Carter's Chemistry Blog

Exploring the Chemistry of Food

January 28, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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One Haile of a Time

Well, Centreterm is coming to an end, and I am not overly happy about it. Not only because Centreterm in general is very nice and relaxing, or even because I have gotten used to doing nothing productive before noon. No, I will really miss this class. People have been constant;y laughing at me all of January because I have been sitting in my dorm writing the ol’ blog while they go have fun, but trust me, I have had plenty of fun over the last month. In fact, I did not mind the relatively hefty work load either. Without exception, I enjoyed learning about everything we talked about this entire class. If I had to pick out any one thing that was challenging I would say the work load in general, especially on days where we had over 100 pages to read prior to writing our blog or when we spent the entire night filming Landon (Monty di Rella) making a 5-cheese pizza. But as previously stated, I did not mind the work at all; I had a lot of fun filming our video, and George Lucas, Mark Wahlberg and company were more than helpful every step of the way.

Not only did this class strengthen my thoughts towards pursuing a science major, Dr. Haile went out of her way to teach us how to learn and how to present. In fact, she went on a little rant about how going to college is about so much more than remembering that hydrogen bonds can only occur with nitrogen, oxygen, or fluorine. Before I asked a little off topic question, she was on a roll about what college was really all about, and despite my questions, her roll was rewarded with a standing ovation. As I hinted at before, the most enjoyable part was filming the video. Not only was my group awesome (SO to Ben, Landon, and David), but the whole crew was incredible. Who knew Ellen Degnerous would be such a good costume designer?!?!

If I had to give advice to any freshman taking this class when it’s available a couple years down the road, I would say to make sure to take it seriously and do all your work, but do not take it too seriously. It is not difficult to find a common ground in which you and the rest of the class can learn but still have plenty of fun along the way. I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed this class so much, other than the content, was how relaxed and learning experience was. I legitimately looked forward to going to class.

Welp, this is my last blog post. It’s been real, fellas. Enjoy your break and good luck in the spring.

 

January 27, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Tradition over Technology

Though both Wilderness Trace and Maker’s Mark advertise as small business, not mass-produced bourbon companies, they had an entirely different feel. Despite the fact that they are both small, Wilderness Trace dwarfs in comparison to Maker’s Mark. Not only that, but my experience of Wilderness Trace dwarfs in comparison to my experience of Maker’s Mark. Even though I enjoyed Wilderness Trace and learning about how they use the most high-tech technology possible, it was too bland for my likeness, at least compared to Maker’s Mark. I didn’t feel as into the whole process in WT as MM; that is in large part due to our tour of Marker’s being much more extensive. We were able to see the grains selected and the family’s secret mother strain of yeast. I really liked the old timey feel of the buildings and the tradition that came with them. The Quart House, for example, is the nation’s longest running active liquor store, and the whole distillery holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for the nation’s longest running distillery. I believe it’s been active since 1805. The wobbly stairs, short ceilings, and age old yeast vats have a really nice feel to them. Plus I liked being able to see all the yeast at different stages of it’s life. We also saw several more things we couldn’t see at Wilderness Trace like the making of the label and my favorite, the DIPPING OF THE BOTTLES INTO THE RED WAX. I had been looking forward to seeing that all day, and it did not disappoint.

Plus at the end of the day it really comes down to the gift shops. Even though I was given a free T-Shirt at Wilderness Trace, their gift shop did not compare to Maker’s Mark. After extensive looking, I decided to buy a specialty shot glass.  Hopefully I don’t lose it in the next two years so I can finally use it when I’m 21. It was only $5.95!!

 

January 23, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Artificial Flavoring: Benzaldehyde

Before I get into the content of this blog I would like to note that I am writing it before our presentation as a way to help with the presentation itself. That being said, I am mostly going to discuss my half of the presentation.

Artificial favoring has been around now for over 50 years and has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Why? Well with the industrialization of our food, many big food companies began to process and preserve our food in order to increase shelf life. Not only that, but food was beginning to be shipped hundreds of miles away. The companies realized that all this shipping and processing was ruining the freshness of their food, which, in turn, made them lose their taste and smell. Scientists realized that many foods, especially fruits, consisted of dozens if not hundreds of different chemicals, but usually only one chemical dominated the taste and smell. So by keying in on these chemicals, they were about to begin to synthesize them and put them in their foods, giving the food the taste of a fresh orange or banana for example. As early as the 1950’s, artificial foods found their way into baked goods, candies, and sodas. They are also extremely cheap because just one small drop, oftentimes, is enough to capture the flavor. That being said, nowadays it usually costs more to package food than it does to buy it.

Artificial flavors and natural flavors are not as different as you may think. The difference lies more in how the chemical is made than what the chemical actually is, because a lot of the time the chemical will be exactly the same. I read about the chemical responsible for the banana taste and how one way it was naturally extracted from the banana and another way it was synthesized in a lab; both chemicals were exactly the same but one was artificial and one was natural. It is also a common misconception that natural flavors are any healthier for you then artificial flavors. In fact, our flavor, benzaldehyde (which gives a bitter almond taste), has actually been found to have traces of the lethal poison hydrogen cyanide when extracted naturally from peaches, apricots, and almonds.

Benzaldehyde can be found in frozen dairy, baked goods, fruit juice, candy, gelatin pudding, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and chewing gum. It can also be found in many non-food items like pharmaceuticals, dyes, fragrances, personal care items, and tobacco products.

We found several health risks and benefits of benzaldehyde and concluded that, all in all, it is much more of a help than it is a hurt. It is non-toxic and the FDA considers is as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). When absorbed through the skin or lungs, it is distributed to high-blood organs and the metabolized into benzoic acid where it naturally leaves the body as urine. It has also been found to be a carcinostatic in both lab animals and humans, meaning it can inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors. Like seemingly everything else, though, it can cause damages to your health if you are overexposed to it.

January 22, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Rosie the Chicken

I’d like to think that there are several things that I learned in this class that I’ll never forget, but I’ll highlight a couple of the major ideas I know I won’t forget. First and foremost, the fact that when you eat McDonald’s you are eating almost entirely corn. It seems as if half of what I eat contains some sort of corn, whether it be the corn itself or high fructose corn syrup or anything in between. On top of that, we use corn for non-food products like fuel, disposable cups, and feminine hygiene products.

The movie Food Inc and the book Omnivore’s Dilemma really helped me understand how big business has taken over this country’s food industry. Only a select number of companies control almost all of our food, and their policy is all about quantity of quality because they are only worried about the bottom line. In doing that, they have mistreated both their employees and their especially their animals.

I’ll never forget the example of Rosie the chicken. Based on the packaging, the consumer is lead to believe that Rosie is the name given to one specific chicken that has been raised with love and care throughout its life. The packaging even says Rosie is a “free-range” animal, which would leave the consumer to believe the chicken are on a nice little prairie hanging out with Rosie’s other chicken friends. In reality, Rosie is the name the company gives every one of it’s thousands of chickens. Rosie’s life-span is only seven weeks long, and for the first five weeks, Rosie is considered too young to be a “free-range” chicken. Until then, all the Rosie’s have to live in a dark barn cramped next to all the other Rosie’s. The “free-range” title only refers to the final two weeks of their lives; at which point the company opens a door to the dark barn, but chickens are so stupid that they never leave their barn and range on the grass. Rosie is one of many examples of how these huge food companies try to mislead their consumers into buying their product.

January 21, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Bourbon Bourbon Bourbon

Earlier this morning our class went on a field trip to Wilderness Trace Distillery’s. Their slogan sums up their business model perfectly, “We are not interested in making the most, only the best.” Not only did I not realize that they have been in business a mere 7 weeks, but I was also unaware that they were so small. That being said, the “quality over quantity” mantra fits them perfectly. Because Wilderness Trace is so new, they do not have any age old tradition to follow so they use the most cutting edge technology when making their alcohol. It was very interesting that only 20% of the alcohol they make goes towards making spirits; while the other 80% goes towards making 200 proof fuel – meaning it is 100% alcohol.  The upperclassman class had previously talked in length about how a 100% ethanol liquid was theoretically impossible , but the distillery disproves their logic by filtering it and taking advantage of the fact that water has a smaller molecular weight than ethanol.

The making of spirits like bourbon starts long before the distillation process. In fact, distillation is actually in the ladder half of the process as awhile. Prior to the distilling, the company needs to select what grains to use. This can very from rye to barley to corn (bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn). The grains must be malted, mixed, and malted so the in order to extract the sugars from the grain. This process requires water, and one of many reasons why bourbon is made in Kentucky is the natural limestone in the ground, which filters the water and makes it more pure. Then the mash is heated and added into the fermenter. Once in the fermenter, the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. By this point, the formula is about 9-10% alcohol.

By this point, the formula needs to be distilled in order to purify the alcohol and make it a higher proof. Distillation is all about boiling point and taking advantage of the fact that ethanol boils at 78 degrees Celsius while water boils at 100% Celsius. When adjusting the temperature, the people running the distiller can boil the ethanol while keeping the water a liquid, which in turn goes to purify the final product. The liquid leaving the distiller is preferably around 140 proof. Wilderness Trace takes pride in the fact that the do not have to refilter their alcohol again; they get it right the first time. Once it is distilled, it is barreled and aged for around 6 years.

January 19, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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The Process

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, visiting Marksbury Farms, watching Food, Inc., and learning about GMO’s , I have gained a new found respect for the process by which food goes through to get from the farm to our dinner table. This process, while it is incredible in terms of its efficiency, is still very overwhelming, especially in huge companies that, for example, process 1.25 million chickens a day. Though Wendell Berry would disagree, numbers like that are really a modern marvel that showcases human ingenuity.

Going back to the chicken example, when we visited Marksbury Farms we were taken on a tour of their processing facility, and bright and early every Tuesday morning they process roughly 2000 chickens. We learned about how they kill, defeather, behead, defoot, and cut the insides of the chicken in order to get the breasts, legs, and thighs. In addition, we learned how they take the meat and prepare it, flavor it, package it, and ship it around the state. They have to have USDA inspectors inspect every chicken that goes through their facility.

This represents just one step of one animal’s journey to our mouths. When compared to the processing plants that do this to 1.25 million chickens a day, every day. (If you do the math, that’s 8.75 million a week. Over 450 million chickens per year. 450 million chickens!!) The scope quickly becomes incredibly overwhelming, and that, again, is just a single animal going through a stage in the process as a whole. That doesn’t include the raising of all these chickens, which as Food Inc displayed has become, for many, a pretty depressing life. It also doesn’t include the shipping of these chickens from the farm to the processing plants, and then the meat to the markets and restaurants; nor does it include the buying of the meat, cooking it, and eventually eating it.

When you think about the fact that so many other things we eat go through a relatively similar super highly efficient process, it really is incredible. Back in the day, a farmer could feed around 6-8 people.  Today, that number has skyrocketed to 126 people. The modern farmers represent the efficient group of people in history. Sure, there are plenty of kinks in the system, but with numbers like that, we as humans need to give ourselves a pat on the back.

January 17, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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“Get Big or Get Out”

In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry highlights the crisis he sees in America’s modernized character, agriculture, and culture. Though I believe he is right to criticism all three, I would like to pay more attention on America’s currently unsettling character and culture. The problem with our agricultural strategy is directly caused by our character and culture; while our character and culture do well in dictating each other, and when trying to argue which cause which to become the way it is, the classic chicken vs egg argument arises. If refinements to both our character and culture are made, the agricultural problem will solve itself.

Berry begins this discussion by pointing out the walking contradictions that have become far too prevalent in this country – the conversationalist that supports deforestation for example. He writes that people like that, “were making convenience of enterprises they knew to be morally, and even practically, indefensible. We are dealing with, then, with an absurdity that is not a quirk or an accident, but is fundamental to our character,” (Berry 17-18). These people argue that the sacrifices are “part of the cost” in the “real world.” “For some. their involvement in pollution, soil depletion, strip-mining, and deforestation, industrial and commercial waste is simply a ‘practical’ compromise, a necessary ‘reality,’ the price of modern comfort and convenience,” (19) Not only is that modern array of excuses for destroying the environment ignorant, it has proven to be ineffective.

Berry continues to ripe about that the “disease” of modern culture is specialization. Humans naturally we not made to do one thing all day. Not only is it not natural, these specialists can do “virtually nothing for himself… the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker in this society of specialists,” (21). Even though the return for becoming a specialist is more wealth than previous generation could have dreamed of, the end result is the one of the saddest average citizens in the history of the world. Our modern character seems to be focused more and more on the making of money, but that does not seem to make us happy, nor does it, oftentimes, allow us to be proud of how we earned it.

The Kentucky farmer’s response to this change in our character is essentially to educate yourself, and in educating your self, becomes a “responsible consumer.” “If a consumer begins to think and act in consideration of his responsibilities, then he vastly increases his capabilities as a person,” (24). But today’s standards, his argument would consist of only buying what you really need to buy and make sure the things you buy the best quality things from the best quality people. In doing so, make sure to produce what you can for everyone else.

Our culture has adapted this “get big or get out” mentality, and though it certainly increases competition and that, by nature, lowers prices, Berry argues that it is not a effective way of really trying to build a community or a country. Though the competition can be good, this “dog-eat-dog” world focuses on totalitarianism, which implies that when one company becomes bigger than the other, the smaller company gets driven away and often goes bankrupt. “What we have called agricultural process has, in fact, involved the forcible displacement of millions of people… The aim of bigness implies not one aim that is not socially and culturally destructive,” (41).

Our culture has tried to detach quality from quantity in the same of efficiency despite the fact that the two are fundamentally inseparable. “To pursue quantity alone is to destroy those disciplines in the producer that are the only assurance of quantity,” (42). The acceptable result of this pursuit of quantity has become an inferior product.

Berry dreams of a where we as Americans can put aside our differences for the greater good of the community and the country. He notes that while the shift from where we were to where we are was easy, the transition back will be much more difficult, though over time it can be possible, and it is necessary.

January 16, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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The Promise Behind GMOs

In the event that the topic of genetically modified organisms (or GMOs for short) came up at my family’s dinner table, I would first have to do my best in describing what a GMO really is and go into some common misconceptions about GMOs. Making a genetically modified organism, I would start, is a a process by which one plant or animal’s DNA is taken out and placed into another plant or animal, giving the receiving organism positive qualities of the giving organism’s DNA. In her article “GMOs are Here to Stay – Should we be Worried?”, diet and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstorm writes, “This process produces a new plant that can be more resistant to pests, able to grow in harsh weather conditions, or contain an improved nutritional process,” (2014).

To give in example, Dan Charles’s article “The GMO Apple Won’t Brown. Will that Sour the Fruit’s Image” (as you may have guessed) is about the genetically modified apple that will not turn brown upon slicing. Usually when you are to slice into an apple, an enzyme is activated that will slowly turn the apple brown. As commonly known, one way to slow that browning process is to refrigerate the apple because the enzymes do not work as quickly is a cooler temperature. This modified apple, however, will not brown, even when you slice it open. As Charles that phenomenon in the following way:   “The non-browning trait was created by inserting extra copies of genes that the apple already possessed. These genes normally create an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, which is responsible for the chemical reaction that causes browning. Yet when extra copies of the gene are added, the apple reacts by shutting down all of them, stopping production of the enzyme and preventing the browning reaction,” (2014).

Though I am sure my family would be in awe of this new technology, all this talk of enzymes would probably be a little overwhelming because they do not have much, if any, science background. For that reason, I would guess the next question wouldn’t necessarily get into the specifics of how this process works; rather, I’d assume it would be more along the lines of why it is so apparently controversial. Critics of GMOs, on top of complaining about the ethics behind taking genes out of one organism and putting them into another, would point toward the fact that no long term research has done that prove these super-foods are safe. That being said, Madelyn Fernstorm writes, “FDA states that no evidence of an increased incidence of food allergies or toxicity is observed when comparing genetic or traditional plant farming,” (2014). Though those testing were short term, they are obviously very promising.

In conclusion, I would add that the majority of the problems with GMOs are not the organisms themselves, but rather people that make and sell these GMOs. The ruthless agribusiness food industries’ mistreatment of both animals and workers, bullying of small farmers, and refusal to show much transparency in their inner workings has become a major in this country. But as far as the genetically modified organisms are concerned, they do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, so I would recommend embracing them. Next, the Richardson’s would all take another bite of the delicious salad; a salad topped with scrumptious tomatoes that would, without genetic modification, be out of season.

Works Cited

Fermstorm, Madelyn. (2014). “GMOs are Here to Stay – Should we be Worried?”.

Charles, Dan. (2014). “The GMO Apple Won’t Brown. Will that Sour the Fruit’s Image?”.

 

January 14, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Science!

As someone who had already intended to pursue a science major (though I’m not sure which) and despite only being in the class for a week, the Chemistry of Food has done nothing but boost my interest in science.  Thus far, I have really liked talking about biochemistry in particular. To me, biochemistry has really helped link the abstract concepts I learned in Chemistry 131 to the more graspable concepts of biology. In doing so, we have discussed many real-world situations involving chemistry.

I have always thought (and continue to think) that I need to learn much more about food and what it really consists of – what makes some food bad for you and other food good and why. Though I have learned some things about food, I am aware that I have a long ways to go, and there is no doubt I would have to take my learning farther than a three week class if I really want to know the in’s and out’s of food.

I have also really liked that this class has linked science to business. By understanding the biochemistry behind corn for example, I have learned how that has shaped and continues to shape the way farmers farm and the way industrialization has changed that over the last century. I have also been able to begin to formulate an opinion on whether or not all this technology has really done well in improving our farming and the food we eat.

Something I have always been ashamed of is my inability to cook. Though I still hardly know what I am doing, this class can do nothing but improve cooking abilities. Also, and perhaps more importantly, this class will help we understand why cooks do the things they do and why those methods work.

From what I have gathered from people taking other Centreterm classes, the Chemistry is not unlike other science classes in that it has a very demanding workload. Though the workload is time-consuming, I do not mind it because the material has been so. interesting.

http://pbmo.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/science-rules.jpg

http://pbmo.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/science-rules.jpg

January 14, 2014
by Carter Richardson
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Everything Eventually Morphs into the Way the World Is

After having read about the miraculously eco-friendly Polyface Farm Joel Salatin has invested so much time and energy in, I can see how  the self-distinguished “grass farmer” finds it strange that so many “bar code people” spend much more time worrying about picking their mechanic or contractor than the person that grows their food. While I can agree with him that it is unsettling, I do not myself find the occurrence particularly strange. I’ll admit that reading about how Salatin can keep up with such a sustainable farm with a variety of different plants and animals without the use of synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, and pesticides is rather interesting, not only are there too few farms like Salatin’s around so many people across the country, many people lack the time, energy, and appreciation for that type of food, so they continue to buy the cheapest food possible, and that food is almost always made via the industrialization of agriculture though big businesses.

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he speaks of Salatin warning that the “government and ‘their big-food-system fraternity mates’ exploiting worries about bioterrorism to regulate small food producers out of business, and beseeches his customers ‘to stand with Polyface during these paranoid, hysterical days,'” (Pollan 241). This reformation the grass farmer of speaking of is known as “relationship marketing,” in which buyers buy from sellers they have come to know personally, guaranteeing the integrity of the both the farmer and his crops. Even if the consumer wanted to buy from a locally grown farm, Pollan guesses “that that there aren’t too many farmers today who are up either for the physical or mental challenge of this sort of farming,” (220). These farmers revert back to the simplification and consistency that comes with industrialization, making their crop hardly better than anything else in the grocery store.

Even a consumer that wants to buy from the Organic section of the grocery store or at Whole Foods no longer avoids the big-business industrialized aspect of their food. The term “organic” is beginning to lose it’s meaning, and many of the pretty, quaint little farms seen on the sides of the food items labeled “organic” no longer exist. Even though the organically made foods may be slightly better for you, the living condition of the livestock is not nearly the pasture the marketers would like you to believe; in fact, the animals like Rosie the chicken remain in the dark confines of their cages with thousands of other Rosie’s for almost the entirety of their 7 week life. As Pollan writes, “perhaps the most discouraging of all… industrial meal(s) are nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as its conventional counterpart,” (182).  As the one time small organic farm-crazed hippie and now industrial organic food enthusiast Gene Kahn said, “everything eventually morphs into the way the world is,” (168) and now, the world is all about industrialization.

In the beginning of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan spoke of how hard it is to track your food from the farm to the grocery store. As it turns out, even when you can track your food, it can be misleading. Compare that to a mechanic or a contractor who, almost always, you can have a one-on-one conversation with before they work on your car or your house. While it would be great if you could have that same one-on-one conversation with your farmer, that ideal doesn’t seem to be logical. Plus not only do many American’s lack the necessities to buy local, an overwhelming number are too ignorant and too concerned about prices and too busy to care. “As so many other realms, nature’s logic has proven no match for the logic of capitalism,” (184).

 

Works Cited

Pollan, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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