Real Molecular Gastronomy: Nutrigenomics

February 29, 2008 in Food Science, Molecular Gastronomy


Map of human chromosomes

I am going to take a break today from food porn and food photography and not even talk about molecular gastronomy as you have read me do before (Essentialism and Authenticity in Food: Molecular Pablum, Molecular Gastronomy 101: Part 2 – The Nose and receptors, Molecular Gastronomy 101: Biology Basics – Part 1, Molecular Gastronomy for the masses? (A Rant)) but, rather, I am going to talk about the real molecular universe of what we eat and how food becomes us and how that integration changes our bodies.

I am going to introduce you to a bleeding-edge scientific topic called Nutrigenomics.

“Nutri” comes from nutritional (relating to food) and “genomics” is a term we use to refer to the global study of the molecules that hold the information that becomes our bodies and minds (your genes or DNA, RNA, and other heritable and informational chemical structures).

You may or may have not noticed, in 2001, that the Celera based Private Human Genome Project announced that it had completed a good portion of the sequencing (chemical deciphering) of the entire human genome. Last year (2007), the founder of Celera, Craig Venter, published the sequence data from his own DNA, presenting the 6 billion letter genome of a single person for the first time.

Lots of this information is like an undecorated Christmas tree, lacking ornaments and meaning. It is through the combined study of the genomic data paired with information about a disease state or some other function that the true promise of all these billions of dollars of work is met.

These days, genomics is paired with super dense information about the proteins that your genes make and also ways that your genes are regulated (systems biology, pathway analysis, proteomics, etc) to help scientists understand to the molecular level exactly what is happening in your cells.

Nutrigenomics is a common-sense next step and is fantastically important for our way of life and that of our children for generations to come.

Nutrigenomics is determining how your body (your specific body, one day in the future) uses the food you eat. It is going to help us understand how the food we eat impacts our chemistry and the way our genes behave – why some of us get fat, some of us get diabetes, some of us get alzheimers, some of us get allergies, some of us grow larger others short, some of us are predisposed to heart attacks, etc.

Our nutritional state can make some genes be read abnormally and others not read at all (think autoimmune disease and cancer). Food that you put in your mouth has a direct effect on your genes and your genes have a direct impact on the way the food you eat becomes your body.

More important though, it will help us get molecular and get honest about the effect of the types of foods and the quality of that food has on our bodies.

The Chinese and other ancient cultures have known this simple truth for millennia – food can be medicine. Food can be medicine because what we eat BECOMES us.

Essentialism and Authenticity in Food: Molecular Pablum

September 5, 2007 in cooking, Food Science, Molecular Gastronomy, New York Times


(Erlenmeyer flasks from the Argonne National Laboratory glass blowing shop. source)

Today’s article, “The Essence of Nearly Anything, Drop by Limpid Drop“, by Harold McGee in [tag]The New York Times[/tag], has me thinking on what what we might call “[tag]real food[/tag]”, [tag]authenticity[/tag], [tag]essentialism[/tag], and [tag]molecular gastronomy[/tag].

You likely know that [tag]Harold McGee[/tag] is a [tag]food science[/tag] writer who’s book “[tag]On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen[/tag]” is a core primer on [tag]food[/tag] [tag]science[/tag] for non-food scientists.

In this article, McGee talks about a “new” method of making flavored liquids or essences by a “[tag]gelatin clarification[/tag]” [tag]method[/tag].

The basic overview of this method is this:

  • Prepare a liquid from desired food (lobster, peaches, carrots, spirulina, chicken, hog toenails, whale mesentary, simply anything at all)
  • If the liquid was made without bones or some cartilage, add a small amount of gelatin, dissolve
  • [tag]Freeze[/tag] preparation
  • Place frozen block in strainer (with cheese cloth?) in bowl in the fridge
  • Allow [tag]ice[/tag] [tag]crystal[/tag]s to slowly melt over days and release into bowl (be sure to seal up this assembly otherwise it will pick up other odors in the fridge)
  • Use what drips from the [tag]matrix[/tag] (gelatin, fats, proteins, etc) as an [tag]essence[/tag].

What is happening here is that the gelatin forms a matrix or net into which everything is bound. As is the wont with all things fluidic, upon freezing, the water portion of the fluid is excluded from the gelatin matrix as it freezes into crystals, leaving behind particulate matter. Water [tag]soluble[/tag] components travel with the water.

When the frozen block is slowly thawed at temps that are too low for the gelatin and fats to become fluid, the ice crystals melt and water and [tag]water soluble[/tag] fractions drip away from the matrix.

The molecular gastronomists like to call this an “essence”. With this, you have purified the water soluble flavors. You have also left behind [tag]fat soluble[/tag] flavors which can be extraordinary.

The “novelty” here is that the water soluble essence may deliver a different and perhaps more intense flavor because it is no longer combined with what ever flavors may have been in the fat soluble fraction.

Those fats may have served to mask, dampen or modify the water soluble flavors.

Fat and water soluble favors have become uncoupled in an “un-natural” or not naturally occurring way that will usually not be present in [tag]legacy[/tag] preparations, recipes, foods, or cuisines.

These [tag]clarified[/tag] essences have become [tag]faddish[/tag]. (Actually, I think they were “conceived” in such a way that faddism was a foregone conclusion.)

Chefs who strive for “fame” and profit jump on the essence bandwagon and deliver [tag]victual conceits[/tag] such as lamb loin flavored with [tag]pretzel[/tag] [tag]elixir[/tag], a creation by [tag]Wylie Dufresne[/tag] of [tag]WD-50[/tag] in NYC. I have not had this dish but I suppose I would consider trying it if I were in a “gee wiz” mood.

I think I would know I have lost my way if I had to start a $500 meal (gratuity, alcohol, parking, and bathroom usage not included) by signing a non-disclosure agreement, be frisked for a prohibited camera, and eat crappy photos of sushi printed on oddly favored “food product” paper sheets while sniffing aerosolized “ocean” and watching hypodermic needles being used to extrude lyophylized clam deoxyribonucleic acid noodles that are then infused with cotton candy essence, incubated in fluorescein dye and all the lights doused while I am spoon fed the glowing concoction while being irradiated with a UV light by an unpaid intern wearing UV safe goggles and a meat jerky flavored gel bodysuit.


(Fluorescein dye)

I would much prefer to try such a meal prepared by a passionate food hacker (for a modest fee and at an ad hock food hacking party – all in the spirit of fun, experimentation and “science”) than as a status meal in an expensive restaurant served with considerable self-importance.

With respect to “authentic” food and whether pretzel essence infused lamb loin is authentic in any way, I think we need to stick a definition on that word.

From Merriam-Webster Online:

“Main Entry: au·then·tic
Pronunciation: &-'then-tik, o-
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English autentik, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos, from authentEs perpetrator, master, from aut- + -hentEs (akin to Greek anyein to accomplish, Sanskrit sanoti he gains)
1 obsolete : AUTHORITATIVE
2 a : worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact <paints an authentic picture of our society> b : conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse> c : made or done the same way as an original <authentic Mexican fare>
3 : not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL <based on authentic documents> <an authentic cockney accent>
4 a of a church mode : ranging upward from the keynote — compare PLAGAL 1 b of a cadence : progressing from the dominant chord to the tonic — compare PLAGAL 2
5 : true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character “

Authenticity is not the impetus or motivation in “gee wiz” victual conceit molecular gastronomy. Innovation may be a motivator but I think that the vagaries of ego and business capsize that noble though misplaced ambition.

No, I fear that most of the commercial molecular gastronomy [tag]pablum[/tag] we are “fed” would be better defined as “derivative”:

“Main Entry: 2derivative
Function: adjective
1 : formed by derivation <a derivative word>
2 : made up of or marked by derived elements
3 : lacking originality : BANAL

I would prefer unadorned roasted [tag]marrow[/tag] [tag]bone[/tag]s or a slice of [tag]headcheese[/tag] with a side of just picked [tag]calabash[/tag] tomatoes sprinkled with chunky [tag]sea salt[/tag] to some expensive overwrought pseudo-imaginative and derivative essence delivered with pomp and circumstance.



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When Food Network doesnt do it for you anymore – et voila

April 15, 2007 in Food Porn, Molecular Gastronomy, review


I have not really done this before but today I want to share a new [tag]blog[/tag] find with you.

[tag]Cuisiner en ligne : le blog cuisine[/tag]

Before you visit, be advised that you will need a computer that plays sound and a browser that plays well with others, namely, [tag]video[/tag]-[tag]podcast[/tag] web sites.

I do not speak [tag]French[/tag] but I have a grounding in Spanish which gives me the ability to somewhat read it, though I am mostly captivated by the video-casts they have featured on the blog.

There are a couple videos on the main page about some [tag]molecular[/tag] [tag]gastronomy[/tag] techniques.

After watching those, you should then go deeper by clicking the “Podcasts Videos” link at the top of the sidebar on the left.

It looks like this:

podcast logo

(Click here to go straight to that page)

Drum roll please because what you have here is an astounding number of video podcasts (in French) that fall into several categories:

Each category has many entries, many videos, which will give you exposure to French chefs, basic techniques, the world of the [tag]sommelier[/tag], and illustrated [tag]recipe[/tag]s.

Even though I do not understand everything they are saying, there is a whole lot of context and a complete and utter lack of [tag]Bobby Flay[/tag].

I don’t mind saying, its the latter point that is one of the huge selling points for me.

I am still exploring this site and am disturbing the family with the sounds of French streaming into the room, talking about chocolate and cream and all manner of naughty things.

The [tag]food world[/tag] is an amazing place.

Its even better when you go [tag]global[/tag].

Molecular Ingredients: Xanthan Gum

February 23, 2007 in baking, cooking, Food Science, gluten, ingredient, Molecular Gastronomy

Xanthan Gum

(Xanthan Gum. Chemical model graphic used with permission from Dr. Martin Chaplin of the London South Bank University, London, UK)

Molecular Gastronomy plays with established food identities to challenge the semiotics of food. It explores the use of chemicals and processes previously the domain of high-throughput industrial food producers and food scientists to deliver non-intuitive gastronomic experiences.

Our expectation than an egg yolk contains egg is flipped and inverted when one bites into one of Ferran Adrià‘s encapsulated broths, extractions, or infusions. Instead of egg yolk, when one bites down and pops the membrane, mango essence may bloom onto your palate. Food hack for food play.

A lot of the “food hack” aspects of Molecular Gastronomy flows from the transformative effects of a few certain ingredients, or reagents as we would call them in the lab.

One key reagent is Xanthan Gum.

So, what is this xantham gum you speak of?

Xanthan gum (shown at top) is a polysaccharide, meaning that it is a large molecule composed of several saccharides or sugars linked together. The size and shape of this molecule dictates how it interacts with it’s environment, chemical and physical. Xanthan gum has several interesting qualities that makes it very useful in the mega-food industry and also in molecular gastronomy.

Some of those qualities are:

it thickens

it stabilizes

it emulsifies

it helps with the creation of foams

it retards or controls the formation of ice crystals

In particular, the one characteristic of xanthan gum that makes it so valuable is something called pseudoplasticity or thixotrophy.

Believe it or not, you have experienced thixotrophy. Yes, you have, I promise.

When you start to shake a bottle of ketchup, the goo inside pretty much stays put (while your fries are cooling into an unappealing mass of transfats). As you whack on it, it begins to experience something call sheer. The molecules in the ketchup are whipped past one another (shear) and the ketchup and the xanthan gum, and other similarly reacting chemical species, dynamically and temporarily liquefies. Once it shoots out onto your plate or fries or whatever needs ketchup, it is no longer experiencing sheer and returns to its thicker more viscous state. If it were not for this thixotropic behavior, we would need to buy ketchup in jars like peanut butter and use a knife.

You can see experiments on thixotrophy by NASA at their NASAexplores site.

In the industrial setting, it is desirable to have and maintain thickness (viscosity) during production, storage, and shipping, while also delivering a product that is not TOO heavy in the mouth. I think that what they mean is, to put a less than fine point on this, that its thick without being snotty.

It is often mixed with guar gum because they work synergistically to boost the thixotrophic qualities of food or liquids.

So where does this artificial stuff come from anyways?

Well, its actually the by-product of a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris. In the 1950’s, the USDA ran a large project to scan for organisms that produced interesting biopolymers. One of those biopolymers that they found was xanthan gum.

What sorts of foods have xanthan gum in it?

Types of foods with xantham gum

(Borrowed from ADM)

How is it used in Molecular Gastronomy?

Xanthan gum is added to “your favorite food/liquid” to change it into a gel, thick paste, gloopy mix, or foam. If your are whipping up carrot clouds, you may want to pitch in some xanthan gum to stabilize the loft of the foam. If you want that mango puree to be more viscous when you make it into mango-yolks, add some xanthan gum and, voila, its thick and stabilized.

How is it used in Gluten-Free baking?

If you have ever made your own bread, you would appreciate the magic that wheat gluten brings to the party. It is what gives the stretch to the dough and is that which allows bubbles to form in the bread as gases are produced by the yeast. Without gluten, the gases are not trapped into gluten surrounded bubbles, and the bread is flat and, well, not really bread-like at all. Obviously, gluten-free means you do not have gluten. Xanthan gum replaces gluten by providing the viscosity to the batter to trap the gases, forming the airy texture you want in bread.

This has been a quickie introduction to xanthan gum. There are some fun links through out this post that you might want to explore.

Molecular Gastronomy sites of interest:

Sources for Ingredients:

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