Posts Tagged ‘everyday science’

Food related 2007 IgNoble prizes

Sunday, October 7th, 2007


Slightly off topic (but with links to both food and science): At this time of the year it’s time for the IgNoble prizes – the entertaining cousins of the more serious Noble prizes! And once again several of them are awarded to food related research (in the broad sense that is):

NUTRITION: Brian Wansink of Cornell University, for exploring the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings, by secretly feeding them with a self-refilling, bottomless bowl of soup. REFERENCE: “Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake,” Brian Wansink, James E. Painter and Jill North, Obesity Research, vol. 13, no. 1, January 2005, pp. 93-100. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, Bantom Books, 2006, ISBN 0553804340.

CHEMISTRY: Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanillin — vanilla fragrance and flavoring — from cow dung. REFERENCE: “Novel Production Method for Plant Polyphenol from Livestock Excrement Using Subcritical Water Reaction,” Mayu Yamamoto, International Medical Center of Japan. PRESS NOTE: Toscanini’s Ice Cream, the finest ice cream shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, created a new ice cream flavor in honor of Mayu Yamamoto, and introduced it at the Ig Nobel ceremony. The flavor is called “Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist.”

MEDICINE: Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, USA, for their penetrating medical report “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.” REFERENCE: “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,” Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer, British Medical Journal, December 23, 2006, vol. 333, pp. 1285-7.

In case you wondered – this is in fact real research which has been published in scientific journals. The IgNoble slogan reads “First it makes you LAUGH, then it makes you THINK”. Enjoy!

Making sense about science

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

When chopping onions, propanethial-S-oxide is liberated. If this compound is not a chemical, what is it then?

There are many misconceptions about chemicals, and one of the most common ones is that food should be “free” of chemicals. For example, in the article “The future of cuisine?” the journalist writes:

“… the ingredients used in molecular cooking are natural, free of chemicals…”

Most of the hydrocolloids used in molecular gastronomy are certainly of natural origin, I don’t disagree about that. But “free of chemicals” is ridiculous… All ingredients used in the kitchen are chemicals (in a broad sense), albeit some very complex and not always very pure onces!

One of my motivations for being involved with molecular gastronomy and popular food science is to promote the understanding that all food is made up of atoms and molecules. Therefore I would like to present to you the organisation Sense about science which tries to combat common chemical misconceptions. According to their site which is well worth a visit they “promote good science and evidence for the public”. As a chemist I found the section Making sense of chemical stories particularily interesting. I think the report Misconceptions about chemicals (downloadable pdf) should be downloaded and read by every journalist writing a story about molecular gastronomy (or any other everyday science topic for that sake). And I think it should be quite interesting for the readers of this blog as well. Here’s a short summary:

You can lead a chemical-free life
The chemical reality is that you cannot lead a chemical-free life, because everything is made of chemicals. Chemicals are substances and chemistry is the science of substances – their structure, their properties and the reactions which change them into other substances. Claims that products are “chemical free” are untrue. There are no alternatives to chemicals, just choices about which chemicals to use and how they are made.

Man-made chemicals are inherently dangerous
The chemical reality is that whether a substance is manufactured by people, copied from nature, or extracted directly from nature, tells us nothing much at all about its properties. In terms of chemical safety, “industrial”, “synthetic”, “artificial” and “man-made” do not necessarily mean damaging and “natural” does not necessarily mean better.

Synthetic chemicals are causing many cancers and other diseases
The chemical reality is that many of the claims about chemicals being “˜linked’ to diseases simply tell us that that a chemical was present when an effect occurred, rather than showing that the chemical causes the effect. Caution is needed in reporting apparent correlations: it is in the nature of scientific experiments that many disappear when a further test is done or they turn out to be explained in other ways.

Our exposure to a cocktail of chemicals is a ticking time-bomb
The chemical reality is that, although the language of “cocktails” and “time bombs” is alarming, neither the presence of chemicals nor the bioaccumulation of them, in themselves, mean that harm is being done. We have always been exposed to many different substances, because nature is a “cocktail of chemicals”. Modern technology enables us to detect miniscule amounts of substances, but the presence of such a small amount of a specific substance does not mean that it is having any discernible effect on us or on future generations.

It is beneficial to avoid man-made chemicals
The chemical reality is that, insofar as there is a “˜need’ for anything, synthesised and man-made chemicals have given societies choices beyond measure about what they are exposed to and the problems they can solve.

We are subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled experiment
The chemical reality is that there is an extensive regulatory system that strictly controls what chemicals can be introduced: what experiments can take place, what can be used, for which purpose and how they should be transported, used and disposed of.

Apart from the “free of chemicals” misconception there is the whole natural/organic vs. synthetic/conventional food debate. But I think I’ll leave that for a separate post.

Update: Several commenters below have pointed out that Sense about science is funded by various lobby groups. An article by George Monbiot explores this in great detail. It’s OK to be aware of this, but I still feel their statements regarding “Misconceptions about chemicals” are very much to the point and well worth reading.

[“Sense about science” was found via The Sceptical Chymist. Thanks!]

Simple temperature calculations

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

Although I recommend the use of a thermometer, sometimes it’s convenient to know how you can also manage without. If you mix water at two different (but known) temperatures, you can easily calculate the temperature after mixing. Just multiply the temperature of each part with the relative amount. For example, if you have 3 dL at 100 °C and 7 dL at 10 °C (which happens to be the approximate temperature of my tap water), this gives (3 dL x 100 °C + 7 dL x 10 °C) / 10 dL = 37 °C which is just perfect for dissolving fresh yeast when making bread.

You can also do it the other way around. Let’s say you have boiling water and you know that your tap water is approximately 10 °C. If you want water at approximately 37 °C, you can do as follows:


Start by writing what you have to the left (100 °C and 10 °C) and what you want in the middle (37 °C). Subtract: (100-37) = 63 and (37-10) = 27. And voilá – you need 27 parts water at 100 °C and 63 parts at 10 °C (and 27:63 simplifies to 3:7 which is what we found above). Now of course if you really wanted water at 37 °C, you would simply put your finger in to see if it’s at body temperature…

Are there any practical applications of this? Yes – a simple, but elegant way to prepare fish would be to drop a fish of known weight and temperature (fridge @ 4 °C or freezer @ -18 °C) into water that has been brought to boil. Cover pot and turn off heat. The amount of water would be calculated based on the desired temperature of the fish. We are assuming here that there is no heat loss to the surroundings, which of course isn’t quite true. How fast pot of water will cool depends on how much water you use and on the pot. This can be corrected for, and luckily someone has already done it. More on this in my post on how to cook fish in cooling water.

We can apply the temperature calculation from above to figure out roughly what the temperature will with this cooking method. 800 g of fish from the fridge (4 °C) and 2,4 L of boiling water gives a temperature of (0,8 x 4 °C + 2,4 x 100 °C) / 3,2 = 76 °C. The cooling curves for a pot with 2,5 L of water suggest a temperature loss of 15-20 °C in 30 min which would bring us down to 55-60 °C which – considering that no thermometer is used – is quite good.