As a nation, our interest in cooking is fast becoming an obsession. In the past few years, many television chefs have risen to celebrity status, and cooking programmes like Come Dine With Me and Masterchef have inspired a spate of ambitious home cookery across the nation. Being a biologist, I’ve noticed that this fascination with food is just as common amongst us scientists — there’s always a homemade cake or two at the weekly Impact Science meeting, and as far as I know, the Medsoc bake sale table in the QMC foyer is a permanent fixture.
This isn’t surprising — good cooking and good science both involve following instructions, accurate measurements, creative thinking and a good grasp of chemistry for a (hopefully) satisfactory end result. But what if you find tasty cakes and impressive three-course meals are more your thing than abstract scientific data? Well, good news — there’s an emerging field of science, known as Molecular Gastronomy, which studies the processes and mechanisms behind cooking and our enjoyment of food. What’s more, the Food Sciences department here at the University of Nottingham is a hub of research in this area.
The Flavour Sciences group and its spinoff company Flavometrix — headed by Andy Taylor, Professor of Flavour Technology — uses a variety of weird and wonderful Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory-esque technologies to investigate the molecular basis of how we perceive and enjoy flavours. The technological crux of their research is the ‘MS-Nose’, a device that measures components of flavours and odours released from food around the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity; these are responsible for our perception of taste and smell. Amusingly, the nature of the MS-Nose requires the subject to insert it into both nostrils. This allows the MS-Nose to identify the chemical compounds that make certain foods taste the way they do, and, crucially, what makes them different or similar to one another.
The potential applications of this knowledge are limited only by the imaginations of those working in the food industry. The group advises off-beat TV chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant and producer of culinary curiosities such as snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream. Blumenthal and Taylor recently both financially assisted Rachel Edwards-Stuart, a PhD project student, who spent time in both the Fat Duck kitchens and the University labs, helping to improve Heston’s wacky flavour combinations. For example, the restaurant serves a dish containing caviar and white chocolate; although this combination seems incompatible, the two share a group of molecules that make them go well together.
Flavometrix propose a wealth of other uses for such information, including improving the flavours of healthier foods (which can be pretty lacking in the taste department), and analysing the effect of packaging and cooking methods on the taste of ready-made supermarket meals. Another one of Edwards-Stuart’s projects focussed on finding a replacement for gelatine, which is derived from animals: the challenge there is to make jelly, everyone’s childhood party favourite, more vegetarian-friendly without compromising its wibbly-wobbly properties.
Ultimately, these tasty acts of wizardry have a seemingly bright future; everyone enjoys good food, and the current culture of accomplished home cookery is still flourishing. If you are passionate about food, scientifically minded and nearing the end of your degree, molecular gastronomy is an avenue worth investigating — it might just offer a PhD project or a career that you can really sink your teeth into.