Cells: The More You Break Them, The Better they Taste

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For months now, I’ve been trawling around books with titles like “Yeast Research.” They make for exciting conversation starters, such as the time I moonlighted in an English department writing workshop, and one of the natives told me that a passing glance at my materials had caused her to conclude I was a Yeats scholar.

Alas. My work is even more scintillating. I’m writing a paper – much to my own surprise! – on the history of the field of zymology, or the applied science of fermentation. The history of fermentation for food preparation and preservation dates back to antiquity and is relatively well known. Most of our favourite, been-around-forever prepared foods–beer, wine, vinegar, pickles, cheese, yogourt, sauerkraut/kimchi/etc, coffee, tea–are all brought to us by fermentation. Less well-known is the modern history of “controlled,” aseptic fermentation (under sterile conditions) on an industrial scale, by which means microbes and their biochemical superpowers (e.g. enzyme excretion) make possible the production of everything from plastics to household cleaners, birth control to insulin, cosmetics to pharmaceuticals, vitamins to pesticides, to vaccines to germ warfare. These technologies are absolutely vital to today’s global food economy, providing the often invisible intermediary products of the petrochemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries that form the fabric of modern life.

I’m looking into what’s at stake in the commercial application of fermentation in technologies that enable flavour and food companies to capitalize on the human experience of delicious flavour.  Elsewhere I’m working on how the latest-“discovered” and least understood official taste sensation, umami (Japanese for “delicious”), names the mechanism by which we experience the taste of broken-down protein. Speaking very generally, a protein source that has been broken down on a molecular level tastes better to us than one that has not. Raw grains versus bread or beer. Raw tomato versus sundried tomato. Fresh milk versus Grana Padano. Fresh soy beans versus soy sauce. Cabbage versus sauerkraut. Raw beef versus seared tenderloin. I could go on a long time. What’s more, food engineers simulate the flavour-effects of these slower processing techniques with economical, fast-track taste-smithing: MSG, yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, 5′ nucleotides, gelatin, etc. Some research has demonstrated that browning foods or grilling or cooking in oil, for example, makes cells highly mutagenic (to the tune of DNA-damage, cancer). Heterocyclic amine, anyone?

Are we all dining room masochists? Does delicious mean damage? Do we even know to ask?