Food Technology. What Are You Afraid Of?

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When I was in college getting my undergraduate degree in clinical dietetics, I had a Food Science class. I loved it. We had to design a food science experiment using a control group for one of our major projects for the class. My experiment involved using an artificial sweetener – aspartame – as a sugar (sucrose) substitute in a sugar cookie recipe (aspartame is not heat-stable. In the 1980s there were no heat-stable artificial sweeteners other than saccharin. We now have acesulfame potassium and sucrolose – both heat-stable and suitable for baking). My research told me that I’d need a thickening agent to stabilize the cookie when sugar was removed. I had to order a microcrystalline cellulose from FMC. The white powder arrived to the food lab in time for me to use in my experiment. My experiment compared three or four different sugar cookie recipes using various percentages of the artificial sweetener and sugar (for instance one cookie was 25% aspartame, 75% sugar; one was 50/50; one was 100% aspartame-sweetened, and percentages of the additive accordingly) compared to a control cookie (traditional sugar recipe). I got an A on the project, and clearly remember my professor asking my permission to use my paper as an example of a well-done experiment (this was not a compliment I heard every day from my professors).

The experience stuck with me – and at that point I toyed with the idea of moving on to become a food scientist instead of a dietitian, but I didn’t have enough money to choose a graduate school outside of my home town, so I gave up my dream to get my PhD at Cornell in Food Technology, and just went on to get my Master’s Degree in nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh, becoming a registered dietitian. Funny though, that I am now able to rekindle my interest in food technology by researching and writing about it, and working as a nutrition communications consultant to the food industry.

People are usually afraid of the unknown. When I hear people talk about “scary food ingredients that you can’t pronounce”, I scratch my head (recently, even food company’s are using this in their marketing) . Some people can’t spell or pronounce “anesthesiologist”. Does that mean you should avoid “going under” the next time you have surgery? I don’t think so (even though you have little understanding of the medical specialty of anesthesia and pain medicine, you’re okay with it, as long as you don’t have to experience severe pain).

So why are you afraid of ascorbic acid, cellulose gel or glucomannon? More recently, fear of GMO technology is a hot button (even though it has the potential to improve the world’s food supply). These ingredients are causing you no pain and have been tested for human safety. Unless you want to bake and cook absolutely everything from scratch, every day, these safe ingredients are found in our food supply, and usually for a purpose. The ingredients provide properties such as enhanced shelf life, stabilty (perhaps withstanding heat, becoming less oxidative, or being stable in the presence of an acid) or are used as thickeners or emulsifiers.

Don’t pass on ingredients simply because of rumors you read or hear about. Work on understanding the ingredients, and count on food and nutrition experts and food technologists to provide science-based information.

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