The Theme of Food in Chemistry Basics
Finally, let's end on a lighter note. Not all chemistry is in the news for controversial or serious reasons. Some is about pure enjoyment.
In the early 20th century, science made its way into our kitchens. Large food manufacturing companies—you know the ones responsible for bottled ketchup, bottled dressings, and packaged just about anything—started to experiment with their food. Much of the experimentation focused on how to extend the shelf life of food so that it would not go bad sitting in a supermarket5.
The result? For starters, companies found ways to extend the life of food for years; did you ever wonder how it is possible that a bag of chips is "good" for 2 years from its purchase date? The answer came in the form of what chemists know as "stabilizing compounds." That's right: the answer came from chemistry. Stabilizers are chemical compounds that preserve food.
One example is xanthan gum. This is a slime fermented from the bacteria Xanthomonas5. Let's stop there for a second. First of all, that is a splendid name for a bacterium It sounds like the name of an intergalactic force for evil. Secondly, that's disgusting. Check out the labels on your salad dressing...it's there. What purpose does it serve? The fermented slime apparently keeps the oil and water in dressings mixed well and also prevents the little spice particles from separating out5.
Fancy restaurants are starting to take an interest in this food science stuff. An article in the New York Times, profiles a chef who uses a hydrocolloid gum, not unlike xanthan gum, to make fried mayonnaise5. He has also invented a butter that does not melt in the oven and dreams of creating a cheese in his lab—or, kitchen—that cannot be melted by conventional means. The goal? Tasty foods, isn't that enough? It sounds like this is truly applied chemistry.
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Food scientists are bringing laboratory techniques and knowledge into kitchens to change the way that cooking is done. Yes, we know—they've broken one of the very basic safety guidelines involving not consuming chemicals. However, they are creating some tasty concoctions using novel methods.