Experimental Eating in Food: Delicious Science

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A scene from Episode 2 of Food: Delicious Science, "A Matter of Taste". Host James Wong and a Quechua family detoxifies potatoes for long-term food security.
A scene from Episode 2 of Food: Delicious Science, “A Matter of Taste”. Host James Wong and a Quechua family detoxifies potatoes for long-term food security.

Food: Delicious Science connects food, science, and people compellingly. The stories is presents are a good resource for instructors and those looking for ways to deepen curiosity about food and plants. It may also inspire reflections about what we eat and where our food comes from. And some of the experiments they do in the series can be done in a classroom, lab, or home kitchen

Michael Mosley (@DrMichaelMosley) and James Wong (@BotanyGeek) cohost the three-part series fundamentally about the biology, chemistry, and physics of food. The first episode focuses on connecting food and our brains and how we decide what is “good” or not. It explores how humans have learned to transform foods, eating no almost no other animal does through our cooking and processing foods into consumable chemistry that can be downright addictive. The second episode deals with our sense of taste and the molecules in the foods we eat that excite our taste buds. The final episode deals with how the foods we eat build our bodies and how various cultures figured out how to obtain a complete diet with the essential carbohydrates, fats, and proteins/amino acids we need to survive and thrive

Kaymak, the product of an animal being fed plants. Credit: By E4024 [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Plants are centered as the basis for what we eat. In several stories, they show how the botanical diet of an animal raised for meat – or dairy – results in unique foods in the world. For instance, Water Buffalo in Afyon, Turkey that eat a by-product of opium poppies enriches their milk and is processed into Kaymak, a butter-like dairy product, but with perfect viscosity and high fat content

Criticisms

They do tend to reduce humans to being a bit simplistic, arguing that humans love chocolate because it turns out to have a similar fat/carb content as human breast milk. Another example is that humans are addicted to caffeine in coffee, getting a false reward akin to bees pollinating coffee tree flowers getting perhaps less nectar, but feeling they’re getting more because they get a caffeine. There may be some truth to these stories, however, it does feel too reductive at times.

Perhaps due to time or merely due to a focus on the science of food, the series doesn’t really touch on food insecurity and its default assumption is that everyone has enough to eat (a goal we should strive for, of course). The world of food presented is either a vision of an optimistic future or slightly blindly focused on a well-off Western audience despite traveling all over the world to highlight foods various cultures eat as ür examples of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins

Entertaining Stories

Watching James Wong and Michael Mosley participate in a chili eating contest to illustrate just how far humans have gone to explore what is edible and explain the biochemistry of capsaicin. Humans do eat things other animals don’t. At one point, Wong is handed a cracked open chocolate tree pod and eats the white goo surrounding the chocolate seeds that he says is “delicious”. What we actually make chocolate out of is the bitter seed underneath. People figured that out. Eventually combining it with sugar (thanks to the Columbian exchange that linked the hemispheres and started to mix up plants, people, and culture), led to it being a popular food all over the world

In the episode about taste and how it functions, one of the stories is about bitter taste. Bitter signals danger, but of course humans have also learned to enjoy the taste of bitter things. Mosley does an interesting experiment of adding salt to coffee, cutting bitterness because the salt interferes with perceiving bitter. Wong Bitter signals danger and there are several scenes of James Wong biting into bitter things. An unripe strawberry. A wild potato leaf. And then he relates the story of a Quechua family of potato farmers high in the Andes and how they detoxify a hardy, but still toxic potato variety as a food security measure. First, they throw them up at a high elevation so ice crystals can form That bursts cells in the potato allowing solanine, the bitter poison in potatoes, to leach out after people step on them to break the skin and further disrupt cells in the potato. They are then left in the sun to dry out and as water leaves, so does the solanine. These essentially freeze-dried potatoes are then safe for consumption and can be stored up to a decade. It made me wonder how warmer mountain tops under climate change will alter the food processing of potatoes

Huitlacoche, A fungally modified version of maize. Image Credit: Russ Bowling, Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

The final episode might be summed up as “we are what we eat”. The delicacy huitlacoche does seem like something not to be eaten. It’s a fungi that infects ears of corn and causes them to swell up and turn black. But the fungi adds some of the essential amino acids to make a complete diet for corn farmers in Central America.

These are just a few of the well told stories in Food: Delicious Science. A lot of the things that Wong and Mosley do could be done in a classroom, lab, or kitchen. After all, we can’t really smell or taste through the television, but can work to replicate their experiences in real life, though be careful with the chili eating contest amongst students.                     

Bonus Recommendation if video isn’t your thing

If video isn’t appealing, for a longer series about food, science, and people in audio-form, Gastropod is in a similar vein to Food: Delicious Science and an excellent deep dive into specific foods in each episode. They cover both natural history and history with humans.

Food: Delicious Science is available to stream on Netflix in the United States and is streaming on PBS’ website, produced by the BBC. Gastropod can be found where ever podcasts can be streamed or downloaded


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