The Science of Food - Unraveling Culinary Mysteries
June 17, 2023
Food science is the application of food chemistry, nutrition, microbiology, chemical engineering, and biology to produce safe and nutritious foods. It also includes understanding of food processing, preservation methods and product development.
Most people walk through grocery store aisles without a second thought about how the food on display got there. But behind every tasty, affordable and nutritious meal is a complex web of science.
How do we taste?
The sense of taste is important because it helps us evaluate foods and drinks to make sure they’re safe to eat and that we can digest them. It also tells us when something isn’t right, such as spoiled or toxic food.
Our sense of taste is the result of chemical compounds that interact with sensory (receptor) cells in our taste buds, which are located on our tongues. These cells send signals to our brains that let us know if something tastes sweet, sour, salty, or bitter.
Each type of taste has its own receptors and corresponding chemicals: sugars are detected by G-protein receptors; acids trigger H+-taste receptors; sodium ions produce the salty sensation; and umami receptors respond to glutamates. But there’s not always a strict correlation between the chemical structure of a taste molecule and its perceived quality: sugars and chloroform, for example, are both sweet.
What makes a good dish?
A good dish must be balanced with the right amount of each ingredient. Great cooks know that they can use food science to create a balanced meal, from the chemistry of flavours to the physics of cooking and baking.
For example, they understand why a souffle can fail by understanding how heat and air interact. And they understand how salt influences a recipe, ensuring that the finished dish tastes balanced and full of flavour.
Having this knowledge can help you to troubleshoot problems that might otherwise seem unfixable, like over-whipped egg whites or dry chocolate cake. And it can also make you a better cook, improving your technique and helping you to be more adaptable in the kitchen.
But the most important thing to remember is that a great dish is all about taste. Regardless of what a chef does to a plate – whether it’s smears of puree, sprigs of herbs or edible flowers – the final product should always elevate the flavour of the food above everything else.
How do we store food?
As the name suggests, food science is about everything that happens to a food item from the time it leaves the farm, field or waters until it ends up on the grocery store shelf. It combines broad-based knowledge from multiple scientific disciplines like microbiology, chemistry and engineering and applies them to food.
It includes research into multiple methods of processing and preservation, such as drying, freezing, pasteurizing and canning. It also investigates the microorganisms that can contaminate food as well as ways to prevent spoilage and create “good” bacteria.
It also explores sensory science, which involves looking at things like how a dish tastes or how it looks. For example, a food scientist might work with a company to develop a new recipe for canned baked beans so they aren’t too mushy or make sure the beans look appetizing on the grocery store shelf. This is a growing area of research as society increasingly relies on ready-to-eat foods.
How do we cook?
Food scientists use their knowledge of biology, chemistry, engineering, microbiology and mathematics to transform raw ingredients into the foods that we enjoy. They also research methods to preserve and extend the shelf life of foods, including dehydrating, freezing, pasteurizing, and canning.
A few of the fields within food science are sensory science, which studies how humans perceive and evaluate flavors and textures, and physics, which explores how things like melting cheese and frying bacon change the physical properties of their components. Food scientists also study the ways that chemicals in food interact with our bodies.
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