Perhaps when you hear the words 'laboratory' and 'food' together you think about genetic modification or cloning. The truth is, virtually all food products wind up in a lab at some point in their journey from farm to fork. Find out more about the role of the lab in different types of food below.
The jam inside a jammy ring is not actually raspberry jam, it is a raspberry-flavoured plum jam. The jam is an adhesive which holds the two shortbread biscuits together. Chemicals are added to the jam to increase its adhesive properties, one of these being pectin. Fruits naturally contains levels of pectin but commercial pectin is added to further strengthen the jam.
As a gelling agent, pectin forms a mesh that traps liquid and sets as it cools. Acid and sugar are added alongside pectin to aid in the gelling process. Sugar strengthens the gel by attracting some of the water away from the pectin. Sugar also firms the fruit structure and helps the jam to hold its colour and flavour. Through experimentation, scientists have identified the formula to produce the ideal jam in terms of flavour, colour, adhesive, moisture content and other factors. Who knew all that chemistry could take place between two biscuits?
Creating energy drinks
High energy drinks are cocktails of many different ingredients. Food technologists talk about functional properties of food ingredients and select different ingredients because they add a particular property to the final food. For example, we could make a high energy sports drink by mixing glucose or other sugars with a variety of vitamins, amino acids, a thickener, and possibly a herb extract to act as a flavouring. Many also contain more caffeine than a cup of coffee, prompting concerned UK watchdogs to rally for a change in legislation as to how energy drinks are labelled.
Making soft cheese
Soft cheese is one of the trickier dairy products to manufacture. A great deal of time, money and research has gone into perfecting the products widely available on supermarket shelves. There are actually entire university labs dedicated to soft cheese research. The proteins in milk are negatively charged and repel each other, which is why milk is a liquid.
To make cheese, milk must solidify. Soft cheese cannot undergo the same hardening methods used in traditional cheese making. Instead, acid-secreting bacteria are added to the milk. The addition of acid leads to a decrease in pH, causing some of the proteins to switch charge. The positively-charged molecules attract the negatively-charged molecules, coagulating the liquid and eventually turning it into a solid.
The key to creating that specific soft cheese texture is getting the cheese in an isoelectric state, where half of the molecules are negatively charged and half are positively charged. If the bacteria were to be left in the mixture, they would continue to produce acid until all the proteins were positively charged, which would cause them to repel each other, creating a liquid and thus, defeating the entire purpose of adding the bacteria in the first place. To stop this, heat is added to kill the bacteria.
Manufacturers must anticipate the exact moment of an isoteric state in order to get the perfect soft cheese taste and texture. If they do not, the product is ruined. While this may seem relatively straight forward, it is actually quite difficult. It requires a balancing act of all the components, as very subtle changes in timing or ingredient levels result in variations in taste and texture.
As more flavours and varieties (fat-free or light) are being introduced, extensive research is done into the effects of each new component on the overall product. Next time you smear that bagel, think about all of the work that has gone into perfecting that delicious spread.
Creating flavours is no easy task - sensory scientists have identified thousands of flavour chemicals and broken them down into the individual aromatic chemicals that make up a scent. When analysing a flavour, sensory scientists may use a flavour wheel. The wheel contains different flavour characteristics arranged like slices of pie. The researcher marks a point on each 'pie slice' - the closer the mark is to the perimeter, the more intense that particular flavour characteristic is. The dots are then connected to create a flavour profile depicting the flavour sensations of that food.
No milk required! The cereal bar is a prime example of how products are created to suite the evolving consumer lifestyle. Cereal bars are very versatile - they can have a multitude of different flavour and sensory dimensions. The bar is made of tightly packed processed cereal grains that can be incorporated with many other ingredients such as whole cereals, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, candies and so on. Texture varies from bar to bar - they can be chewy, crunchy or both. Research and development is a huge part of the food and drink sector. Food scientists carry out a great deal of research into finding out what combinations - in terms of flavours and textures - consumers prefer.
Ketchup is called 'dead man's horse' in Australia but its origins lie in Asia, where brine from pickled fish was used as a dipping sauce. Nowadays, making ketchup begins with vast amounts of tomato paste. It is squeezed into a large vat where it is mixed with vinegar, sugar and salt, followed by seasoning. Samples are sent to a laboratory for tasting and chemical composition tests for acidity and saltiness. The thickness of the ketchup is also measured, some laboratories do this by timing the ketchup as it travels down a specially-crafted slope called a 'Bronswick consistometer'.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas that is responsible for putting the 'fizz' in fizzy drinks. CO2 is dissolved in water or a liquid solution using a machine called a 'carbonator', creating lots of tiny little gas bubbles. In some brands of sparkling water, CO2 dissolves naturally in the water - usually through contact with limestone or volcanic vents. When you open a bottle of a fizzy drink, you are actually releasing a great deal of pressure. CO2 molecules merge together to form bubbles of gas that rise to the surface, creating a 'fizz' sound as they escape into the air.