The Process of Food

When’s the last time grandma’s recipe card had you checking the pantry for maltodextrin? How about sorbitol? Do you often find yourself knocking on your neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of xantham gum?

Developments in food science along with specific food labeling standards have stirred conversations about these and other strange-sounding ingredients.  This was confirmed by the community on our Facebook page, which, when we asked, provided plenty of questions about what we are actually eating.

Food scientists say there is potential to make what we eat safer, tastier, longer preserved, more nutritious, more convenient or more palatable.  More palatable, until you actually read the labels, say skeptical consumers on the other side of the table.

But where the average eater might be satisfied with the use of sugar, a food scientist needs to know: is that fructose, or sucrose or glucose? Because if you try to make grape jelly with sucrose, how do you expect to get the molecules to gel with the excess water?

And ultimately the labels are written by people who eat the most natural of foods around the periodic table: Could somebody please pass the shaker of sodium chloride?  For most of us, salt would do.

Above all, food companies are in business to develop foods that consumers will buy, and expectations are evolving. But look, for instance, at the chart to see how companies responded to demand for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

What sold the sandwich

Citric acid and sodium citrate helped preserve jelly by raising its acidity.

Peanut Butter
Putting oils through a process called hydrogenation made peanut butter creamy.  By adding hydrogen molecules, oils that are normally liquid at room temperature stayed solid.

Adding fatty acids (mono- and diglycerides) helped keep the peanut butter mixed together so you didn’t have to stir it.

White bread
An oily substance found in soybeans (or other vegetables) called lecithin kept all the ingredients combined.
In bread making, yeast love to feed on calcium sulfate and ammonium chloride.

To give the bread texture that customers desired, monoglycerides, ascorbic acid and calcium peroxide could be used as dough conditioners.

Here’s a starting point when considering the perils or promises of food processing –  the Food and Drug Administration tests all food additives to determine how much of the stuff – natural or not –  is safe to consume in a 24-hour period everyday without risk.  (Make a note; it could be hazardous to add 24 cans of diet Coke to your daily regimen).

Of course, just because an ingredient is safe doesn’t mean it is necessarily good for your diet.  Or to some, necessary at all – when you pop the seal on that jar of homemade jelly, are you really concerned about a few unbound water molecules?  Or are you content to simply stir it?

In the end, healthy questions about what happens to food from field to table shouldn’t overshadow the larger point. To the extent that we aren’t all make-it-from-scratchers all of the time, those who help prepare our food are central to Ohio’s economy.  And it’s much more than mixing in hard-to-pronounce ingredients.

Our fellow Ohioans are milling our flour, aging our cheese, juicing our tomatoes  and, yes, perhaps finding a new use for carageenans – that’s a commonly used, gelatin-like seaweed extract, by the way. Ohio farmers are planting soybeans to produce healthier cooking oils.  And it takes workers to flash freeze vegetables, which can better preserve their nutrition. You can even choose the temperature at which your milk was pasteurized. 

So whether we end up with foods that are processed or whole, or if we take our cues from science, nature or culture, at least now – perhaps more than ever – we’re paying attention.

That’s good news. Because the more connected we are as Ohio farmers, eaters and everyone in between, the more we can connect ideas with opportunities. And the more we can keep Ohio growing.

Wheat & White
Whole grain wheat bread is made using all parts of the entire wheat grain. White bread is made of wheat but only uses the starchy part of the grain to make the bread. There is no difference in the vitamins in the two breads but there is more fiber and a little more protein in whole grain wheat bread.

Enriched & Fortified
The day something is harvested it begins to degrade and lose nutritional elements. Enriching a food puts back the elements that were lost. Flour is enriched with B vitamins and iron, both things that have been lost from the time wheat was harvested and processed into flour. Fortified means something that was not originally in the food is added. Milk is often fortified with vitamins A and D.

B Vitamins
Many intimidating ingredients on a food label are actually vitamins. Many are B vitamins including riboflavin, thiamin, cyanocobalamin, niacinamide and folic acid.

Consumer information from the FDA can be found online.