Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Food Network to Lanch a New Food Science Show

Queer Eye alum Ted Allen will begin hosting a Mythbusters-type show for the Food Network premiering July 27. The name of the show will be Food Detectives and the first episode will be about the 5-second rule, a topic which which McGee wrote about over a year ago in the New York Times.

I like the idea of the show but the questions they put in the press release seem kind of lame. "Does it really take seven years for gum to digest in your stomach?" "Can an “apple a day” really keep the doctor away?" Viewers will be able to submit their own questions to the show. I'm not aware of Ted Allen having a science background, but he will be helped by the folks at Popular Science magazine.

Let's hope he has a better fact-checker than Alton Brown!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Bob Wolke Calls Out Alton Brown!

Robert Wolke
is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, writes a syndicated food science column for the Washington Post, and has authored several science books for the general public. On the back cover Wolke's latest book "What Einstein told His Cook 2: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" Food Network personality Alton Brown has the following praise:

"Ordinarily, one would expect to wait outside a wizard's gates through a long, cold winter, kneeling on broken glass, to be deemed worthy to possess even a handful of the truths Professor Wolke clearly, concisely shares herein. And yet all you have to do is ask 'why' and open to any page. Good luck putting it down."—

Last month in the Newscripts section of Chemical & Engineering News, Wolke repays the favor by calling Alton Brown a food-science hack. Here's the quote:

"The following three bombs are from an award-winning “food science” book written by a television personality.

• “Any time you find an acid bound to an alkaline, you’ve found yourself a salt.”*

• “Radiation simply refers to energy that travels in waves, be they visible (photoelectrons) or not (microwaves).”**

• “Fire is a physical reaction wherein a fuel (oxygen) combusts in the presence of a catalyst (a chunk of charcoal).” *** "

He doesn't name names, but the quotes are from Brown's first book "I'm Just Here for the Food" I remember wincing at these when I first read it. Theses three statements are just the tip of the iceberg. The book is a treasure trove of scientific misconceptions.

*Uh, no. that's not the definition of a salt. (wtf, this definition wouldn't even include table salt) I don't even know where to begin with this one.

**Photoelectrons are electrons (ejected due to the photoelectric effect). Electrons aren't visible. He's confusing photoelectrons with photons with visible wavelenths. They're pretty different.

***Seriously? I mean, come on Alton, even if you are not a scientist you should know that charcoal is a fuel. Does this book have an editor?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Wandering Natural Products Baker

Famed magician and natural products chemist Koji Nakanishi appears to be a contributer to Cook's Illustrated!

As if inventing circular dichroism and unlocking the chemistry of vision weren't enough, Koji has figured out a way to remove the first piece of a pie perfectly. Check it out:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carpenters in the Forehead

Friday morning I was reading an interesting (and in my case timely) article about hangover cures in The New Yorker ("A Few Too Many", Joan Acocella May 26, 2008).  My favorite part of the article was the comparative linguistic study of terms for "hangover".  The Scandinavians by far have the best ones. I used the Danish phrase as my subject line, I also enjoyed the Swedish one which translates to "smacked from behind". Chowhound translates the Norwegian term as "the uneasiness following debauchery".

The bottom line on the science of hangovers is that they are complicated and we still have a lot to learn. Apparently there were only 8 unflawed hangover studies done between 1965 and 2000. Acocella discusses a number of reasons why there have not been more scientific studies on hangovers. Anyone who has ever dealt with an IRB for human subjects research knows that an approval for getting a large sample group wrecked ain't gonnna be easy.

An ingredient in many over the counter hangover remedies (which invariably have awesome names such as RU-21, BoozEase and Sob'r-K HangoverStopper) is activated carbon.  Activated carbon is basically charcoal that has been processed so that it has many tiny pores resulting in a ridiculous amount of suface area - something on the order of six football fields per ounce. Below is an image of these pores made with an electron microscope.

Non-polar molecules stick to the carbon due to Van der Waals forces made stronger by the porous structure.  You probably have encountered activated carbon in the form of those tiny black beads that come out of your Brita filter.  The vast surface area of the activated carbon can adsorb large amounts of toxins and is used medicinally for poison victims.  In theory, activated carbon adsorbs certain toxins called congeners, thought to be responsible some hangover symptoms, before they get absorbed into the bloodstream. Whether this actually works is unverified.  

Burnt toast as a remedy is dismissed in the article: "Kinglsey Amis recommended a mixture of Bovril and vodka.  There is also a burnt-toast cure. Such items suggest that what some hungover people are seeking is not so much relief as atonement." But I was thinking - by burning toast you are effectively giving it a layer of charcoal  - could this serve the same purpose as the carbon pills?  Burnt toast is not the same thing as activated carbon, however, it must have some, albeit reduced, ability to adsorb toxins.  Maybe we should forgo the burnt toast and expensive pills and just eat some beads from our Brita filters. Those little fuckers are always coming out anyway.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Yogurt-like Substance

California-based Frozen Yogurt chain Pinkberry, often referred to as Crackberry or Soylent Pink, had to release its ingredients list last week because of a lawsuit. The suit claimed that Pinkberry misrepresented their products as "frozen yogurt", "all natural", "healthy" and "nonfat", when, in fact, their product is only borderline yogurt and has a long list of additives. Pinkberry addicts are justifiably outraged - they were led to believe that they were eating a more wholesome form of crack. As it turns out, what they were eating is a less wholesome form of crack (well, less natural, in any event).

Pinkberry (not unlike methamphetamine) is an epidemic that started in California and is making its way out east. As such, I haven't had a chance to try it yet, though I did pass by a store the last time I was in New York. Pinkberry was well on its way to world yogurt domination as the suit was brought forth. I wonder if they will keep expanding at the same rate, or if there will be backlash because of the additives.

The complete ingredients list can be found here. It includes some of the usual food additive suspects - artificial color, guar gum, mono and diglycerides, and the 'natural and artificial flavors' catch-all. It also included some chemicals that I am familiar with, but not in the context of food. The most surprising find was magnesium oxide - I had no idea that the powder you get from that lovely white flame could be used as a food additive. According to this site it can be used as the following: "Alkali, Anticaking Agent, Buffer, Drying Agent, Neutralizing Agent" Who knew MgO was so useful? I'll have to save some the next time I do that demo.

While I was looking up the uses of propylene glycol esters, another Pinkberry ingredient, I came across a laundry list of uses for polyethylene glycol:

"Antisticking Agent, Binder, Carrier, Carrier Solvent, Coating Agent, Disintegrating Agent, Dispersing Agent, Filler, Film Former, Flavoring Adjunct or Adjuvant, Formulation Aid, Glaze, Lubricant, Plasticizer, Polish, Release Agent, Surface-Finishing Agent, Tableting Aid"

Astonishing. It's ok to eat polyethylene glycol?! Should I have known that? I guess since ethers are fairly unreactive it can't do much damage. In the lab we use polyethylene glycol to make things that don't want to be water soluble water soluble. Polyethylene glycol is the polymer of ethylene glycol (better known as antifreeze) - the sweet, poisonous liquid that dogs and children can't get enough of.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pretzel illogic

Let's get right to it: I have a soft spot for Alton Brown but when he falls, he falls hard. His character is one of the confident science-savvy clever food guy variety, but apparently not one with very good quality control. In his June 20th episode of Good Eats entitled "Pretzel Logic," he points out the importance of treating the surface of dough destined to become soft pretzels with a high pH solution to induce faster browning. He attempts to explain pH as follows: "Okay, here's the deal with pH. If a solution has an equal number of positively and negatively charged hydrogen atoms, it is said to be "neutral", which means that it has a pH of 7". Even the Alton Brown Fan Site could see something was wrong here ( Check out the Fan Site ). Let's start with the obvious: there isn't nor will there ever be a negatively charged hydrogen atom, except for maybe in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. In organic chemistry, we typically abbreviate certain metal or semi-metal hydrides as being synthetic equivalents of a negatively charged hydrogen atom or 'H-minus', but that is just to make it easier to draw organic reaction mechanisms; a full-blown negative charge on a hydrogen atom in the presence of positively charged hydrogen atoms (let alone anything else) is positively obsurd. In fact, positively-charged hydrogen atoms don't exist in water either. Water is as much a base as it is an acid, if we hypothetically placed a positively-charged hydrogen atom in water, a neutral molecule would certainly and instantaneously bond to it to form the hydronium ion (H3O+). However, I think I'm giving our friend Brown too much credit. He naturally meant negatively charged OH ions and the hydronium thing is an honest mistake. For those of you not 'in the know': water, H2O, or two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom as such, H-O-H, is constantly breaking apart into ions of the variety '+H3O' (hydronium ion) and '-OH' (hydroxide ion). These two ions when combined chemically produce two neutrally charged molecules of water. To get something straight: water isn't this unstable molecule that just falls apart helter skelter; they don't break apart very easily, but they do to a degree. They are constantly falling apart to make hydronium and hydroxide ions and then recombining to make neutral water molecules. On average about 1 molecule for every 2 billion molecules is broken apart at any given time for a neutral solution of water at room temperature. So Alton was right on one aspect: when the concentration of hydroxide ions equals that of hydronium ions, you have a neutral solution. As you change the pH of a solution by adding base or acid, you upset this balance and you have more of one type of ion. Hydroxide ion is the ion responsible for hydrolyzing polysaccharides and proteins thus at a higher pH (more hydroxide ions) we find that browning occurs faster. Alton displayed cleverness when he employed a lower pH solution (baking soda in water) at a higher temperature (boiling) to do the job that a higher pH solution (sodium hydroxide in water) does at room temperature.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Operation Bacon Lattice Initiated

Welcome to Bacon Lattice. We are two chemists who are on a mission. The only thing we love more than chemistry is food, more specifically, bacon, more specifically, bacon lattices. Our posts here will hopefully clarify, and in some cases, correct scientific explanations given in popular food media: the Food Network and Cooks Illustrated to name a few. We will also rant about common misconceptions that are continuously perpetuated in the culinary world. And, of course, there will be much discourse on... bacon (and other lattice-worthy cuts of pork).