Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Molecular Gastronomy

In a recent article published in the Accounts of Chemical Research (impact factor =17.1), an article on molecular gastronomy discusses the science behind cooking. The article starts with, "Food preparation is such a routine activity that we often do not question the process. For example, why do we cook as we do? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other perfectly edible ingredients? To help answer these questions, it is extremely important to study the chemical changes that food undergoes during preparation; even simply cutting a vegetable can lead to enzymatic reactions."

I can not appreciate good food and my taste is restricted to good and better curd rice but I am fascinated by molecular gastronomy, primarily because several chemical engineering principles are involved in such a study. My own experience in the field was when I was a consultant to a major beverage company. The taste perceived due to the carbonated drinks arise both from the mechanical and chemogenic reasons. The bursting carbon dioxide bubbles stimulates the mechanoreceptors on the tongue while the carbonic acid formed stimulates the polymodal nociceptors in the oral cavity. The size of the bubbles also play an important role. For example, the perception of champagne as a superior beverage to sparkling wine is because of the smaller bubbles. The smaller size of the bubbles leads to enhanced mass transport of carbon dioxide when the bubbles impinge upon the tongue, increasing the taste.

One would think that the amount of carbon dioxide in the carbonated drink would be the primary factor in determining the taste. However, the visual perception of the size of the bubbles plays a crucial role in determining the taste. Other than the numbers and sizes of these bubbles, how they rise in a bottle when opened adds to the "taste". For example, in champagne, the number and rate of the ascending bubbles count in the sensory evaluation of the wine. Will a blindfolded person be able to distinguish between two carbonated drinks in which only the rate of the ascending bubbles are different? These questions result in an interesting scientific study.

If you are completely bored or interested in catalysis, you can read my paper in the same issue of the journal.

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