Chemistry of Food 3

This is it. This is the end. The last blog. I’m sad for this class to end. Partly because I enjoyed it, and partly because I know my spring term class are going to be the death of me. Besides starting at 12:30pm (allowing me to sleep almost twelve hours every day) and only having to worry about doing homework for one class, Chemistry of Food was both educational and fun.

We were a quiet bunch in the beginning, but as we slowly got to know each other, the cheeky comments emerged. Of course the first week was the hardest because of all that reading, but even then it wasn’t that hard. It was time consuming, especially after track practice and dinner (I couldn’t start homework until 7:30pm or 8pm most nights). Having taken general chemistry beforehand, I knew what the teacher was talking about when she explained the science behind macromolecules, but it didn’t give me a huge advantage because it was still new material. We learned about lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, milk, cream, freezing point depression, cheese, eggs, corn, farms, flavors, flour, yeast, alcohol, and boiling point elevation among some other things. We got to make ice cream, cheese, deviled eggs, and bread. We learned about artificial flavors and agribusiness. We got in groups to do presentations, and created a video project to present to the class. (Our video project group made chocolate desserts!) Behind our fun was science. I’d like to think that besides learning about food chemistry, I also gained skills in public speaking.

The most challenging aspect would be learning about the macromolecules, but that wasn’t too difficult. Of course the most enjoyable aspect was making all that food and eating it. My advice for future students would be to take this class. Even if you haven’t taken chemistry beforehand, you don’t need it. It might help, but you won’t be lost. It really isn’t a difficult class, but it is educational. More importantly, it’s fun.

Wilderness Trace vs. Maker’s Mark

Wilderness Trace is located inside one building in Danville, Kentucky. It’s a small operation started recently by two friends all in the name of science. Engineering and chemistry join to lead the way for perfect alcohol. They use science to create great tasting bourbon. Walking inside the store, the aroma of alcohol immediately enters your nose. After learning about the distilling process in the gift shop, we passed the chemistry room (testing samples) and walked through a door into the magical room where it all takes place. There were only two small tanks filled with mashed corn on one wall and a copper column machine where the alcohol was distilled against another wall. They don’t need to filter the product and only need to distill once because they keep a close eye to make sure nothing goes wrong. Against a third wall was the bottling station and a door that lead to a room where the bourbon was ageing in charred oak barrels. Everything was located and done inside one building. Besides bourbon, they also make rum and vodka.

Maker’s Mark, like Wilderness Trace, is located in Kentucky. It has many black and red buildings in the town of Loretto. It’s a larger operation started by a family during the 1950s in the name of taste. Engineering and chemistry are not at the forefront, but these two disciplines definitely assist bourbon production. Instead, they rely on the family recipe. Upon first arrival, we walked into a house of some sort to start the tour. Then, we walked to another building where the grains are selected, cleaned, mashed, and fermented with yeast. They had big machines roaring in the background as the tour guide loudly explained that they have cryogenically frozen yeast from when the first Maker’s Mark bourbon was made. This is done in order to keep the taste the same because every now and then they use the frozen parent cell instead of evolved or mutated yeast. They had two copper column machines for the alcohol to run through in order to distill it twice. In a nearby room, there were ten wooden vats filled with yeasts fermenting at different stages. In a different building they test samples using chemistry and taste samples using people. In another building they age the barrels in the dark with an open floor in order to expose them to the natural temperature. They rotate the barrels so the ones on the third floor don’t get too much heat and the ones near the ground don’t get too cold. In a third building they clean the bottles with a shot of bourbon (no water to avoid dilution), fill the bottles, label the bottles, and hand dip the bottles in red wax for their signature seal. Each process is handled in a different building because this well known company needs to meet demand by producing on a big scale.

Both businesses were similar and different. I only wish I could legally taste the bourbon!

Delicious Diacetyl

Diacetyl is a flavor compound. Its scientific name is 2,3-butanedione. It is a diketone (the simplest diketone as a matter of fact), which means it is composed of two ketone groups. Each ketone group is made up of two carbons, three hydrogens, and one oxygen. This gives it the molecular formula (CH₃CO)₂. It is an organic compound and has the appearance of a yellowish green liquid.

It mimics a buttery or butterscotch flavor. The flavor of butter itself is attributed to over 120 different flavors, but primarily methyl ketones (diacetyl) and lactones. These are naturally present at concentrations below the Flavor Threshold Value (FTV), but when they’re heated, the concentration rises above the FTV and it creates a “full, rich butter flavor with dairy notes”. Lactones and methyl ketones work together to create the overall flavor. It is a byproduct of the valine synthesis, which is a part of fermentation. In this process, yeast produces α-acetolactate, which escapes the cell and is decarboxylated into diacetyl. The yeast then absorbs the diacetyl, and reduces it to form acetoin and 2,3-butanediol. Together with acetoin, diacetyl gives butter its signature taste. It can also be found in milk and cheese. It is naturally found in alcoholic beverages such as beer. However, it is only acceptable or desirable at low or moderate levels for some styles of beer, while it is considered a flaw or undesirable for other styles of beer. It is added to microwave popcorn for flavoring (artificial butter).

The main problem surrounding diacetyl is a lung disease known as Bronchiolitis obliterans. It has been nicknamed “Popcorn lung” because workers at popcorn manufacturing plants are the ones who get this lung disease. One worker sued a manufacturing plant after receiving the disease after eating two bags of popcorn every day for ten years. It is not the consumption of diacetyl that is dangerous (unless you eat a lot of popcorn every day for many years), but rather it is the vapors that are dangerous. Inhaling diacetyl vapors causes this lung problem, so many factories have been researching a new chemical to create artificial butter for microwave popcorn. Besides the flavor, a benefit of diacetyl is that it has anti-microbial properties. Research is still being done on this aspect of the chemical.

Lanciotti, R. “Evaluation of Diacetyl Antimicrobial Activity against Escherichia Coli, Listeria Monocytogenes and Staphylococcus Aureus.” Food Microbiology 20.5 (2003): 537-43. Print.

Chemistry of Food 2

Chemistry of Food has been a very informational course for me. I probably have learned more than I need to know about food and where it comes from. There are a lot of things that I hope to never forget. As of now, the things that stand out in my mind are the fact that everything is made of corn, corporations are ruining agriculture, and everything will at one point be suspected to contain a cancer causing chemical.

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I’ve learned how corn is being genetically modified and processed to create items ranging from fuel to food to batteries. It’s even feed to animals that don’t normally eat corn! Corn is in or on everything in one way or another. Not only that, but corn, along with cattle, are being treated carelessly. Corn and cattle are seen as products, not living creatures. Corn is a living creature that provides the soil with necessary nutrients and changes carbon dioxide to oxygen for us to breathe, but now it has been tampered with to yield more fat seeds and, as a result, ruins the soil and environment either directly or indirectly (oil needed to transport corn). Cattle has been treated in much the same way. Some can no longer walk as a result of poor treatment. These living creatures can no longer give back to the Earth or us in the same bountiful way they once did. We have tampered with the natural cycle and have thrown things out of balance. We are receiving what we are giving: poor treatment for poor products. Not everyone is doing this. Thankfully there are still some small family farms who treat their animals and plants with care, but the major corporations that control a majority of the food supply are so distant from the consumer and focused on profit that they disregard their actions. They don’t care how it’s made. They care how much is made. We should care more about our food.

On another note, many studies have appeared and disappeared over the years claiming “this chemical” in “that food” causes cancer or some sort of other disease. Either it’s true and scientist create a new chemical to replace that chemical (which may or may not cause cancer itself), or it’s sort of true in that it causes some cancer in small animals (e.g. mice), but it can’t be proven for certain. I think most foods and items are safe in medium amounts. Not too little, but not too much. Just right. The Goldilock’s diet.

These are some of the things that I hope I will never forget.


It’s said that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. A whiskey (or whisky without an “e” depending on preference and slightly on country origin) is a “distilled spirit obtained from the fermented mash of grain, distilled at less than 190 proof, stored in oak containers and bottled at a minimum of 40% abv” (alcohol by volume). Bourbon must meet several standards before it can be served to US citizens and be called bourbon. First, it must be produced in the United States. Second, it must consist of at least 51% corn. Third, it must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Fourth, it must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% abv). Fifth, it must be entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% abv). Sixth, like other whiskeys, it must be bottled at 80 proof (40% abv) or more. To be considered Kentucky bourbon, it must have been aged in Ky for at least two years.

The process to make bourbon is similar to making beer: malting, milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, filtering (if necessary), ageing, and bottling. Malting involves steeping, germinating, and kilning the grain (corn plus wheat or rye). Then, mill the grains and mix them with water. This is the mash mixture. Add the malted barley. Add the yeast to start fermenting. This is the wash. Then, distill the wash using a copper setup to eliminate sulfur. The product will be a clear liquid. It may be necessary to filter volatile oils if the product is not pure. This clean, clear liquid is then kept in charred oak barrels to age for around four years. This is when it gains color and flavor from the wood by being absorbed into it. After ageing it’s time for bottling. Bourbons are typically bottled to at least 80 proof. It is possible to bottle them at higher or lower proofs, but then it must be labelled as such.

After visiting Wilderness Trace Distillery, which smelled like medicine upon first entering, I learned that Kentucky is a very good place to make bourbon because of the weather, but it isn’t the only place that bourbon can be made. Sitting in their gift shop, learning about bourbon, smelling the sweet aroma in the room, I remembered the day I tried bourbon balls for the first time and how my friends who ate some with me said it tasted very strong, but not for me, and I wish that I were old enough to legally drink some bourbon, vodka, and rum in order the taste the unique flavors that different grains create. It’s interesting to think that a very similar process is used to create each alcohol, but they all taste different.

What Is Food?

“What is food?” isn’t a completely ridiculous question nowadays. More often than not we are eating something processed, in which case it’s hard to say whether what we are eating is really food. On one hand, food is thought of to come from nature. Something pure that could be eaten with little meddling (fire vs. factory). Fruits, vegetables, fungi, and animals (meat) represent this end of the spectrum. On the other hand, food is thought of as anything edible such as marshmallows, sodas, and poptarts to name a few.

Before reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watching Food, Inc, visiting Marksbury Farms, and learning about GMOs, I didn’t think about what I was eating. I didn’t consider that the chicken I’m eating isn’t really chicken or where this “chicken” came from. I looked away from the CAFOs processing my meat and the “farms” “caring” for chickens, cows, and pigs. For the most part, we have to look away because otherwise we couldn’t stomach eating what we buy at the grocery.

Now that I know what’s happening behind my back, I can’t say that I will only buy local, organic food. This is the second time I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the second time I’ve watched Food, Inc. After each time I think “How awful!” and imagine what I could do to change the world of agribusiness, but then I look away again and forget (or maybe “forget”) what I know. Ignorance is bliss. No one wants to eat a hamburger thinking about cow slaughter. Processed food just taste too good to give up completely. We all like to give in and snack on it. Even if we could, it’s still everywhere, which makes it hard to avoid, and it’s cheap. As a broke college student, it’s hard to avoid (not that I’m trying my hardest to avoid it).

It’s nice to know that there are small farms out there still surviving without succumbing to big corporations. However, the ratio is backwards. There should be more local farms than industrial farms. Fast food should be more expensive than organic food because processed food should be a once in a while treat whereas natural food should be a part of our everyday diet.

It does feel like I have been pushed to think that all processed food is evil. I imagine innocent farmers signing their soul away to the devil (agribusinesses) for an easy, efficient fix to get more money. Of course this isn’t completely false, but it seems more prevalent than it actually may be. I wouldn’t know. Without investigating myself, I only learn what journalists want me to hear.

Food is a gift and I am lucky to be surrounded by it because there are some who are less fortunate, but then again, maybe they are actually the lucky ones.

A Nation of Hypocrites

A hypocrite is defined as someone who “claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs”. We are all guilty of being a hypocrite whether we realize it or not. I admit that I have been a hypocrite on certain issues. It’s difficult to avoid because we all have our own idea of justice, of what’s right, and of what should be done, but, rarely, do we act upon those ideas.

As a cynic, looking at the blog prompt for tonight I thought this would be a no-brainer. Clearly, the crisis is in our character. However, I did not find Berry’s argument very convincing. I did not find his other arguments about agriculture and culture very convincing either. My own cynical opinion remains that the problem begins with us. We are the ones who created culture and agriculture. We are the ones controlling culture and agriculture. It makes sense that we created any problems with culture and agriculture. The problem is something that is very difficult to change: being human. As humans, among a multitude of positive qualities that make us caring, there are negative qualities to balance the scale (yin and yang).  We are greedy and selfish creatures. In a capitalist society driven by money, we reward these qualities. Those who are the greediest and most selfish often make the most money.

Knowing this, it’s very hard not to be greedy and selfish. As much as we would not like to be labelled as such, it’s difficult to just give up all our money and material possessions. We realize our problem, but we don’t do anything about it. This is what makes us hypocrites. To fix this problem, we would need to create a completely new culture where neighbors support neighbors instead of neighbors threatening neighbors out of business. We need to reward the positive qualities of care and selflessness. If humans are more caring, then the culture rewards caring, and agricultural practices become more caring towards the land and the animals.


We are human. We are greedy. We are selfish. We are hypocrites.

Even I am a hypocrite for writing this because this is my belief yet I am doing nothing about it. I can make excuses, as well all do, about why I can’t do anything about it, but there are no excuses. Excuses delude us from the problem: us.

Berry, Wendell (1997). The Unsettling of America.


GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and includes foods such as corn, tomatoes, soy, and milk. One method of creating these GMOs involves scientists taking desired DNA plus a marker gene (to test if the insertion was successful) and inserting it into a bacteria that will penetrate cell walls and transfer the DNA into the cell(s). Such DNA could include a resistance to weather (e.g. extreme heat, extreme cold) or a resistance to pesticides. The new DNA is supposed to help plants and foods last longer. The idea behind this science seems helpful, but it hasn’t been long enough to determine whether it really is helpful.

There is always the possibility of weeds or insects mutating and either gaining the ability to survive extreme temperature like the plants and or gaining an immunity to pesticides like the plants. If weeds or insects were to become immune to pesticides, companies would have to develop stronger pesticides, which could ruin the soil, atmosphere, and our health. These stronger organisms could disrupt the ecosystem and food chain, affecting us in damaging ways. What happens when we are no longer in control?

I worry that eating these foods could affect us in unforeseeable ways. It doesn’t seem natural. It isn’t natural to change the genetic makeup of a species. The idea of messing with nature does not sound appealing to me. Mother Nature created plants and animals the way they are, and everything is balanced. On the one hand, making one species stronger tips the scales in their favor causing other species to adapt in drastic ways in order to compete. On the other hand, giving species an immunity causes them to stop creating their own immunity. Why waste energy creating your own poison when someone else gives you better, stronger poison? Disrupting nature’s balance isn’t my only problem. Having only one type of variation among species can be deadly. If everyone has the same DNA, then one disease could wipe out the entire species. Variation helps species survive.

Not only do GMOs affect nature, they also affect business. If one company creates and patents a super crop, they control that crop. One company in control of a majority of our food supply controls the population. They can determine the prices, who grows it, how much is grown, how it’s made, and what it’s made into (among other things). They could easily starve consumers or bankrupt them. One company should not have that much power.

Until there is more proof that GMOs are not harmful to us and the environment, I will be suspicious of them.

Chemistry of Food

After a week or so of taking this class, I can finally say I have formed an opinion about it. My opinion is positive. I enjoy this class. Of course, I enjoy being in the class (making and trying food, and it helps to hear someone explain things) more than being outside of the class because of all the reading we have to do, but very few people actually like doing homework. The reading isn’t all that bad. It can be really interesting at times. The books make me think about the chemistry behind food processes and about food in the nation.

Before this class, I didn’t know that cooking meat tenderizes it because it breaks up the proteins. I never noticed that people don’t boil meat because that toughens it. I learned how persnickety eggs can be (fresh vs old, warm vs cold). I didn’t know that even one drop of egg yolk in an egg white mixture will ruin how fluffy it gets during beating.  I didn’t know about free radicals causing oil to go rancid and us to age. I learned that it’s better to whip chilled cream rather than warm cream. I learned that most people prefer adding sugar to food rather than salt. All in all, I didn’t realize how much science was involved in cooking.

As for food in the nation, I learned from our reading that corn is very versatile and grown in abundance causing a downward spiral because the more things corn is used for causes farmers to grow more (and only) corn, which causes prices to go down, which causes farmers to grow even more corn. Corn is not only grown as the kind of corn we eat, it’s used to preserve other foods, to make foods sweeter (high fructose corn syrup), and even as fuel for cars and batteries. Science has modified corn to be so versatile, which makes me worry that corn will be the only thing in our diet in the future! Corn isn’t the only problem. Companies have industrialized farms for their own gain, exploiting farmers and the land. Most modern food lacks many of the nutrients it once had due to genetic modification, which affects the soil in similar ways. It may be unrealistic, but I like the idea of small family farms growing nutritious food that we can buy locally. And, unlike my parents, I will never experience food on a seasonal cycle, which saddens me slightly, but at the same time, it’s nice to be able to get whatever food I want at any time of the year.

Who knew science was behind all of this?

Old McDonald’s Farm

There is no question that a meal from McDonald’s is different from a meal grown on a farm. Of course you could make the same meal (hamburger and fries), but the ingredients would look and taste different. This is due to the origin of the ingredients.

Many of us, like Michael Pollan, would have difficulty tracing where the patty and potatoes originated from that make up the McDonald’s hamburger and fries. The patty alone could be made up of beef coming from ten different cows (assuming it is 100% beef). Also, the preservatives used to keep the patty from spoiling would lead us down a wild path trying to find the origin of the chemicals, which most likely came from corn (in which case, such chemicals are made up of corns coming from different farms all over the country and possibly world). The potatoes that make up the fries probably came from various farms and are coated in chemicals created in different factories. In the end, it’s impossible to know where that McDonald’s burger and fries came from because it did not come from one place or is made up of one or four ingredients. This “cultural” burger does not have a unique taste. There’s too much going on, and it taste bland.

A hamburger and fries made on a non-industrialized farm, however, tell a different story. The farmer can slaughter his/her own steers to make ground beef for patties — all from one or two cows, depending on how much is desired. The farmer can go pick potatoes from the next field or a neighbor’s farm. The origin of the beef and potatoes is confined to one area. There is no wild path to be followed. Most likely there are no chemicals used because the farmer does not plan to preserve the food for a month. It is meant to be enjoyed within the week of harvesting. The farmer can go buy local seasoning for the meal and create the meal to his or her liking.

The difference is not just quality, but also monetary. While the ingredients for the McDonald’s burger and fries had to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and endure processing in factories (using barrels of petroleum), the ingredients in the farm’s burger and fries were likely within walking distance. It’s cheaper and tastier to get a locally grown and made hamburger and fries. Like cheese and wine, the more time spent creating your meal the better it will be.

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