July 9 2013

Understanding Umami

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Imagine taking a bite of your favorite food. Is it sweet? Salty? Does it have a sour bite or a hint of bitterness? Maybe even a touch of savory umami?

Every time we eat, our taste buds sample these five basic taste qualities. Taste receptors decorating the surface of each taste bud interact with specific molecules; the corresponding flavor sensation then gets sent to your brain. Umami receptors, for example, sense the molecule glutamate. When free glutamate in our food—either naturally occurring or from added MSG—interacts with an umami receptor, we taste a delicious savory flavor. Read more…

Via Science & Food

July 2 2013

Umami Burger

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If you have ever enjoyed the savory flavor of soy sauce or the rich, full flavor of Parmesan cheese, then you have experienced the taste sensation known as umami. The term “umami” was first coined in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda to describe the unique savory taste of seaweed broth. Although umami was initially associated only with Asian cuisines, researchers all over the world have now established umami as one of the five basic taste groups. Read more…

Image courtesy of StarChefs.com

Via Science & Food

May 7 2013

Reinventing the Egg

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Even if you’re not watching your cholesterol, there are plenty of reasons to avoid eating eggs. Ethical issues aside, industrial eggs provide only about 20% of the energy it takes to produce them. And while some egg substitutes do exist, they often pale in comparison to the real thing. Josh Tetrick, the CEO of Hampton Creek Foods, thinks we can do better. Read more…

Video still courtesy of TechCrunch.

Via Science & Food

April 30 2013

Baking Without Eggs

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With the Science of Pie coming up in just a few weeks, we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about baked goods. And one ingredient in particular has really captured our imagination—the egg! In the realm of baked goods, eggs are highly revered for their binding and leavening abilities. The fats and proteins within an egg can also contribute to important properties like moisture, texture, and mouthfeel. But what if you don’t eat eggs? Read more…

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Via Science & Food

April 2 2013

Tropical Fruit Inspires Innovative Research

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Two weeks from now, renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala will be joining Science & Food for the first 2013 public lecture at UCLA. Chef Atala has generated a lot of buzz in the food world by discovering and classifying new ingredients from the Amazon basin. But Atala isn’t the only one looking to the South American rain forest for inspiration. By studying the fruit of the tropical plant Margaritaria nobilis (commonly known as the bastard hogberry), a team of researchers led by Dr. Mathias Kolle has created an amazing new material that changes color as it stretches. Read more…

Via Science & Food

March 25 2013

kitchen programming 101

For a long time, I wasn’t a big fan of rice. It just seemed so… boring. Sure, it was a great base for curry or stir fry, but I never caught myself thinking, “Hey, I’d really like to chow down on some rice right now.” Then I met my boyfriend husband*. He LOVES rice. Give him a big bowl of plain white rice and he’s good to go. Give him some rice with a little soy sauce or a fried egg on top and he’s in heaven. And don’t even get him started on fried rice…

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My husband also introduced me to rice cookers. I know, I know… who doesn’t know about rice cookers? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I grew up cooking rice in a pot. On the stove. Crazy.

Seriously, though, rice cookers are pretty awesome. Before we got married, we had an old dinosaur of a rice cooker (circa 1980) that had just one button to turn the whole thing on. The rice cooker “knew” when the rice was done cooking by keeping track of its temperature; when the temperature of the rice rose above 212 degrees, the rice cooker automatically turned itself off.

This old rice cooker is a perfect example of “binary logic” in action. It chose one of two possible actions by asking itself a simple “yes or no” question:

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Binary logic is also often referred to as “Boolean logic,” named after George Boole. His work became the basis for the modern digital computer, which often “thinks” about problems in terms of “yes or no” questions and uses 1’s (for yes) and 0’s (for no) in its computations.

Binary logic goes pretty far in computing systems, but sometimes this simple logic isn’t quite good enough. Consider the following example:

Suppose a highway has a speed limit of 65 mph. Those who drive faster than 65 mph belong to the set of “law-breakers” who are violating the speed limit, while those who drive slower belong to a different set of “law-abiding citizens.” Is the sharp transition between law-breakers and law abiding citizens realistic? Should a speeding ticket be issued to all drivers who are caught at 65.5 mph? Or at 65.9 mph? In practical situations, there is always a natural “fuzzification” where there is some overlap between two seemingly opposite sets.

Adapted from Introduction to Fuzzy Control

This “fuzzification” is the basis for “fuzzy logic” — a more advanced form of computer reasoning that helps computers mimic human experience and intuition. Instead of making decisions based on simple “yes or no” answers, fuzzy logic uses “truth values” between zero and one to deal with gray areas like the 65.5 and 65.9 mph drivers in the example above. Today, fuzzy logic controls everything from big wind turbines to home appliances like washing machines and air conditioners.

In the eighties and nineties, Japanese engineers decided to use fuzzy logic to build a better rice cooker. They hoped that a rice cooker controlled by “neuro-fuzzy” reasoning would mimic the experience and intuition of human cooks and ultimately produce tastier cooked rice:

The cooking process of experienced housewives should be reproduced. The process consists of a slow heat application, quick heating, intense heating at the middle and a long simmering period. Moreover, the heating process and the amount of water should be finely controlled according to the preferred stiffness of rice, type of rice, amount of rice and the amount of water, etc.

Applications of neural networks to home appliances (1993)

My husband and I got one of these fancy new rice cookers as a wedding gift. I’m not so sure how I feel about the old-fashioned view of housewives cooking rice, but the rice cooker certainly cooks rice better than I do. And now I finally understand why it has “neuro fuzzy” written all over it. Now, if only I could figure out why it sings Amaryllis to let you know your rice is done…

P.S. If all this programming stuff sounds interesting, go check out Code Academy. You can learn more about programming and even learn a few programming languages, no prior experience necessary.

*Who also helped write this post!

February 26 2013

The Flavor Network

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Physicist Albert-László Barabási likes making connections. By studying networks, Barabási and his Northeastern University research group improve our understanding of everything from the internet to human disease.

Now Barabási and colleagues are using networks to learn more about the way we eat. Read more…

Via Science & Food

February 11 2013

Remember that time I told you about an amazing food science lecture series at UCLA? Well, Science & Food is back and better than ever. Not only will they be presenting three new public lectures this spring, but they’ve also been hard at work creating awesome new internet content. Oh, and yours truly will be helping out! It’ll be like Bite-Sized Biology on food science steroids.

But wait! There’s more…Science & Food UCLA is now on Tumblr!

So if you’ve been craving more food science in your life, check out the Science & Food website, visit the blog, and follow @scienceandfood on Twitter for all the latest updates. And if you’re an LA local, stay tuned for more information about the public lectures.

January 31 2013

It’s been said that to make a truly great discovery, a researcher needs two of three things: an outstanding work ethic, a touch of genius, and really good luck.

Hard work and a strong intellect make sense, but… Luck?

It’s astonishing how many breakthrough scientific discoveries can be attributed to chance. Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes straight-up “mistakes” lead to big payoffs.

Like using Post-It notes? Their not-so-sticky glue was a failed attempt to create a super-strong adhesive. Can’t fry an egg without a non-stick pan? A scientist discovered Teflon when a chemical stock went bad. Ever take Penicillin? The fungus Penicillium rubens contaminated Alexander Flemming’s experiments.

If you’re still not convinced, check out this fun video from NSF about the discovery of the artificial sweeteners saccharin, cyclamate, and aspartame. Three scientists got a sweet surprise when they all made one silly mistake…

December 20 2012

"sweet, sweet nutmeg"

This time of year, I look forward to two things: pigging out on holiday cookies and watching cheesy holiday specials. Somehow the holidays don’t seem complete without a rousing chorus of “Christmas Time is Here” or a trip to the Island of Misfit Toys. And don’t forget about all the great food-related scenes! The Grinch carving the “roast beast” in Whoville; Swedish Chef preparing Christmas dinner for all the Muppets; and, more recently, John Legend serenading his favorite holiday spice.

John Legend is totally right about this one. Nutmeg gives eggnog (and pie and cookies and cider) that extra Mmmmmmm. But what is it about this time of year that encourages us to put spices like nutmeg in just about everything?

Back in the day, people believed nutmeg had medicinal properties.

Nutmeges be good for them the whiche haue colde in theyr hed, and dothe comforte the syght and the brayne, & the mouthe of the stomacke, & is good for the splene.

Andrew Boorde, Dyetary of 1542

This may sound crazy to us now, but sixteenth century doctors were on to something. Nutmeg and other holiday spices contain chemicals very similar to mood-elevating drugs called amphetamines. Two amphetamine-like compounds called myristicin and elemecin are thought to give nutmeg its hallucinogenic and toxic properties.

But how do these compounds go from only being “amphetamine-like” to being the real deal? Some scientists have suggested the conversion occurs as the chemicals are metabolized by our bodies. And here’s my favorite hypothesis:

The typical spices used in winter include nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and anise. It was suggested 40 years ago by Alexander Shulgin that these substances [certain chemicals in the spices] act as metabolic precursors of amphetamines… Humans may be exposed to amphetamines derived from these precursors in furno, the formation during baking and cooking, for example in the preparation of Lebkuchen, or Christmas gingerbread… This may be responsible, in part, for uplifting our mood in winter.

Idle JR (2005) Prague Medical Report

Assuming you’re baking traditional Swiss Style Lebkuchen using old school baker’s ammonia instead of baking soda, the chemical reaction in your oven might look something like this:

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Of course, this is all purely speculative. But if spices like nutmeg do provide super small doses of mood-lifting amphetamines, our historical preference for these spices during the cold, dark winter months sure makes a lot of sense.

About

Biologist by day, culinary enthusiast by night. What better way to combine my interests in science and cooking than to write about them here?

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