Food science and flavour

A friend of mine is a food scientist. Most of his work relates to food safety and nutrition, but obviously these aren’t the only factors you have to consider in food production, taste is important too. He was telling us some entertaining stories over dinner the other night and I’d like to share them with you. Have no fear, this won’t put you off food, you can even read it while eating. I was amazed to find out how the strangest things can affect how things taste.

His first story was about asparagus. We all know that the stuff in tins tastes really different from fresh asparagus, but I was surprised to hear that some people actually prefer the tinned variety. Even more interestingly the tin itself could be part of the taste experience. Cans for storing food are coated with lacquer inside these days, but this hasn’t always been the case. In an unlacquered tin, small amounts of metal can leach into the food and apparently this imparts some flavour, at least in the case of asparagus. When lacquered tins were first introduced tinned asparagus sales went down. Apparently it didn’t taste as good any more. In response food manufacturers now leave a strip of unlacquered metal inside the can to impart that special tinned asparagus taste!

The second food science story was about chocolate paddlepops. My friend used to have the enviable job of overseeing icecream production, and yes that does include tasting the freshly churned product. In the icecream making process temperature control, churning speed and so on are very important. If you get something wrong the product becomes crystalline and the texture is not as good. Rather than being wasted this crystallised icecream can be returned to an earlier stage of the manufacturing process and is known as ‘rework’. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s like turning leftovers into fried rice, we do it in our own kitchens all the time. The difficulty with incorporating rework into a new mix is that since flavours may have been added already they can affect the current batch before the flavourings are added. For this reason rework is usually added to foods with strong flavours, such as chocolate, which will mask others. Chocolate paddlepops at the time were the best selling line for the company, and usually contained 30-40 % rework. A new manager, shocked at this, decided that a popular line shouldn’t be compromised by adding rework and cut it out. Sales plummeted. Why? Presumably the rework adds complexity to the chocolate flavour we all love, without it the icecream just wouldn’t taste the same.

In the spirit of rework, take a look at the Love Food Hate Waste campaign running in the UK. There are some fun ideas there, and some of them are useful too. This website was how I learnt that a bowl of powdered bicarbonate of soda can remove odours from your fridge. This is very handy in a sharehouse!

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