Is meat made any other way still as sweet?

I have spent the last couple of months reading journal articles on food processing and technology. Recently, a review article caught my eye – Meet the new meat: tissue engineered skeletal muscle (Trends in Food Science & Technology Volume 21, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 59-66). Having friends in tissue engineering laboratories that tackle this challenging field of research, I was curious to read what the authors had to say regarding tissue engineering for food stock.

The authors state the case promoting research to develope engineered meats, arguing that the current trends in energy use, land use, and environmental concerns with greenhouse gas emissions dictate the development of alternative meat sources. They list some of the current uses of tissue engineering (such as medical replacement tissue and/or skeletal structure to help mitigate damage caused by disease or accident or for the in vitro study of key metabolic processes) and rely on these experimental results to discuss how they could lead to the generation of artificially produced meat products.

There have been exciting advances in the design and engineering of artificial matrices, which support cell growth, holding promise for the future of medicine and biomedical engineering, although there are many challenges still left to address. (Perspectives and challenges in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, Advanced Materials, 21:  3235-3236, 2009; a good review of current challenges and strategies is covered in the February 10 issue of The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences). The ability to direct a drug of choice to the area in which it is needed, or to construct a bio-degradable scaffold for the introduction of regenerative tissue to a site of injury will alleviate many diseases which affect our quality of life. But, one thing all these therapies have in common is that they are designed to provide an affected body with the building blocks that will allow it to heal and restore itself.

Engineering and growing muscle tissue without an underlying or enveloping system to provide molecular instructions and guide cellular and structural growth changes the rules of the game. As the authors pointed out in this review, there are many factors that affect the development of the structure and function of muscle tissue. As of now, we do not have a complete understanding about the underlying cellular signaling and molecular decision-making pathways to ensure that the process of engineering and designing artificial meat will provide a sustainable and desirable product for human consumption.

The next barrier facing this research will be to scale up the process. What works at the bench or in a laboratory will not necessarily work in large-scale processes. Although much work has been done scaling up the production of medically relevant products using large fermenters, new plant and equipment design will be needed to address the challenges of tissue manufacturing.

If these challenges were to be met, and palatable genetically engineered meat products were produced, bringing these products to the market would generate another set of obstacles. Resistance to and fear of genetically engineered or modified foods by many people will have to be addressed. Governments and scientists need to educate their constituents and communities about the benefits, risks, and ethical implications of genetic engineered foods. Local and national regulation need to be enacted to provide commerce with direction and oversight.

As excited as I am about the possibility of eating an engineered ‘steak’ or ‘pork chop’, I believe that much work needs to be done before we see the commercialization of genetically engineered meats available for consumption.

Love at First Bite

I had known of her for a while. We crossed each others path. It was a rocky start. I asked her out. She turned me down. Twice. We saw each other at the coffee stand later that summer.  I was teaching biochemistry for high school students.  She invited me to stop by her office. I stopped by, later, my cart full of molecular models and biochemistry stuff. We talked.  She, sitting down at her desk.  Me, leaning against the filing cabinets by the window. Trying to be cool. As if. She asked me my age, 30? No older, 33? No older. Older than 35? Yes. So, she said, do you want to go have a drink sometime? Sure I said. How about this Wednesday?

I make sure I wear my signature straw fedora, a nice dress shirt, and one of my sport coats that evening. I dressed to impress. Too cool for school.

We went to a bar downtown. Made fun of people. Had some appetizers. Had some drinks. Talked food. Made more fun of people. Talked a lot about food. This girl got my attention. I dug her. She is leaving the following week on vacation. She and two girlfriends. Two weeks on a hot rock. In the middle of the Mediterranean. She promises me dinner when she came back. We walk to her place. One of those perfect summer nights in the city. Almost there, we stop for a quick nightcap. We talked some more. Drinks, a mojito, dirty dirty martinis, proseco. The summer night moves so quickly. I walked her the rest of the way home. She left me by the sidewalk, quickly closing the gate and dashing inside. Over the bridge I went. Back to lab. Intrigued by the evening. By her. I send her an e-mail in Spanish – the geek romantic that I am.

I don’t hear from her till Friday. How about that dinner before I leave, she said. Does Tuesday sound good? Yes, I said. Tuesday is good. What should I bring? Nothing, she said.

Tuesday comes. I am nervous. What is her food going to taste like? What about the flavors?  I am latino.  Cebolla, ajo, comino.  I need flavor, some adobo.  Does she remember discussing likes? Dislikes? We walk over the bridge, stop at the market for some limes. Walking on, casual but nervous chatter. We get there. I give her the bottle of dessert wine I brought. She pulls out a bottle of Havana Club given to a family friend by Castro himself and makes me a mojito. It tasted good.  Damn good. She knows how to make a mean mojito.

She starts dinner. Another mojito.  I feel warm inside.  The aroma wafting from the kitchen starts me drooling. Pavlov’s dog I am. She won’t let me nibble. She sets the table. The plating gorgeous. Colors blending with the scent invading my olfactory ducts. A frontal assault to the senses. I fight impulses, controlling the desire to devour. I take a first bite. Flavors burst in my mouth. Chicken, moist, falling apart under the tug of my fork and knife. Just the right amount of salt. The herbs convey a cool summer evening feel. Pears caramelized to perfection. The arugula crisp and fresh. A nice red helping to wash it all down. Then the coup d`etat. Home made truffles. 70% dark chocolate. Smooth ganash filling the crunchy outer shell.

Dinner over, we talk late into the evening. Another bottle of red, and another. Strong coffee. Steamed milk. She cast a spell over me. Enchanting me with her insightful observations, her long curly hair, her sensual body, but most of all her, snaring me in her gastronomic web.

It was love at first bite.

What was your first experience with food or science?

Cooking at Lily's parents house in TivertonI remember the growing up and watching my grandfather cook.  He was a chef who loved French cuisine and made wonderful deserts.  I got my love of food and science from him.  He would sit there and tell me about what the heat would do to the sugar while I watched the sugar slowly caramelize.  I listened in rapture as he explained the changes in consistency the and flavor of caramel.  He also loved to make sauces and gelatin.  The gelatin kind of grossed me out, but the sauces always smelled so delicious and tasted even better.  I learned about blending the spices and about ratios and combination of ingredients.  I remember the care he always took in measuring ingredients, how he would clean and sterilize his work area.  How he seemed to cook from memory, but he always had his trusty notebook where he kept his notes on food and recipes.

These memories have wakened in me the desire to take the principles I practice in the lab, and transplant them into my kitchen. I love to experiment and think of new ways to prepare food.  Not just changing the flavor, but changing how it is cooked and prepared.  I am extremely lucky to have a partner who is as interested in cooking and creating good food as I am.  We share recipes, ideas, menus, and generally wreak havoc in the kitchen, but we create great meals.  She bakes and makes great deserts, while I love the salty and meaty foods.

I am lucky that I had a great introduction to food and the science of cooking at an early age.  I learned that food was much more than sustenance.  It excites and nourishes the soul just as it provides nourishment to our bodies.  Now more than ever, I miss my grandfather and I wish I could prepare a meal for him like the ones he prepared many times while I was growing up.

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Variability in food caloric value

New Years Day I am having dinner with a good Jarrett at a chain restaurant eating one of their health conscious salads.  We were commenting on how the volume of the salad changed every time we went there to eat.  That led to the discussion of how many calories were actually in the salad vs. how many the restaurant advertised in the menu.  One thing led to another, bets were made, and now I am looking for access to a calorimeter which will allow us to measure the caloric content of said salad.  Now being in Boston and at MIT, you would think that it would not be hard to find such a machine.  It is now the 10th of January, and I am still looking for the calorimeter.  BTW, if you happen to have one just tucked away in the corner of your basement or your laboratory, drop me a line.