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Technology

The Bright, Hi-Tech Future of Food Preservation

Irradiating food? Pssh. Old news. Engineers are working on more effective (and cooler) techniques like super-high pressure, chemical coatings, and, yes, laser ovens.

By David H. FreedmanSeptember 2, 2011 12:00 AM
outyes
illustration by David Plunkert

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The average American kitchen is lousy with innovation. Science has bombarded us with convection microwave ovens, induction cooktops, and countless other curiosities aimed at making food preparation tidier and more efficient. Yet for all the patents crowding our counters, every time I put together a meal I find myself facing some tediously antique trade-offs: Would I prefer wholesome, quick, or safe? Maybe I can figure out how to achieve two, or even 
all three? Haven’t cracked that one yet.

The truth is that nutritious, delicious food is quite difficult to obtain quickly. “Quickly” has traditionally meant either cooking food beyond recognition (safe but disgusting) or barely cooking it at all (also disgusting, if you ask me). Raw or rare food may be popular among health nuts, but it is also an attractive dining option among the world’s largest constituency, bacteria, a population riding high on its recent success in contaminating produce in Germany and killing 48 people as of July. Foodborne diseases in this country aren’t much friendlier, striking one-sixth of the entire U.S. population every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The clear way around the problem is to kill bacteria through means other than heat prior to preparation, so you can then cook food or not, to your liking, without having to worry about contamination. “The goal is to apply a lethal agent that causes a minimum of change to the nutrients and other ingredients,” says V. M. Balasubramaniam, a food engineer at Ohio State University. Chemical preservatives raise health concerns of their own, and at any rate they are not applicable to many foods. Blasting food with beams of high-energy electrons, X-rays, or gamma rays also fits the bill, but the CDC reports that at least half of all Americans say they will not eat irradiated foods if given a choice. As a result food-zapping techniques in the United States are limited to just a few fruits and spices.

Balasubramaniam is studying a different line of attack, subjecting flora and butchered fauna to 100,000 pounds per square inch of pressure (PDF), some 6,000 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.

No ordinary pressure cooker can achieve such compression. Balasubramaniam employs a special type of pressure chamber that was originally designed to make industrial diamonds. He starts by sealing food in a plastic bag and dropping it into an upper compartment filled with water. A piston separates this compartment from a lower one that’s filled with hydraulic oil. More hydraulic fluid is pumped into the lower compartment, which raises the piston and in turn compresses the water—only a little, though, because water is highly resistant to compression. As the water becomes slightly more squashed over a two-minute period, the pressure in the upper compartment skyrockets. After five minutes the pressure is released. Dinner is served.

Something really surprising happens to many foods when subjected to this sort of megapressure: nothing. The compression induces no chemical changes and therefore causes no odd tastes, textures, or appearances. Raw meat takes on a brownish tinge, owing to some misshapen proteins, but solid, liquid, or gooey foods (such as potatoes, pineapple, and tomato sauce) or foods that are sliced flat (like a serving of ham or salmon) are generally none the worse for wear. Bacteria stay perfectly intact too—except that they are quite dead, because the pressure contorts their DNA and proteins into nonfunctional shapes.

The result is food that is perfectly safe to eat, even raw. “I take raw hamburger, compress it, and then cook it just a little bit on the grill to make it look better on the outside,” says Antonio Torres, a food scientist at Oregon State University who also works with food compression. “It’s rare and juicy and delicious, the way a hamburger should be. Everyone I serve it to loves it. I’m taking some home tonight.”

That’s right, a perfect, rare burger without the bacteria. Try getting that at Burger King or wherever it is you take your spouse on your anniversary.

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