When a home cook wants to cut fat and sugar from a meal he'll bake the potatoes rather than deep fry them, choose tomato sauce over a creamy one and serve fresh fruit in place of Crème Brulee for dessert.
But when a food producer is designing a product that he wants to adorn with a "reduced fat", "fat free" or "low carb" claim, he usually turns to the food chemist for a fix. Food engineers replace the unwanted ingredient while recreating the same texture, mouth-feel and taste of the original. Absolute magic.
The cover story titled "Call In The Food Fixers" in last week's edition of Chemical & Engineering News, the American Chemical Society's weekly magazine, gives us a glimpse into the science of tricking the tongue (the article was available in full text, but access is now restricted).
"To make sure consumers won't miss what's missing, food makers can choose from a long list of texture-improving additives and replacements-from agar to xanthan gum-and they normally choose several. The functional ingredients may come from specialty chemical companies or from firms devoted to food ingredients."
And since long, complicated, chemical sounding lists of ingredients are falling out of favor:
"Ingredient suppliers are playing a big role in helping customers balance health claims, good taste, and consumers' desire for "natural" foods."
Balance is an interesting way to put it. Does balance mean finding ingredients that are really better for you, or finding a way to stay within the letter of the law, and dress-up chemical processing as innocuous, wholesome goodness?
"Although adding texture to products with reduced fat and sugar is a trend that ingredient makers can count on, consumers who scan labels to ascertain whether a food is "natural" will continue to face an uphill battle. There are no government standards that regulate the use of the words "natural" or "all natural." Food ingredient lists are not as informative on the subject as some consumers might wish. For example, carboxymethylcellulose normally appears as cellulose gum on food labels. Chemically altered starch is listed as modified, but modified pectin is just listed as pectin."
I must say, I love the science and ingenuity behind these new inventions. The article's accompanying images were fascinating, especially the mouth map trained testers use for designing low-fat food, which breaks down food texture to no less than 17 parameters, including 'slipperiness', 'blends with saliva' and 'viscosity'.
But are these modifications leading to an improved diet? Decades of "fat free" and "reduced fat" products, yet the population gains weight. I don't know if it's our mind that sees "fat free" as permission to eat more, our tongue that refuses to be tricked, or our dissatisfaction with fakes that leaves us wanting.
I'd rather eat a really satisfying small piece of the real thing. It tastes better, and I have no illusions about the source of indulgence. Yes, I bake with butter.
Traditionally fatty and full-of-sugar foods are now engineered to be blame-free or better-for-you through a process of replacing fat and sugar with something else. The fix can often be wickeder than the original.
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