which also contains corn-syrup solids, dried yeast, and soybean oil, may represent up to half the volume of the nuggets on the plate.
I've been badly neglecting both the backend of this website and my writing on it. Someday I'll leave the rat race, but right now I'm in the thick of it.
But in my spare time I have been reading some books. I just started The End of Overeating by David Kessler. Normally I don't post until I finish books (ack, I'm so behind on book reviews!), but between that and the comments on the binge eating post, I have some thoughts.
This brings me back to a book I haven't read in a very long time. Pascal's Pensées:
The mind of this supreme judge of the world is not so independent as to be impervious to whatever din may be going on near by. It does not take a cannon's roar to arrest his thoughts; the noise of a weathercock or a pulley will do. Do not be surprised if his reasoning is not too sound at the moment, there is a fly buzzing around his ears; that is enough to render him incapable of giving good advice. If you want him to be able to find the truth, drive away the creature that is paralyzing his reason and disturbing the mighty intelligence that rules over cities and kingdoms.
What an absurd god he is! Most ridiculous hero!
Pascal perhaps had things other than food in mind, but overall Pensées portrays man as made in the image of God, but unable to live up to his greatness, so still are the mercy of him. When I first read it six years ago, I wrote that passage down in a quotes.doc, which I still reference. I identified with it on so many levels with my ADD, binge eating, and other numerous faults.
But here I am in 2010 and the dins of chocolate covered pretzels and Pringles that once tormented me is suspiciously silent. One commenter suggested that perhaps I had been able to successfully condition revulsion, because such things really are incredible delicious, but I don't think so. These days I honestly can say I do not like Pringles. Their taste is shallow- like salt on cardboard. Hunger and taste are adaptive, but Pringles tricks them, pushing buttons adapted towards the seeking of nourishment, but providing no such thing in return.
Kessler writes of a human species helpless at their onslaught. His view seems to be that if we shipped off a barge of Pringles to Kitava, their mighty warriors would fall to the appeal of crispy crunchy salt flavored salt.
It's true that many traditional cultures have seemed helpless in the face of refined salt, sugar, and flour. Do a search for "traditional" Native American or Southern foods and you will find frybread and biscuits. But they didn't adopt these foods for no reason. Flour was introduced to many communities in the form of government aid, which doesn't get doled out until the population is generally fairly malnourished.
Another theory about why I don't binge eat anymore is that it has to do with my stomach issues. It's pretty true that that's a big deterrent. If I eat a bunch of cake now, I would be doubled over in pain in a few hours. Another major deterrent is that I generally feel good and when I eat badly the difference in energy levels is noticeable.
But what about the handful of foods I eat that I love, don't make me sick, but that probably would not be good for me in large quantities- stevia coconut milk ice cream, dark chocolate, and cider are a few. Why don't I binge on these? Are they not good enough?
I'd definitely like to explore that more, but my intuition is that
A. I'm better nourished. My body doesn't need to tell me to get more in the hopes that perhaps I'll actually get some nutrients. Stephen's latest post on Whole Health Source about a study showing low micronutrient intake might be tied to increased weight.
B. The food I eat is delicious, but extremely satiating. This tends to eat up being somewhat of a problem for longterm paleo dieters- not being hungry enough! It's why I've had to dial down the consumption of filling things like coconut milk and pork fat. There is nothing like a coconut milk shake in the morning to destroy my appetite for the entire day.
C. I chose food that is complex. Pringles and Hershey's kisses are taste-wise, unlike anything humans have encountered before. They are a shallow melding of salt, fat, and sweet without much in between. I think the bitter aftertastes of things like raw stevia or dark chocolate prevent binging.
D. My blood sugar is more stable, which means I'm unlikely to do a "crash and crave" binge.
But I'm sure there is more! That's why I'm looking forward to getting into the science. Based on my own experience, I'd have to encounter a big shocker to buy into Kessler's idea that it's all about calories and palatability.