Most food is pathetic. Tastes mediocre. Rots quickly. A hassle to prepare. Expensive. Contains worrisome ingredients. Crumbly. Boring. Not nutritious. If only the same American know-how that put a dune buggy on Mars could be applied to producing comestibles that give 110 percent, 24/7.
That's what I used to think. But after two days strolling and munching at the Institute of Food Technologists' 2000 convention in Dallas, I am persuaded that scientists are transforming the slacker foods we consume daily into a squared-away army of optimally engineered rations worthy of this can-do nation. While so-called functional foods that maximize nutrition get all the press these days, technology is upgrading edibles in every way imaginable, from boosting shelf life to streamlining preparation to— wacky idea— improving flavor. I have eaten the future and, except for the strawberry corn chips, it tastes pretty good.
We, the eaters, should care. Most of this stuff will be on store shelves soon, but not all of the enhanced foods I saw and ate were intended to benefit the ravenous public. Food processing isn't social work. A lot of brainpower is being applied to making food that tastes only a smidgen worse but is a lot cheaper to manufacture.
To try it all, good and bad, I skipped breakfast, loosened my belt a notch, and flashed my press pass. Forward, binge!
At first glance, this appeared to be a typically disorienting trade show, with garish displays, bubbly booth babes, and the odd inept magician. But instead of burdening visitors with pens and key chains, this one worked more like an adult Halloween. Virtually every one of the 793 exhibitor booths dispensed sticks, bricks, packets, bottles, plates, scoops, bowls, or bars of food. While much of it was delicious, near the end I just held open my bag and silently took my sample, like a kid too stuffed and tired to mumble "trick or treat."
I began my tour near a life-sized green fiberglass cow that dispensed mixed-berry soy protein drink— made of solvent-extracted soy isolate, fruit juices, gum stabilizers, and natural flavors— from its rigid udder. Insinuating soy into every kind of food was perhaps the hottest trend at the show, as manufacturers aimed to exploit a ruling last year by the Food and Drug Administration that allows products with at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving to claim heart-health benefits. "The home run is to get soy into a lot of mainstream foods people eat every day," said Mary Thompson, soy products division leader for Cargill Foods, which is pushing its own soy protein isolate that "improves soy's beany taste."
Hmmm. By "improve" does she mean "remove"?
"That is the goal, yes," said Thompson. "We're aiming for no soy flavor at all." Smart move. I'm happy to report that none of the soy foods I ate bore the taint of tofu-tang.
Meanwhile, new preservation technologies were everywhere. Just down the aisle from the soy chili folks, a smiling lady thrust a white, fresh-looking apple quarter at me. "Eat this," she demanded, smiling. As I munched the crisp, juicy slice, she told me it had been cut and refrigerated 10 days earlier, a span that would typically render a sectioned apple rubbery and brown. "It's dipped in a preservative that's nothing but vitamins and minerals. Development took eight years," said Larry Check, a senior product manager with Mantrose-Haeuser of Westport, Connecticut. Check wouldn't reveal the proprietary mix of nutrients, except to confirm that it contains antioxidants. Before long, he vowed, "you'll be able to go into a supermarket and buy a bag of cut apples. We figure it's a billion-dollar market. Apple growers are hugely excited about this."
Why not? It's a good apple. I'm kind of excited myself.
While most of the show focused on food products, gadgetry also abounded. The folks who market the Cyranose 320 Electronic Nose argued that their walkie-talkie-sized device could in many cases sample and categorize a food's odor far more precisely than could the fractious human honker. Polymer-composite sensors inside Cyranose swell when exposed to vapors. This changes electrical resistance paths in the sensor array, which creates a unique digital pattern, or "smellprint," that is quite precise. The array can, for instance, discern 20 different smell "notes" in coffee, including earth, potato, clove, pepper, leather, coriander, vanilla, and coffee-blossom. If a batch of processed food smells too fruity, peppery, or stale, Cyranose's screen declares the sample "unidentifiable." Good batches are dubbed "within spec."
One rather large gadget, an ozone generator the size of a small refrigerator, could spell the end of chlorine in food, which is widely used to kill pathogens in meats, fruits, and drinking water. Chlorine has serious drawbacks, said Lee Ditzler, president of Novazone, based in Livermore, California. The biggest concerns: carcinogenic by-products and a tendency to spawn resistant strains of bacteria that require ever-higher doses to kill. By contrast, ozone sterilizes more vigorously, dissipates utterly, and is abundant. "Bio-slime, bacteria, molds— ozone burns them all," Ditzler said. Ozone dissolved in water can wash foods and sterilize both bottles and the drinks inside them, but the killer app may be to slow the decay of fresh fruit. Released at 100 parts per billion into cold storage rooms, ozone oxidizes ethylene gas emitted by fruit and greatly retards ripening. "We had a grower who typically lost 40 percent of his kiwi crop in storage. We brought that down to 2 percent. The public wants a cleaner, safer product, and the grower wants to save money. Ozone does both," said Ditzler.
Indeed, making food safer— or at least making food seem safer— was another hot trend. At least one company here promised to detect virtually all genetically modified ingredients in a food company's production runs. Genetic ID of Fairfield, Iowa, uses the polymerase chain reaction method to amplify DNA sequences of samples and compare them with DNA segments typical of genetically modified foods. The company claims that using its method will guarantee that 99.9 percent of a food crop is free of genetically altered strains. Clearly, the market is there: Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the nation's two largest natural food supermarket chains, have announced they will purge all genetically modified ingredients from their stores. Do the testers themselves believe these foods merit such worry and scrutiny? "We're neutral on the issue," said Sheryll Ryan, director of business development at Genetic ID. "We just provide the service."
Meanwhile J.B. Pratt, a physician who is also CEO of Pratt Foods, a nine-store Midwestern chain with an emphasis on health food, was vigorously partisan about yet another safe-food certification trend, the one for so-called organics— that is, foods raised without synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. "Organic and natural foods are growing 20 percent a year in conventional supermarkets," Pratt said after taking part in a lively panel discussion on the issue. "It's the only area showing significant growth at all." But he worried that the hard-earned gains will dwindle if organics don't become more like processed foods— shaped into a wide variety of chips, drinks, TV dinners, and similar quick-prep formulations. "We have to address time-starvation," he said.
True enough. Other companies here were addressing it relentlessly. In the new millennium, who has time to soak beans? "We're talking about a pea soup mix that's ready the moment it hits the hot water," promised Mark Sterner, owner of Inland Empire Foods of Riverside, California. His patented process, which the company uses on 27 varieties of beans, peas, lentils, and grains, cooks the raw, dried product by steam injection, gently squeezes it to further open the cell structure, and finally dries and packages it for shipping. Makers of individual-serving, just-add-hot-water soups use these legumes for consumer convenience. Restaurants and fast-food chains love them because, as Sterner put it, "one truckload of our product makes the same volume as three trucks of canned." And the University of Wisconsin's food-product development team proffered Chomp, a cereal bar made from corn, oats, and freeze-dried berries, with a milk-based binder— a classic example of the industry's general push toward so-called dashboard foods.
But what good is any food if it tastes bland, or worse, healthy? Americans like their sweets, and pursuing the win-win sweetener— no calories, no tooth decay, no brain cancer, cheap, and sugar-sweet— has consumed food techies and killed off rats for decades. The major sugar substitute touted at this convention was something called Sunett, the trade name for acesulfame potassium, an organic salt consisting of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and potassium. Discovered in 1967, the substance got the FDA's OK in 1998 for use in nonalcoholic beverages. Roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar, heat-stable, and highly water-soluble, it's often blended with aspartame and other synthetic sweeteners for a taste that resembles good old sucrose. "Since it is not metabolized by the body, it passes through the digestive system unchanged," according to literature from manufacturer Nutrinova, a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Hoechst Group of Frankfurt, Germany. As my digestive system was wrestling with many unfamiliar designer molecules already, I took just a small sip. Not bad, and a boon to bottom lines. Sunett, its maker says, lets manufacturers cut their overall sweetener usage by 40 percent.
So many booths, so little stomach capacity. Wandering out, dazed, past the orange chipotle chips, the clear soy sauce, the tree-fiber powder (a handout is titled "From Wood to Food"), the megavitamin doughnuts, the omega-3-laced tuna burgers, the Brazilian pierogi Parmesan made with "customized cheese systems," and the S'mores ice cream featuring a graham cracker variegation, I feel overfed and overwhelmed but also heartened. Growing, harvesting, preserving, preparing, and eating has been humankind's central project for centuries. Freed from that burden by technologies like the ones displayed here, perhaps we can channel our energies into something higher, greater, and nobler than just feeding ourselves.
Like what? Don't ask me now. I need a nap.
A Web cornucopia! For more on cut apples that stay fresh for weeks on end, check out the Mantrose-Haeuser Company's Web site: www.mbzgroup.com. Smell the future at Cyrano Sciences' Web site: www.cyranosciences.com. Genetic ID vets food for genetically modified components. To learn how they do it, see www.genetic-id.com. Need bean soup? Inland Empire Foods wants to talk to you: www.inlandempirefoods.com.