Chemistry of Life / Being an Educated Consumer

Food is one of the few universal necessities of life and provides us with the energy to live.   There are hundreds to thousands of varieties, styles, and unique flavors of food throughout the world.  An essential part of any country’s culture is its food and the way it is consumed.  The awesome aspect of chemistry is that it can be applied to the growing, preparation and consumption of food.  Chemical molecules make up every food in the world.  Through this course, I have gained the knowledge to understand the cooking processes on a molecular level.  While taking a bite out the deliciously brown and crispy onion ring at lunch this week, I was able to dissect what I was consuming.  I can view the onion ring like a scientist.  The combination of proteins from the egg whites in the batter and the starch from the flour are able to undergo one of our class’s favorite chemical reactions under the high temperatures of deep-frying.  The Maillard reaction produces the delicious browned outside of the onion ring that everyone enjoys.  Being somebody who doesn’t cook much, I can use my knowledge of chemistry to now “experiment” in the kitchen.  I know that if my French toast batter is too watery then adding another egg yolk should help because of its emulsifying properties.

Aside from all the chemistry of food that I learned, this course also taught me how to be a critical consumer.  I would have never known that energy drinks such as red bull are considered supplements under the United States Food and Drug Administration Regulations.  It is crazy when you realize there are no regulations by the government on supplements, and consumers are putting their faith in large corporations to produce a safe product. I do not feel comfortable consuming a drink that contains three times the amount of caffeine allowed under normal food regulation.  Humans used to have a deep connection with nature and food by hunting for their meet and growing / picking their fruits and/or vegetables.  It is clear that in today’s society, the food appearing on our plate is a mystery that even Sherlock Holmes would struggle to solve.  Most of our foods are produced by the large corporations that are more concerned with their own economic gain than human practices and consumer health.  When I eat chicken at the school cafeteria, it becomes harder to swallow when thinking about the chicken’s life.  People might not be so jolly about buying their large genetically modified chicken if they knew the chicken was raised solely indoors, fed only corn products, and infused with antibiotics.  The methods of food production along with who regulates such products are integrated parts in being an educated consumer.

This leads to the question of if the food we’re eating is nutritionally good or bad, and should some of the products we eat even be considered food?  While this debate may go on for a while, as I walk around my local grocery store chain Giant Eagle, I see many packaged items that are made to grab and go.  Americans like to keep themselves scheduled, and it is common for us to eat on the go.  A huge portion of our diets is bought from the middle of the grocery store that is filled with refined foods that are essentially made from corn derivatives.  America grows so much corn that I’m surprised we haven’t found a way to start building houses out of it.  I ate Wheat Thins and peanut butter for lunch nearly everyday up until the end of high school.   I now know that filling my stomach with lots of refined carbohydrates is not the best way to eat.  In addition, many of the manufactures of these refined food products will make certain health claims.  Antioxidants for instance have become the new nutritional fad and as a result, have been incorporated into a wide array of foods besides fresh fruits and vegetables.  However, there are no guarantees that company’s health claims are indeed true.

New food studies and products will continue to appear in the media.  Every study comes with some point of view, and may therefore have a bias.  For instance, a study about bisphenol A, or BPA, will be significantly different if it’s coming from an academic lab versus a lab funded by a company that makes products containing BPA.  Bias is a huge issue and trying to uncover truths about food is crucial to being an educated consumer.  For me, the word organic is basically meaningless because it only stands for a certification that is based on the loose guidelines that the FDA created.  When I see an advertisement on television or a health claim on a box, I will make sure that I look to see who is sponsoring the advertisement or what organization is making the claim.  In addition, this class has taught me to be critical of what is on the labels of foods.   I now understand most of the ingredients on food labels I can therefore be critical of what comprises the food I consumed.

Walking into a grocery store is a different experience for me now than it was a few months ago.  It has been a great experience to discuss the chemical properties of food, and more recently, the current political, economical and social issues involving food.  Many of the questions raised in class do not have simple answers but instead, require a wealth of knowledge.  In addition, there may not be one correct answer but instead numerous possible solutions that will vary based on individual differences.  Next time I sit down with my family to enjoy some grilled favorites over the summer, I can explain everything we covered in this course from caramelization to the claims made by the Colbert report.

Picture below is the Chem 304: “Bonding with Food” class…we sincerely hope you enjoyed learning all about the chemistry of food along with us!


2 responses to “Chemistry of Life / Being an Educated Consumer

  1. What an attractive class! : D

  2. Wait, so you guys are still gonna post entries, right? 😦 I really like this page!

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