Futures

A Taste of Futures Past: The Rise and Fall of Spun Soy Protein

(This post is based on "Space-Age Flavors and Population Bombs: Flavor Research, Synthetic Foods, and Technologies of Abundance in Cold War America," a paper I presented at the end of April at "The Invention of Food," a conference hosted by the Institute for Historical Research at UTAustin.

Blog! It's been so long! So much has happened since I last ruminated within these margins! I finally finished my dissertation, and defended it at the beginning of May, so Doctor Berenstein is officially in, and ready to address all sorts of metaphysical and spiritual ailments related to flavor, its authenticity, or its absence. 

In my first post-PhD-in-flavor blog post, I wanted to visit one of the food stories I didn't get to tell in my dissertation, a story from the period of time dubbed the "era of flavor" by one postwar food technologist: the 1960s. The arrival of the "era of flavor" depended, in part, on things without flavor — on bland materials and insipid food subtrates that were, quite literally, made to be flavored.  

This post is about one of those bland materials, a new kind of high-tech substance: spun soy protein. In the late 1960s, spun soy protein was a "food of the future," one of a new generation of textured vegetable proteins, developed as a delicious solution for a world that seemed on the verge of a catastrophic protein shortage. But although the spun protein future never quite arrived, its legacy is still with us today.   

Does this proteinaceous soybean gauze hold the potential to save the world, without sacrificing deliciousness? Read on to find out!

Make Way For the Soymobile

This story really begins in the 1930s, with Henry Ford, automaker, soybean believer, chemurgist. "Chemurgy" was a sort of technocratic alliance between agriculturalists and industrialists, a movement that perceived America’s farmland as a source not only of food, but also of raw materials for modern industry. Chemists devised new uses for agricultural surplus and farm wastes: wallpaper and glue from peanut shells; synthetic rubbers from soybeans and corn; ethanol fuels from corn, barley, sweet potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes; milkweed-stuffed life preservers. These new industrial markets were supposed to keep farmers afloat during the lean years of the Depression, while also providing a foundation for national self-sufficiency and continuing prosperity in a world that increasingly seemed on the brink of another war.  

 From a 1934 issue of  Science and Mechanics.  Image source:  Treehugger blog.

From a 1934 issue of Science and Mechanics. Image source: Treehugger blog.

“Everything pertaining to an automobile has its origin in the earth,” explained one newspaper article in 1936, describing the Ford Motor Company's chemurgic research efforts. “There is no need, as Mr. Ford sees it, to exhaust the mines and forests if the material required can be grown on the farm.” Ford envisioned efficient farm-factories, where renewable materials could be grown, harvested, and processed into plastics, synthetic rubbers, and fuels, a future where his company would one day be in the business of “growing cars out of the ground.”

In particular, Ford placed a big bet on soy. Soy had been grown commercially in the U.S. since the 1920s, largely as a source of oils and animal feed, but Ford was particularly interested in its uses in phenolic plastics. The scientists at the soybean research laboratory at Ford's vast industrial compound in Dearborn, Michigan were tasked with developing new uses for soy oils and soy meals: in plastics, resins, lubricants, and fuels. Ford automobiles in the 1930s increasingly used soy-based materials in paints and shock absorbers, and featured soy-plastic buttons, knobs, and seats. This project culminated with the “soybean car,” a 1941 prototype whose chassis was (allegedly) made entirely from a soy-based plastic resin. Although the focus was on industrial research, Ford did not entirely ignore the edible potential of the soybean. A vegetarian, Ford was an avid believer in the vital powers of soyfoods. A smorgasborg of soyfoods — including soybean “steaks,” soy milk, and soybean coffee — accompanied the soybean car’s debut.

 Robert Boyer (left) and Henry Ford, with the soybean car. Is Boyer crinkling his nose at its mortuary smell? 

Robert Boyer (left) and Henry Ford, with the soybean car. Is Boyer crinkling his nose at its mortuary smell? 

One of the chemists working at the soy research laboratory in Dearborn was Robert Boyer. Boyer had developed a method for using protein extracted from soy meal— gritty, cakey stuff left over after the production of soy oil — and spinning it into fibers, which could be woven into textiles. Ford sometimes wore a suit made from this soy-wool blend — though the fabric, apparently, had a tendency to split. (If you bend over in a soy-wool suit, do so carefully.) The fiber was more practical in haberdashery; felted soy-rabbit fur supposedly made an excellent toque.

Ford died in 1946, and the Ford Model Soy never made it to production — derailed first by the Second World War, then by petrochemical-based plastics. (And also, perhaps, by its indelible “mortuary smell,” traces of formaldehyde that lingered in the resin.)

Boyer’s soy fibers, however, did persist — not as fabric, but as food.

 Henry Ford in his soy-blend suit, seated carefully on a haystack.  Image from Greg Grandin's book,  Fordlandia  . 

Henry Ford in his soy-blend suit, seated carefully on a haystack. Image from Greg Grandin's book, Fordlandia

Continuous Ribbons of Pure Protein

Boyer continued to work on spun proteins after the war, hoping to find a way to create a nutritious edible fiber from material destined for livestock feed or the trash heap. First, though, there was the problem of taste. Earlier attempts to make human foods out of defatted protein-rich soy meal had faltered; traces of soluble carbohydrates and other compounds gave the substance a disagreeably bitter “beany” flavor, and contributed to its unfortunate reputation for causing digestive distress. The introduction of highly refined food-grade soy protein isolates in the 1950s made it possible to produce spun soy fiber without the bitterness or the farting. Purified soy protein isolate produced fibers which were pale, bland, odorless, and highly digestible, an edible blank canvas primed for the application of flavor effects.   

Boyer received a patent for his protein-spinning process in the early 1950s, which he then licensed to various food manufacturers. The first taker was Worthington Foods, an Ohio company that made vegetarian foods primarily for Seventh-Day Adventist communities. Worthington introduced the first commercial spun soy protein product: Fri-Chik, chicken-flavored pre-cooked heat-and-serve patties that were available frozen or in cans.  

Larger food manufacturing and agribusiness companies, including Archer-Daniels-Midland, Swift & Co., and General Foods, licensed Boyer’s patent. But no company invested as much in the potential of spun protein as General Mills, which put Boyer's method at the heart of its synthetic foods research program. At its peak in the 1960s, General Mills’ Isolated Protein Research & Development Program employed more than 50 scientists and technicians, working on ways to scale up spun protein production and develop new kinds of commercial products. 

 General Mills' protein-spinning plant in Cedar Rapids. Image source:  Progress Thru Research,  vol 24, no 2, 1970-1. 

General Mills' protein-spinning plant in Cedar Rapids. Image source: Progress Thru Research, vol 24, no 2, 1970-1. 

In 1969, General Mills opened a new, multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art spun-protein plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Iowa was the nation’s largest soybean producer, and Cedar Rapids was a hub of advanced technical knowledge. Collins Radio, the principal supplier of radio and navigational equipment to the military and to NASA, had its headquarters in the city. The same community of highly trained electrical and mechanical engineers who produced the machines that guided satellites and spacecraft were invited to find jobs at the General Mills plant, designing, assembling, and maintaining the systems that would weave the foods of the future from humble defatted soymeal.

This description of protein-spinning that follows is based on accounts of General Mills’ operations.  First, refined soy protein isolate was blended into a proteinaceous slurry with the viscosity of honey; this was called the “dope.” The dope was then “spun”: pumped through a spinneret — a plate dotted with tiny holes — in an acid bath, which coagulated the proteins into fibrils. These fibrils were then stretched, becoming finer and stronger, to form continuous ribbons of protein.     

These ribbons were edible, but they were not yet food. At this stage, the fibrils were blended with fats, supplemental nutrients, colorings, flavorings, binders, and stabilizers, and molded into their final form: slices, crumbles, cubes, or chunks. These could then be dehydrated, giving them an almost limitless shelf-life; or incorporated into packaged “convenience” foods, frozen or canned, ready to heat and serve.

Almost every aspect of spun protein foods could be designed and shaped at will. By manipulating the thinness and length of the fibrils, as well as their orientation in the warp and woof of the food matrix, texture, tenderness, and chewiness could be calibrated to deliver the desired “bite.” Advances in flavor chemistry in the 1960s had illuminated the compounds that contributed to the distinctive flavors of raw and cooked meats; these new insights into the molecular relations of savoriness were incorporated into the flavorings that added sizzle and smoke to Kosher "bacon" and roastedness to Lenten "chicken." The nutritional profile and calorie count of spun protein foods could be tailored for different dietary requirements, such as those of diabetics, people with high cholesterol, or those on other special medical diets.

Bontrae manufacturing flowchart. Bontrae was General Mills' proprietary name for their spun protein substance. [Click to expand.] Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues: A New Food Concept," Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly, August 1966. Odell headed General Mills' Isolated Protein research program at their Minneapolis R&D center. 

“Boyer’s process makes it possible for the first time to fabricate food products according to a pre-set specification,” explained one marketing expert in 1969. This was food as plastic — moldable, malleable, versatile, made to spec, and shaped into virtually any imaginable form to suit any imaginable need. All that, and at a price (somewhat) below that of meat.

But spun protein’s plasticity and absence of inherent qualities also raised fundamental questions about its identity. What, exactly, was it? Was it imitation meat, meatless meat? Or was it an entirely new category of food, something unheralded? These were critical questions at a time when the FDA’s primary tool for regulating the food supply was by enforcing standards of identity, which minutely dictated the contents of food products and the names under which they could be sold.

 The varied guises of spun protein foods. Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues — A New Food Concept,"  Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly , August 1966.

The varied guises of spun protein foods. Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues — A New Food Concept," Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly, August 1966.

General Mills was, accordingly, cautious about how they referred to their new product. On the one hand, if the meat industry perceived spun soy protein as a threat, they could potential mobilize Congress and government agencies to force them to label their products “imitation,” which would doubtless affect both its reputation and sales. On the other hand, General Mills did not necessarily want to advertise that their product was made from soy, which had a less than appetizing reputation among postwar American consumers. Americans associated soy with animal feeds, not human foods, and the dispiriting memory of wartime soy-meats was still nauseatingly vivid for many.  “Abortive attempts in the past to market soy to the fickle U.S. consumer have caused food companies, despite their optimism, to move cautiously,” warned the marketing expert in 1969. “One or two fumbled marketing efforts could petrify consumer resistance.”

Advertisement and coupon for Bontrae from Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal, August 14, 1975. [Click to expand.] The advertisement emphasizes the savings, convenience, and health benefits that made Bontrae a better choice than actual meat, while promising consumers that they would not be sacrificing flavor. "They taste so much like real chicken and ham, we're willing to bet only your wallet can tell the difference." 

General Mills ultimately invented a name for their spun protein fiber, "Bontrae" — charmless pseudo-Latin cleansed of every hint of soy, utterly unsuggestive, perhaps deliberately. For a time, the company (unsuccessfully) petitioned the FDA to recognize Bontrae as a new kind of substance, rather than an imitation of other foods. “Bontrae foods technology creates products which have considerable similarity to traditional foods, such as meat, but these products are, in the truest sense, neither synthetic nor imitation,” explained William Reynolds, General Mills' Vice President for Technical Development, in 1969. To require Bontrae foods to be labeled "imitation" would be misleading. Neither synthetic nor imitation, Bontrae was Bontrae, and Bontrae could be anything.

In practice, however, General Mills used Bontrae in two distinct categories of products: as "meat analogs," and as meat extenders. 

Meat analogs were entirely fabricated products, complete on their own rather than ingredients in other foods. General Mills' first commercial Bontrae product — Bac*Os, introduced in late 1965 — is an example of a meat analog. Bac*Os was a hit, even if its substance remained something of a mystery. It also found its way into other products, such as Skippy Peanut Butter with Smokey Crisps, and Henri's Smokey Bits Salad Dressing — those smokey crisps and bits were spun protein. But Bac*Os was a condiment, not the cornerstone of a meal, and General Mills had bigger plans. In the early 1970s, General Mills introduced Bontrae chicken and Bontrae ham, urging consumers to look for these products at the fresh meat counter, and to use them in recipes instead of the real thing.   

Bontrae's second use was as a meat extender, blended with ground beef to reduce meal costs without diminishing nutritional value. Initially, the main market for textured protein meat extenders were institutions, not households. When the National School Lunch Program approved the addition of textured soy protein to meat dishes in 1971, it was a boon to spun protein manufacturers like General Mills and also makers of a competing product, extruded textured soy flours. (How many of my beloved elementary school sloppy joes were bulked with textured soy?) But a consumer market for these products was envisioned as well. When meat prices spiked in the early 1970s, leading to a consumer boycott in 1973 to protest high costs, textured protein-beef blends were test-marketed in grocery stores. If prices for the real thing continued to rise, General Mills hoped that shoppers would be willing to swap some of their beef for Bontrae.   

Let Them Eat Bac*Os

The production of spun protein foods was not just a commercial venture. It was presented as an urgent global necessity. Since the end of the Second World War, a growing chorus of scientists, leaders, and experts warned of an impending planetary crisis. The world's population was expanding exponentially, but its resources were only increasing arithmetically. The "population bomb," as it came to be called, would lead to the kind of catastrophic food shortages predicted more than a century earlier by economist Robert Malthus.

In particular, the global food crisis was depicted as a critical shortage of one macronutrient: protein. This aspect of the crisis was already evident in the developing world; in the early 1960s, it was widely reported that half the world's population was undernourished.  Images of brown and black children, bellies distended by the protein-deficiency disease kwashiorkor, became the familiar symbols of global hunger. 

 Scientists at the 1948 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science fretted that technological advances . New York Times, September 15, 1948. 

Scientists at the 1948 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science fretted that technological advances . New York Times, September 15, 1948. 

New agricultural technologies, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, could only go so far, experts warned. And coercive population control measures were out of step with the liberal values that the United States aspired to project upon the Cold War geopolitical stage. For many who studied the problem, the best hope for humanity seemed to lie not in finding new land to cultivate, nor in increasing the yield per acre, but in developing new sources of food, and especially, new sources of protein. Chlorella algae farms, protein powders ground from the by-catch ("trash fish")of the Atlantic fisheries , proteins and fats synthesized from petrochemicals: all of these were considered as possible solutions. 

The technology of protein spinning was deeply embedded in this world-saving discourse; its versatility was crucial to estimates of its potential. Soy was not necessary; edible protein could be spun from the defatted meal of many oilseed crops, such as cottonseed, peanut, safflower, and alfalfa. “Indigenous, often wasted protein resources in technologically underdeveloped countries could be tapped and utilized,” explained A.D. Odell, the head of General Mills’ Isolated Protein Program, in a 1965 article.

In other words, protein spinning technology could be imported into countries where it was most needed, and adapted to the task of salvaging untapped local protein supplies. Even better, its products could be molded into the familiar guise of traditional foods. As C.G. King, the head of the Nutrition Foundation, explained in a 1961 speech to the food industry, when developing products for global food aid, “one has to be very sensitive to their flavor traditions, not our flavor traditions.” Fish protein concentrates, dried chlorella algae, and other supplemental nutritional aids were developed to deliver calories or protein, but encountered huge resistance when it came to their taste. This did not have to be the case with spun protein, which could be made to conform with cultural ideas of deliciousness. “Local taste preferences are readily met with," wrote Odell, "and acceptance would seem assured, due to the gustatorial gratification which they provide, as opposed to a powder or amorphous concentrate.” Unlike of a packet of goo or a fishy, protein-boosted flour, spun protein could offer both salvation and gratification.  

I have found no evidence that spun protein products were ever used in global food aid (which doesn't mean they weren't; my research into this is far from exhaustive.) In the 1960s, hunger and malnutrition was not yet widely recognized as a problem within the United States; its victims were elsewhere, distant receptacles of pity in the developing world. Yet the world protein shortage is repeatedly, insistently invoked, both in accounts of General Mills' spun protein research program and Cedar Rapids factory, as well as in the synthetic products it spawned. 

 Advertisement for General Mills products, featuring Betty Crocker, trustworthy symbol of unfussy competence, touting Bontrae as "a food of the future made with vegetable protein." From  Woman's Day , March 1969.  

Advertisement for General Mills products, featuring Betty Crocker, trustworthy symbol of unfussy competence, touting Bontrae as "a food of the future made with vegetable protein." From Woman's Day, March 1969.  

Man: "What's Bontrae?"

General Mills: "It's General Mills' name for a food of the future made with vegetable protein."

Under the familiar gaze of Betty Crocker, a 1969 advertisement for Bac*Os explained Bontrae not in terms of its contents, but in terms of its commitments: “General Mills’ investment in this important new food is your assurance of another natural source of high quality protein for your children and their children and the world.”

Is this what it means for something to be a “food of the future"? A technological novelty, but also a necessity or even an inevitability; contributing to a better world while delivering convenience, value, and quality to the consumer.   

The homemaker sprinkling Bac*Os over deviled eggs or chicken-noodle casserole was thus at the leading edge of a wave of innovation that could, quite literally, save humanity. With each smoky, scarlet flake, she claimed her seat at the table of the new food future, one that encompassed not only her own family, but her children’s children, succeeding generations, and the children of the world.

The End of the End of the World

The spun-protein soyfood future did not arrive as planned. General Mills abruptly shut down its Cedar Rapids spun protein operations in 1976, after Bontrae sales failed to materialize. The company sold its protein spinning equipment to Dawson Mills, a Minnesota food processor, and licensed the Bontrae process to Central Soya of Illinois. Both companies would subsequently abandon spun protein manufacturing in the early 1980s.

I spoke with a former maintenance engineer at General Mills, who was involved in disassembling the spun protein production line and converting the plant to cereal manufacturing. (Honey Nut Cheerios, General Mills’ perennial best-seller, was first produced there in 1979.) Forty years later, he still marveled at the sophistication of the machinery that he had taken apart. The spinnerets were platinum, he recalled, and so finely perforated that they were translucent when you held them up to the light.   

He had had a chance to taste some of the Bontrae foods, and told me that the ham- and bacon- flavored products were actually quite good. Employees at the time blamed Bontrae’s failure on its use as a “meat extender,” blended with ground beef to reduce food costs without diminishing nutritional value. Perhaps inevitably, institutional food service customers — hospitals, nursing homes, and school dining halls — tended to ignore the recommended ratio and overload the mixture with soy, with dismal results for eaters and for the product’s reputation.

Although soy protein products continued to be manufactured on a large scale, most of these were textured soy flours, such as Archer-Daniel-Midland’s Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), produced by thermoplastic extrusion — cheaper to manufactured than spun protein, but also less versatile. (At some point, General Mills also began producing Bac*Os by extrusion, rather than using spun protein.) With few exceptions, textured soy flours generally did not aim for mass markets, but sought a foothold as unsung, imperceptible ingredients in other foods; as components of animal feed; or in niche vegetarian and health-food contexts.   

Despite its lack of commercial success, I think Bontrae (and spun protein) was a turning point, prefiguring the efforts of today's synthetic food purveyors, companies such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Hampton Creek. These are start-up-style ventures that fashion themselves not as infant versions of stodgy old-school food processors like General Mills, but as tech companies that just happen to make food. (In a certain sense, using their image as tech companies to launder their work as food processors.) But, as this story shows, food processors such as General Mills are also, perhaps fundamentally, tech companies. Bontrae was food as technology. 

It’s difficult for us now to imagine just how radical it was to conceive of Bontrae as a mass-market product, something that the average supermarket shopper pushing her groaning cart down the aisles of Kroger's or the A&P, circa 1973, may have paused to compare with livid lozenges of chicken breasts or cellophane-wrapped pork chops. Consider that for most of modern history, “fake” meats (and other “imitation” foods) were low-status, undesirable goods. They were associated either with the deprivations of war or of extreme poverty, or found limited sales among vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions. Bontrae as a meat extender fit into this conceptual model, a means of managing in straitened circumstances, making do with less.  

But Bontrae, as a meat analog, was made to be tasted. Its deliberately designed texture and flavor complemented its various functional advantages — its ease of preparation, alleged nutritional virtues, stability, and versatility. Its lower cost compared to meat, in this scenario, was a virtue that was also a weakness, an advantage that also confirmed the image of cheapness and lower quality that consumers were prone to suspect it of. 

In this way, Bontrae imperfectly embodied a way of thinking about synthetic foods that was just beginning to emerge — not as substitutes for traditional commodities, but as innovative technologies with distinct virtues and unique possibilities. As Odell, the head of General Mills' isolated protein program, put it in 1969: “There are almost no theoretical limitations to the scope of reproducibility or to the creation of new, never before considered categories for the future… Perhaps it is not too bizarre to speculate that a major future role of animal tissues will be as flavoring substances for vegetable derived tissues.”

One day, perhaps, meat would be nothing but a sort of seasoning, sprinkled like Bac*Os over a varied and limitless Bontrae cuisine, which offered unimagined pleasures and savory sensations to a world amply sustained by spun vegetable proteins. 

This line of reasoning did not prevail in the 1970s. Worries about the “population bomb” faded as the predicted cataclysm failed to materialize. American meat did not become rarer and more expensive; it became more abundant and cheaper. But even as the terms in which we understand the global food problem have shifted from "population" to "climate," we (meaning, Western, prosperous eaters) continue to be attuned to the possibility of crisis. General Mills had to connect the dots between its synthetic food product and the dwindling global supply of protein. Today, messages about the virtues of “sustainability” are inescapable, ornamenting shopping bags, reusable water bottles, and corporate and sincere swag, even as the White House has staked out a stubbornly unfashionable position on the matter.

The new generation of “meat analogs,” the burgers that bleed and the tender chickeny strips of pea protein, are Bontrae’s heirs. These meatless meats are not designed primarily for those who cannot or will not eat meat because of its cost or their scruples. As Patrick Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, told Quartz earlier this year: “Our definition of success is: we score zero points if a vegan or vegetarian buys our burger. The more of a meat lover they are, the more they are our target customer.” 

These exquisitely engineered technologies are foods of choice — and specifically, of the enlightened choice of economic elites. Perhaps one of the reasons that Impossible Foods and its ilk seem to be succeeding where Bontrae faltered is that these companies do not feel the need to undercut “real” meat on price. The value-add of the “socially responsible choice” is worth more to us now. We will pay for the luxury of moral righteousness, especially when we also do not have to pay a price in flavor.

The promise that connects Bontrae and Impossible Foods is this: we can have crisis without austerity. These foods of the future may be marked by necessity, but they aren’t the foods of last resort, the scraps we sustain ourselves with as we eke out our final days on a warming, crowded planet. These are foods designed for pleasure as well as sustenance, for convenience as well as survival.  

FURTHER READING: 

This only scratches the surface of soyfoods and textured vegetable protein history. This is a super fascinating topic, and I hope someone is working on a big beautiful book about it. For anyone who is interested in this (and why wouldn't you be?), there is an incredible online resource, the SoyInfo Center, the apparent lifework and labor of love of William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. These two assiduous and intrepid researchers have documented not only the cultural and agricultural history of soy cultivation and traditional soyfoods, but also its industrial and technological history. They have chosen to make a staggering amount of material freely available online, and I drew heavily on their work and documentation in putting this together. 

For those of you who are looking for a broader consideration of "foods of the future," as well as algae burgers, and the perennial threat of a Malthusian crisis, I recommend Warren Belasco's 2006 book, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. 

Things of Science and the Flavor of Nature: MSG in 1950

My brilliant fellow fellow here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Deanna Day, recently shared this incredible object with me:

“Things of Science” was a nifty subscription service created in 1940 by the nonprofit organization Science Service: The Institution for the Popularization of Science. Each month, subscribers — ahem, “Friends of Science” — would receive a treasure-box filled with materials and experiments, specimens and their meanings. These ranged from industrial materials (ball and roller bearings, synthetic rubber) to natural history objects (fossils, ferns, sea shells); from the sublime (stars and constellations, miniature flowers) to the mundane (poultry byproducts, highway safety) to the mysterious (soapless soap). (You can check out a semi-complete list of Things of Science on this page maintained by MIT professor George Moody.)    

Unit No. 116 — the “Taste Enhancers” Unit — was mailed out in June 1950. Intended to teach students about the use and manufacture of flavorings, the unit also delivers some fascinating lessons about how flavor was being transformed under the scientific and technical guidance of the US food industry. As the instructional booklet included in the package explained, while spices have played a role in human life since the dawn of civilization, shaping the wealth and destines of nations and driving voyages of discovery, in 1950, we stand at the advent of a new, American-led, era:

“The scientific control of flavoring is essentially an American specialty at the present time. The use of spices abroad remains an art rather than a science. The standardization of flavors in this country was necessitated by the tremendous progress in the development of the numerous branches of the processed food industry.”

Opening up the blue-and-yellow box, Friends of Science would discover five specimens of different “taste enhancers:” three glass vials containing seasoned salt, “soluble pepper,” and “cream of spice cinnamon;” a glassine envelope containing four tablets of an artificial sweetener (sucaryl sodium); and a printed cardboard envelope containing a plastic baggie of Ac’cent-brand 99+% Pure Monosodium Glutamate. Each specimen was accompanied by a corresponding “museum card,” for proper display in one’s personal collection of “things of science.”

thingsofsciencetasteenhancerspecimens.jpg

These five substances illuminated different aspects of the “control of flavoring” made possible by new scientific and technological knowledge about flavor, developed under the stewardship of U.S. food manufacturers. So, for instance, while “crude cinnamon sticks” and black peppercorns vary unpredictably in their flavoring potential, “cream of spice cinnamon” and “soluble pepper” are standardized, processed seasonings, reliably producing “the same flavoring strength and quality at all times.” The non-caloric sweetness offered by sucaryl sodium can be savored by diabetics, for whom sugar (and its comforts) is otherwise off-limits.

The monosodium glutamate (MSG) included in the unit is what I’ll be talking about here. MSG, a chemical largely unfamiliar to most ordinary consumers in the US circa 1950, had to explain itself and its uses more fully. I’ve recently been researching and writing about the "early history" of MSG in the US — in particular, tracing how the chemical was manufactured, marketed, and made valuable to food manufacturers and consumers in the late 1940s and 1950s. MSG's appearance in "Things of Science" is a remarkable artifact of the introduction of this substance to the American consuming public.

MSGthingsofsciencemuseumcard.jpg

The story of MSG as told by “Things of Science” follows the same narrative as its story of cinnamon and pepper: an old (Eastern) substance transformed and made new by the scientific and technical ingenuity of American industry.     

While “ORIENTALS [sic] HAVE USED MSG FOR CENTURIES” — all caps in the original — they only knew it in its “crude form,” as a substance of “low purity,” laced with other amino acids, which contributed to the false belief that the seasoning had a meaty flavor. But, by 1950, improvements to the heavy industrial processes used to manufacture MSG from wheat gluten, corn gluten, and waste products of beet sugar manufacturing meant that the chemical available on the US market was more than 99% pure. So while MSG may have its “origins” in Asia, “only when the pure product became available was its unique property of accentuating natural food flavors and eliminating undesirable qualities fully appreciated.”

This veers from strict accuracy on a few points. First, the presentation of MSG as an ancient Eastern seasoning is not really true. Certainly, soy sauce, fermented soybean paste, and dashi — ingredients common in Japanese and Chinese cuisines — are natural sources of glutamates, but by the same token, the free amino acid is present in all sorts of other foods, including Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese, which are hardly “Oriental.” The manufacture of MSG as a chemical food additive only began in the twentieth century, when Kikunae Ikeda, a German-trained Japanese chemist, succeeded in isolating monosodium glutamate from kombu dashi in 1908; it became a commercial product (initially under the trade name “Aji-no-Moto”) the following year. Getting Japanese consumers to adopt the new seasoning into their diets took several more years. (See Jordan Sand’s “Short History of MSG” in the Fall 2005 Gastronomica for more, including how Japanese manufacturers marketed MSG in China.) Moreover, it didn’t take American scientists to appreciate that the substance had “unique” properties. From the outset, Ikeda insisted that the sensation produced by MSG was distinct from the other four “basic” taste sensations (sour, salty, bitter, sweet); a sensation that he called umami.   

But what I want to focus on here is this claim: MSG’s “unique property of accentuating natural food flavors.” Or, as explained elsewhere in the booklet, MSG “modifies existing flavor without adding anything new.”

This is the key. This explanation of MSG’s utility — as a means of intensifying, enhancing, and improving a food’s existing, “natural” flavors — was central to its acceptance and proliferation in the US food supply in the post-war period.     

Earlier efforts to sell MSG in the US had fizzled. Attempts in the 1920s by Aji-no-Moto to sell MSG to American consumers had failed to gain traction, and initial plans to manufacture MSG in the US in the 1930s were intended to supply growing Asian demand, not to develop a domestic market for the chemical. As long as MSG was perceived primarily as an Asian product, its compatibility with American foods and tastes was not self-evident. As Warren Belasco describes in Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, many Westerners perceived Asian diets as bland, monotonous, impoverished, meat-poor; Asian cuisine seemed to represent the diminished gastronomic pleasures of the world after a Malthusian crisis. Understood as an artificial “meaty” flavor, then, MSG’s purpose in Asian foods seemed comprehensible — those poor people’s foods needed it. Some early major uses of MSG in the US reflect this understanding. During World War II, MSG was an important component in the dehydrated soups sent overseas as part of the Lend-Lease program — emergency food supplies for our allies; it also incorporated into US Army rations. MSG was seen as an economical fix for these low-cost, flavor-deficient foods.    

But in order to make a market for MSG in the post-war US, manufacturers had to redefine its status and recast its utility. No longer a chemical salve that made cheap, impoverished foods minimally acceptable, it was presented as a substance that had a place in the high-quality and plentiful foods of prosperity. In particular, MSG manufacturers advertised the chemical as a sort of scientific “white magic”: an industrial product that promised to erase the effects of industrialization on foods by restoring and enhancing “natural” “freshness.” It was not a scary and dubious new chemical, but an “old” seasoning, albeit one refined to white, free-flowing purity by American ingenuity. As a 1952 advertisement for Ac’cent (from the journal Food Technology) put it: “There are wonderful natural flavors already in the foods you process.” No longer would flavor need to be sacrificed to convenience, shelf-life, and price. The message to processors was: MSG added value by ensuring that nothing was lost. This is the context in which MSG appears as a “thing of science.”

The student-scientist encountering MSG for the first time in “Things of Science” was given a couple of “experiments” to perform with the sample of MSG. In the first, students were asked to take note of the persistent “mouth-tingling” sensation produced when a pinch of MSG was placed on the tongue, and the increased salivation that the chemical triggered. The second purported to demonstrate how that the addition of MSG intensified the perception of saltiness of a salt-and-water solution. But after these two simple tasks, the booklet defers to the sample of Ac’cent, directing students to consult the package for more ways “to experiment for yourself with its effect on various foods.”

Duly turning to the package of Ac’cent, the student was encouraged to “try this scientific magic in foods,” offering a series of “experiments” to demonstrate MSG’s effects:

Take two hamburger patties. Sprinkle one with 1/4 teaspoon of MSG a few minutes before cooking. Then “note the increased natural flavor” of the burger with pure MSG. Dust peas, green beans, or corn with 1/8 teaspoon of MSG; comparison with the same vegetables bare of the chemical will show how MSG “increased flavor appeal.” Add MSG to soup and you’ll surely notice a “pronounced improvement.” As for fish: “You will find that it brings out and intensifies the delicate flavors of this tender protein food.”

The results are foregone conclusions, and it’s no surprise to find these very same “experiments” in advertisements for Ac’cent that ran in Life magazine, the New York Times, and other consumer publications. The “scientific magic” of MSG was that it brought out “more natural flavors” in everything from appetizers to casseroles, without adding any flavor, aroma, or color of its own. Processing alienated food from its essence, flavor; MSG reconciled industrial processes with food’s “natural” origins.

Makesfoodflavorssing.jpg

But MSG’s effects went beyond that. As the slogan printed on the package crowed, Ac’cent “makes food flavors sing.”

Let that remarkable tagline sink in for a moment. It is as though, with the addition of a small amount of MSG, foods were induced to a state of flavorful self-expression, to irrepressibly sing out the aria of their most authentic selves. As a 1954 advertisement from the Wall Street Journal put it: “Chicken tastes more like chicken when you add Ac’cent!” Natural flavors: now in high-fidelity stereo. And, just as high-fidelity sound promised listeners the illusion of the orchestra in the living room, MSG promised the illusion of the garden on your plate.

 From  The Wall Street Journal , April 2, 1954, p.7.

From The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1954, p.7.

Here I’ll quote another advertisement, which I’ve found so far in both in the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times in July 1951:

“You have the power to make vegetables taste garden-fresh. Just add Ac'cent, that masterly seasoning millions of cooks use to give back the just-picked flavor that vegetables, when they are even a day away from the garden, have begun to lose.”    

But turning back to the MSG in “Things of Science:” “Pure monosodium glutamate is good for you and your food,” the package proclaims. “It offers more food enjoyment for everyone.”

More happy love! More happy happy love! MSG emerges from this presentation as a chemical allied with both truth (authentic, natural flavors) and beauty (increased enjoyment, increased pleasure), with the natural and its superlative enhancement. The chemical's effects, then, aren’t just material — retaining the flavor quality of processed foods — but psychological — increasing the consumer’s enjoyment of them.  

So what was Ac'cent's MSG doing in “Things of Science”? The "Friends of Science" who received the unit were being courted not only as future food engineers who might one day use the product in food processing, but as potential vectors for the chemical into the home kitchen. MSG production capacity in the US doubled after World War II, and MSG manufacturers were eager to expand their reach into the lucrative consumer marketplace. In Japan and China, MSG was a successful consumer product — elegant glass bottles of Aji-no-Moto graced dinner tables — but in the US, Mrs. Housewife had not yet found a place for the “third shaker” on her table-top.   

The inclusion and presentation of MSG in this “Things of Science” unit was very clearly part of the marketing strategy for Ac’cent, whose parent company, International Minerals & Chemical Company, was the largest domestic producer of MSG at the time. Although the other specimens in the box were also contributed by manufacturers, none of the other containers were explicitly branded, much less covered with suggested uses, inducements, and advertising slogans. (Promoting MSG among students was also not an American innovation; according to Jordan Sand, between 1922 and 1937, Aji-no-Moto distributed samples of their product and a cookbook to all female college students in Japan at graduation.) And the marketing influence was not restricted to the packaging of the MSG sample. Large portions of the instructional leaflet text directly quote (without attribution) material on glutamate published by Stanley Cairncross and Loren Sjostrom, chemists at Arthur D. Little, Inc., the consulting firm hired  by International Minerals & Chemical Company to study Ac’cent’s market potential.

In my dissertation, I go on to talk about how efforts to account for and describe the “glutamate effect” produced by MSG shaped subsequent flavor research and development programs in the food industry. In particular, research into the properties of MSG by the Arthur D. Little, Inc. led its flavor laboratory to develop a novel technique for describing the sensory effects of flavor, the Flavor Profile Method, aspects of which were widely adopted by industry in product development. One of the new capabilities of this technique was that it allowed for a representation of total flavor “amplitude” — the intensity of flavor that a food delivered. That is, the things that MSG did to our perceptions of so-called "natural" flavor in food — boost, blend, amplify — were figured in this model as primary, desirable qualities for flavor in general. The question of flavor, then, became not only a question of what but of how much.  The success of MSG also sparked new physiological research into food chemicals — the search for other flavor “potentiators” (a term borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry), ingredients that affected the flavor of food by altering our sensations and perceptions.  

MSG didn’t cause these changes to occur — as with everything in history, it’s tied together with so many other technical, social, material, cultural changes — but it was a catalyst. Though never fully successful as a consumer pantry staple, its widespread adoption by the food processing industry was both a sign and a symptom of broader transformations in the relationship between Americans and their food, as well as their ideas of the sensory meaning of "natural." And so, the dawn of the so-called “Golden Age of Processed Foods,” this crucial chemical emerges, simultaneously a modern “thing of science” and a specimen of old “Oriental” magic, an industrial product that somehow enhanced natural effects.

"Eat the contents. Eat the jar."

Another entry in the strange and wonderful history of edible containers: the Fruitainer. Made by the Continental Fruit Company of Chicago, this "new taste treat" comprised orange honey jelly and citrus marmalade in an edible "natural fruit shell" made from the reconstituted, dried exocarps of oranges and grapefruits.  According to Food Industries  (May 1940, p. 62), it offered a "convenient and economical outlet for otherwise almost useless byproducts."

"Consumers like the package because it adds interest to the contents and solves the disposal problem," claimed Food Industries. I can't judge how much "interest" it adds, but you're still going to need a trash can: the Fruitainer itself is wrapped in cellophane, and rests upon a bed of tissue paper, nestled within a cardboard container. Instructions are included (and, apparently, needed). Bon appetit!

 Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found  here.

Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found here.

Contents and Containers: Edible Meat Packaging, 1938

A recent America's Test Kitchen podcast on foods of the future featured the unflappable Christopher Kimball interviewing Harvard engineering professor and La Laboratoire mastermind David Edwards. Kimball seemed most taken with Edward's Wikifoods project – an edible packaging material that allows you to have your cake, and eat its container too. 

By creating a dense layer of electrostatically charged food particles, Edwards has produced an "edible skin" that seals food from its environment, just as the peel of an apple maintains the fruit's apple-y integrity. Right now, it appears that the only application of this is the  "Wikipearl": a glob of Stonyfield yogurt swaddled in a mochi-like envelope, available at selected Whole Foods. But there are bigger plans. For instance: What if you could eat your water bottle after drinking the water? In his interview, Kimball seemed in awe of this new way to expiate one of the sins of modern consumerism, the piles of trash we relentlessly leave behind.   

Edwards is an able pitchman for the novelty of Wikifoods. As he boasted to the Boston Globe"It's the first organic packaging ever." 

Not so fast, though. Reducing packaging waste by making the container part of the thing consumed seems awfully in line with current concerns about sustainability, and our faith in the ability of smart design to "solve" the flaws of our febrile and overburdened modern age. But I would be remiss in my job as a historian of technology if I didn't point out: it's been done before. 

Skimming through a 1938 issue of Food Industries, a trade journal for folks in the food processing business, I came across an item in their monthly "New Packages and Products" column titled: "Edible Package for Meat."

Anticipating Edwards by almost 80 years, I present for your edification "Gelafinish," from Wilson & Co, makers of of "ready-to-serve" meats, including 'Tender Made' boneless ham, liver loaf, sandwich loaf, spiced ham loaf, "etc." 

Gelafinish in action, from Food Industries, September 1938, p. 506. If you look closely, you can see the writing on the ham: Wilson's Tender Made Ham, Gelatin Dipped, Ready to Serve...

During processing, a thin transparent film of Gelafinish is lacquered over the surface of the meaty loaf. According to Food Industries, "this film becomes a part of the meat, sealing in flavor and natural juices."  It is also imprinted with the product's brand name, meaning you no longer have to guess about the maker of the liver-loaf; each slice proclaims itself on its glossy exterior. But "product identification on every slice, improved appearance and sealed-in flavor" are not the only advantages of Gelafinish. Because gelatin is a by-product of the company's meat-processing operations, Gelafinish reduces waste and recycles.

As a 1941 ad put it, Gelafinish "seals in all the juicy ham goodness" and "makes each slice sparkle on your plate." How could anyone resist?  

I point this out not to diminish the seriously cool work of David Edwards, and I am honestly looking forward to dining on unanticipated food stuffs at his new Kendall Square venture, Cafe ArtScience, the next time fate or archives lure me to Cambridge. But to overstate the disruptive novelty of edible packaging obscures how neatly this idea fits into the longer history of processed foods and food technologies. Finding an imprinted loaf of meat-and-meat-additives at Whole Foods seems nearly unimaginable, but what makes a Wikifood more attuned to that store's "green" sensibilities than Gelafinish? Wikifood may be "inspired by nature," but can it really be said to be more "natural"? Why does one product seem to us to be the corruption of food by technology, and the other to be its salvation? 

Are Teeth Necessary? Chewing on the Food of the Future

There's been a cluster of recent articles about Soylent, the Silicon Valley open-source pap that is supposed to be the perfect fuel for knowledge-workers' ceaseless sedentary labors. "What if you never had to worry about food again?" is Soylent's slogan, and the product promises to resolve all our nagging food anxieties. Not only: what's for dinner? But also: is it good for me? Will it make me fat? Does it wreck the environment or exploit migrant farm workers?  Will it get crumbs on my keyboard, and make me look conspicuously sad and slovenly as I eat yet another meal at my desk? Soylent is a powder (either purchased from the company or DIY) that, when mixed with water and oil, forms a nutritious beige slurry - allegedly capable of providing sustenance for hours of uninterrupted, untroubled, supremely focused labor.

But in all the chatter about the resultant mephitic farts and "the end of food," I haven't heard much said about how Soylent revises the actual mechanics of eating. It is a chew-less food, and this places it in a particular tradition of techno-scientific "foods of the future." The company's name, of course, is an explicit (either ironic or ill-considered) reference to the eponymous edible in the film Soylent Green, a nutritious wafer allegedly derived from algae, but which we all know by now is people. But other, earlier science-fictional precursors to this kind of all-in-one food product are perhaps better models for Soylent's particular material ideology.  

 Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

For instance: Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. First serialized in the 1910s, Ralph gets hazed as one of the worst novels to have ever made it into print, and I suppose most people read it as a historical curiosity rather than with genuine relish. (Gernsback is the Luxembourgian immigrant credited with creating "science fiction" as a pulp magazine genre, which was initially a sideline to promote his radio-and-electrical hobbyist mail-order emporium. He's the guy the "Hugo Awards" are named for.)

 Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph, the scientist-hero of the story, is one of literature's most dogged and unflappable mansplainers. A rudimentary damsel-in-distress plot serves as the occasion for him to take his lady-love, Alice, on a guided tour of future New York. Total weather control? Sleep-learning? Solar-powered generators wirelessly transmitting energy? "Alomagnesium" roller skates (er, "tele-motor-coasters") for smooth gliding over crack-less "steelonium" sidewalks? They've got all the mod cons. Earth circa 2660 is a place where the forces of nature have been entirely subdued, and where all matter (and ether) has been organized to facilitate a particular kind of human design: maximally efficient, maximally automated, where form always follows function, and where waste of all kinds is assiduously eliminated (eg, the lossless conversion of solar to electrical energy; the time we once wasted sleeping now a time for productive learning).

Rob Rhinehart, the creator of Soylent, is but a stripling of twenty-five, yet his fixations seem to spring directly from this Progressive-era obsession with maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. The idea for Soylent occurred to him when he became frustrated by the time, labor, and expense necessary to feed himself adequately during the waning days of a failing start-up. An engineer by training, Rhinehart began to perceive food itself as inefficient, a poorly designed vehicle for the delivery of the chemical compounds that sustain life. As he puts it in Lizzie Widdicombe's fantastic New Yorker profile, "You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself... You need carbohydrates, not bread." Fruits and vegetables? Sure, they've got vitamins and minerals, but as a matter of fact they're "mostly water." And so he did research: streamlining life's necessities to a list of 35 essential vitamins and nutrients, and ordered the raw materials for his simplified, complete food off the Internet. It's got everything you need, nothing you don't.

For Rhinehart, food's inefficiencies begin at the source: agriculture. Farms, he explains, are "very inefficient factories" that require excessively strenuous and dangerous work from an impoverished underclass. Unlike slow-food advocates who prescribe a return to skilled, artisanal practices to restore dignity and meaning to farm work, Rhinehart believes that the solution is to increase mechanization and industrialization: "There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.” 

This is certainly a sentiment that Ralph would get on board with. Food in 2660 is grown in vast, machine-tended, accelerated-growth greenhouses, stimulated to rapid ripeness by artificial lights and electric currents. And when it's not grown, it's manufactured. Taking Alice on a tour of a synthetic food factory, Ralph proclaims: "Men of an inquisitive nature must have asked themselves the question for thousands of years, 'Why grow grass, let the cow eat the grass, digest it, and finally turn it into milk? Why not eliminate the cow entirely?'"  

But while I think Rhinehart would definitely be for eliminating the cow, he still concedes the social and emotional need for traditional meals, prepared with care, eaten in the company of others -- "recreational food," he calls this, arguing that Soylent actually makes these indulgences less fraught, heightens their pleasure and meaning, by taking the problem of mere sustenance off the table. Soylent provides everything you need, nothing you don't, so that when you do choose to chomp on larks and pavlovas, you needn't worry about ruining your diet. Your diet is taken care of.

In Ralph's world, on the other hand, the material consistency of food is as important as its nutritional composition. The future food in Ralph's world is exclusively chew-less. When Ralph escorts Alice to a "Scientificafé," he assures her, "I think you will prefer it to the old-fashioned masticating places." Crucially, the "scientific food" served at these restaurants is available exclusively in liquefied form. Chewing (or, as Ralph invariably puts it, "masticating") is just another inefficiency, one that technoscience has rendered no longer necessary.   

Let's accompany Ralph and Alice on their date at the Scientificafé, shall we? Before entering the dining room, they tarry in the Appetizer, "a large room, hermetically closed," where pages from humor magazines are projected on the walls. When Alice grows peckish, Ralph explains: "The air in here is invigorating, being charged with several harmless gases for the purpose of giving you an appetite before you eat -- hence its name!"

After being gassed into a proper state of hunger, they then proceed to the "main eating salon," white-and-gold luxe in international moderne style. There are no waiters, no attendants, and the room is silent save for a "muffled, far-off, murmuring music." The diners recline in leather armchairs, in front of a complicated silver board at whose side hangs a flexible tube capped by a silver nozzle, resting in disinfectant solution.

You feed through the tube. "Meat, vegetables, and other eatables, were all liquefied and were prepared with utmost skill to make them palatable." The silver board lists the day's offerings, diners push buttons to make their selections, and the food begins to flow. A red button controls the flow-rate, and other buttons and switches allow the diner to adjust the temperature, or add salt, pepper, and spices to the slurry. Between courses, the tube rinses itself out with hot water.

There's no need to labor over your meal with a knife and fork; no need to chew each bite until it can safely be swallowed. Ergo, the book's narrator concludes, "eating had become a pleasure."   

The only problem to the widespread acceptance of scientific food was getting people to overcome their repulsion at sucking their meals through tubes. "Masticating" is old-fashioned, and like all "inherited habits," difficult to shake. At first, Ralph explains, people rejected the new mode of eating, regarding it "with a suspicion similar to a twentieth century European observing a Chinaman using his chop-sticks." It seemed "unaesthetic," and  "devoid of the pleasures of the old way of eating." But once people understood the physiological benefits -- how chew-less food "did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills," how it made people "stronger and more vigorous" -- they abandoned their irrational, sentimental attachment to mastication.  

health!.jpg

For Ralph (and Gernsback), the chief virtue of "scientific foods" is not their refined flavor nor even their nutritional content, but their "digestibility." Many scientifically-minded Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered dyspepsia (indigestion) to be a genuine health crisis -- "the great American plague," to quote Henry Finck, whose 1913 book, Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Good Health and Good Living, makes the epicurean case for chew, chew, chewing food to a proper liquefaction. Chewing each mouthful - up to a hundred times - was seen as an essential component of physical and mental hygiene. In the words of health reformer Horace Fletcher, "nature will castigate those who don't masticate," a gospel that was promoted widely during this period, including at John Harvey Kellogg's famous sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. 

Historian Christina Cogdell has chronicled the obsession with "smooth flow" in the Progressive era, showing how the Progressive virtue of frictionless efficiency manifested in different cultural realms: in concerns about the dangers of constipation, in the fad for streamlined design, and in eugenic policies and politics.

 From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

Constipation was understood to be "a disease of civilization," caused by excessive consumption of excessively rich or highly flavored foods, by impurities and contaminants, and by the habit of hastily "bolting down" food rather than civil, deliberate chewing.  But the consequences of constipation were more significant than any one individual's discomfort and bloating; they undermined the very health of the polity. To Progressive reformers, a stagnant colon was at the root of both moral and physical degeneracy, causing "autointoxication" that enfeebled, enervated, and exhausted the nation's citizens. Food should flow smoothly and at a consistent rate, as though down a factory assembly line, from mouth to anus. Dyspepsia, constipation, indigestion -- all of these things made us, as a society, less productive, less fit, less suited to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of modernity.    

And though we've left Fletcherism and its gospel of mastication more or less in the past, functional foods like Soylent stage a sort of return to this dream of a food perfectly suited for frictionless productivity - a food designed for the steady satiation of needs without the distracting stimulation of appetites. By design, Soylent has no particular flavor - which Rhinehart sees as unnecessary ornament, a compromise of the compound's commitment to functionalism. (The New Yorker quotes him: “I think the best technology is the one that disappears.... Water doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor, and it’s the world’s most popular beverage.”) On a steady diet of Soylent, Lizzie Widdicombe writes:

"As Rhinehart puts it, you 'cruise' through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: 'There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.' Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings." 

Who wouldn't want this? As a lady who sometimes (often) struggles to write, who owns not one but two copies of Getting Things Done, (neither of which I've read beyond the first chapter, naturally), and who, on the regular, postpones lunch for as long as possible, because of the sluggish lull of afternoon lackadaisy that always succeeds eating - this sounds pretty excellent. Like putting on Gernsback's isolator helmet, and concentrating "with ease at the subject at hand." And yet. And yet... Latent in this, I think -- and tracing back to at least some of those Progressive reformers, whose vigorous championship of rational design and smooth flow came from the most unimpeachable motives, produced monuments of exceeding beauty, but concealed some pretty ugly collateral -- is a suspicion of eating itself. A belief that food is somehow toxic, harmful, or impure -- and that our appetites and desires betray us rather than guide us toward well-being. That life's processes should be kept distinct from life's purposes, and to delight in one degrades the other. Who hasn't felt a pang of - something, maybe regret? - when encountering yet again the oft-cited fact, that we spend a third of our lives in bed? Food is a pleasure, but only the most shameless gourmandiser might calculate the amount of time spent eating, thinking about eating, talking about eating, getting ready to eat, resisting and indulging, without somehow feeling at a loss. Well, "enjoy every sandwich."

Technology mediates all aspects of life in Ralph's world, from stimulating the desire to eat (that Appetizer room) to mechanizing the labor of chewing - once done by teeth, now done by liquefying machines. But Gernsback does not go so far as to imagine whether these new technological accommodations will result in bodily alterations, new human physiologies emerging adaptively in response to the technological reshaping of the edible world.

Other science fiction writers - HG Wells, JBS Haldane (in his exercise in speculative eschatology, "The Last Judgment," from 1927) - did take the opportunity to imagine future iterations of human beings as conspicuously toothless. In a 1893 article in The World, Wells argued that technoscience would make chewing obsolete, rendering teeth vestigial and maladaptive. He explained:

"Science gives [mankind] the knife and fork. There is no reason why it should not masticate and insalivate his food. Does it now digest it with all the pepsin compounds? Teeth will disappear....

In some of the most highly developed crustaceans, the whole alimentary canal has solidified into a useless cord, because the animal is nourished by the food in which it swims. The man of the year one million will not be bothered with servants handing him things on plates which he will chew, and swallow, and digest. He will bathe in amber liquid which will be pure food, no waste matter assimilated through the pores of the skin. The mouth will shrink to a rosebud thing; the teeth will disappear; the nose will disappear - it is not nearly as big now as it was in savage days - the ears will go away. They are already folded up from what they were, and only a little tip fast vanishing remains to show that ages ago they were long-pointed things which bent forward and backward to catch the sound of approaching enemies."

Wells imagined the man of the year one million as a toothless cranium, with huge saucer-eyes and teeny tiny limbs: 

 HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

According to Bee Wilson in her recent Consider the Fork, technologies have indeed changed our dentition, though not in the way that Wells presumed. The widespread adoption of the fork, she claims, made overbites endemic. What made teeth optional, she says, was not forks and knives but stew-pots. A stew, simmering for days, softened up all tough bits so that even the toothless could get their share of calories.

Will our species ever be able to leave this toothy period of our evolution behind? There's something tempting about imagining it. Teeth are expensive and uncomfortable to maintain, and thus a sterling status symbol: indicators not only of wealth, but of deserving wealth (because they display the fastidious rigor of our self-care, or our self-denying willingness to submit to pain and discomfort in service of straightness, conformity, regularity, and impeccable whiteness; compare with the derision reserved for grills and tooth-jewels, racialized bling that seems to signify money but not wealth). If the protestant ethic still holds (settle down, Max Weber) straight white teeth could be considered one of the hallmarks of the elect.

So keep smiling, dentists; you've got a million years or so before teeth go out of fashion.

  

 

IBM's "Cognitive Cooking" Food Truck

I'm not ashamed to admit that "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" is one of my main sources of breaking news, and that's where I first heard that Watson, IBM's own Jeopardy champ, is running a food truck at South by Southwest. Of course, I had to look into it...

A joint venture between IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education, the food truck is an exercise in what IBM (rather bloodlessly) calls "cognitive cooking" -- a street-food demonstration of the practical applications of their "cognitive computing" system, aka Watson. Would you like to read an advertorial about it in Slate? Here you go. And here's IBM's promotional website about the cognitive cooking project. 

This is how you use it. You have to input three things: the main ingredient, the cuisine (eg, Indian, Azerbaijani, Canary Islander...), and the type of dish (eg, burrito, bisque, sandwich). (At SXSW, the type of dish was left up to a Twitter vote, and I suppose the other variables were supplied by IBM.)  Watson then reviews the vast universe of possible combinations, modeling the flavor chemistry of each component and its interaction with other flavor compounds, as well as the potential taste appeal of the final dish and how novel the combination is. It outputs a set of recipes comprising 12 to 14 ingredients, each with a rating based on its assessment of flavor interactions, likeability, and surprise. Just like on "Chopped," you're judged not only on taste but also on "creativity." The goal is to come up with something that's both "weird" and "good."     

[An aside: What is it about the times we live in that makes cross-cultural comminglings the apogee of "weird" cooking? "Indian turmeric paella," are the first words out of the advertorial's mouth. "Peruvian poutine," "Swiss-Thai asparagus quiche," "Austrian chocolate burrito" are all dishes featured in the cognitive cooking recipe archive. Are these combinations really so strange, or unimaginable without cosmopolitan Watson to liberate us from our parochial attachment to thoroughbred cuisines? This is not, I think, simply a retread of the 90s vogue for "fusion," which sought a diplomatic accommodation between US appetites and "exotic" (usually Asian) ingredients and techniques. All the borders have come down; materials and methods can be freely recombined without tariffs or translations; culture is just another seasoning. Should we call this "world markets cuisine," globalism's dinner plate, neoliberal gourmandise?]     

IBM's challenge is to prove to all of us that Watson isn't just some better sort of Google, a more refined filter for sorting relevant from irrelevant, signal from noise. What IBM wants to demonstrate is that Watson can provide creative or unprecedented solutions, things that don't just work right but also "feel right." As the Slate advertorial puts it, "A system that can generate new things the world has never seen before is a significant step in cognitive computing."

This is actually a rather tall order, especially as IBM is always careful to insist that "cognitive computing" is not a replacement for human creativity (the brain is "the most creative computer of all," in their words) but a tool to enhance it. The decision to use food -- and, specifically, the creation of unusual flavor combinations -- as a debut showcase for this technology is thus very deliberate, and taps into a longer history. Sure, the marketing team has festooned this with all the right merit-badges -- hipster foodies and their food trucks, Twitter crowdsourcing, SXSW, "the cloud" -- to gain likes and influence retweets in those zones of social media where knowing what's "trending" counts as connoisseurship. But the problem of meshing these two kinds of information about flavor -- what IBM refers to as "chemoinformatics" (ie, its chemical behavior) and "hedonic psychophysics" (ie, our sensory experience of it)  -- is something that has daunted the flavor industry since, at least, the mid-twentieth-century.

I've just been reading the proceedings of the 1961 Flavor Chemistry Symposium, hosted by Campbell's Soup at their old HQ in Camden, New Jersey. This was one of the very first scientific conferences devoted to this chemical subfield. (The Society of Flavor Chemists, the first professional organization, had been inaugurated less than a decade earlier; the American Chemical Society wouldn't create a flavor chemistry division until six years later.) The papers from this conference makes it clear how rapid progress has been in the field: more and more, the molecular structure of flavor compounds, their chemical precursors and interactions with other molecules during cooking and preparation, how they degrade, what influences them, and so on, are being quantified, verified, understood. As Carl Krieger, the director of Basic Research & Product Development at Campbell's remarks at the kick-off of the conference, there was a new "realization that the mysteries of flavor can be solved."

Except. Except that "the physiology and psychology of taste, odor, and flavor" are still vast unknowns. Krieger ventures that only by making positive identifications of flavor chemicals "will it be possible to describe flavors in universally meaningful terms" (ie, by their chemical names) rather than the subjective terms of experience -- "metallic," "stale," "rancid," -- "which, I must confess, seem to me to be pure gibberish." Thankfully, Krieger concludes, their conference will not focus on perception of flavors, but their chemistry - "something that I believe all of us feel is more amenable to direct experimental study." 

Okay, that's all well and good for Krieger to say, but knowing what the flavor compounds are doesn't answer the million-dollar question: "Will people like it?" That's a big missing piece of the puzzle -- the gap between the chemoinformatics, so to speak, and the hedonic psychophysics. Flavor companies -- and the US government, especially the army -- labored to make flavor evaluation "objective," to standardize descriptive vocabularies, to train tasters and impanel consumers to supply their opinions before a product hits the market. But these studies always involved human beings, unruly instruments on their best days, and their subjective responses are, by definition, not generalizable -- do not produce the "universally meaningful terms" that Krieger claimed chemistry did.

And this, fundamentally, is what IBM claims is different about its "cognitive computing" model, and what it's trying to show with this food truck project. We're quite used to claims like "chefs can only consider combinations of two or three ingredients at a time; computers can contemplate quintillions" -- yes, computers can outfox even the foxiest human thinkers. This system doesn't just crunch numbers, it makes judgments about subjective sensations. As the IBM advertorial tells us, it "understands why thousands of different recipes are appealing, what people prefer." Here's the crux of the claim: "It understands, learns, and considers not just big data but also human perception."

These two things -- big data, human perception -- continue to be held at arm's length from each other. But isn't the promise of this technology, in fact, that it successfully converts human perceptions into data, data that the machine-system can "consider" and that are susceptible to the same tools and techniques that guide the collation and analysis of other forms of 'big data'? The dream realized here is that we will finally be able to bring subjective experience into the same table that we use to calculate agricultural yields or profit margins.

What is supposed to make Watson different, I think, is that it claims to formalize the bodies of knowledge that have so far resisted formalization. Things like intuition. Experience. What we in the STS biz call "tacit knowledge" -- the kinds of things you learn by practice, by doing -- like how to make fine adjustments to instruments, or to hone a curve on the form of a chaise lounge, or to add a new ingredient to a recipe. Not just the look of things, but what we felt at what we saw. But Watson enters a crowded field, because our "personal technologies" increasingly aspire to recognize and cater to our subjective preferences. Like when Netflix deduces your taste in movies, not merely spitting out a list of other black comedies, but synthetically tailoring for you an array of "Dark GLBT Comedies with a Strong Female Lead." Or the new music data venture that scans Twitter for early "flickers of excitement about a fledgling band," "the kinds of signs music scouts have always sought." The Watson system isn't just about helping General Foods design new crazy flavors of potato chips; IBM promises that the applications for cognitive computing are in all fields that rely on "design and discovery." This isn't a technology that competes with Google; it's technology that competes with technicians and so-called knowledge-workers -- designers, flavorists, A&R divisions, R&D folks -- highly skilled workers whose refined, intuitive knowledge of their fields are supplemented (or supplanted) by "cognitive computing."

But fear not! Our cherished celebrity chefs won't be driven to extinction by our new networked overlords. "Cognitive computing is a sous-chef working alongside seasoned professional chefs." Right, it's not Emeril's job that's at stake, but those of his unnamed assistants, who will surely still be required to slice and dice -- Watson, after all, doesn't have hands to get dirty -- but perhaps less entrusted with the fine adjustments and refinements, with the knowledge side of technical work. (Similar, for instance, to what Deborah Fitzgerald calls the "deskilling" of farmers after the introduction of genetically modified hybrid corn.) Or maybe not. Maybe systems like this really do foster innovation, break down the barriers that have hitherto prevented us from dreaming up a Swiss-Thai quiche, an Indian paella.  

I should wrap this up on a less lugubrious note. So I'll add that, the consensus on the internet seems to be that Watson's food was pretty good and somewhat novel, though some were disappointed that it was prepared by humans and not robots. Brillat-Savarin said it, and I believe it: "The discovery of a new dish, which excites our appetite and prolongs our pleasure, does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star." The question, I suppose, is how you define "new," and what you mean by "discovery."  

Print and Eat the Food of the Future

One of the best parts of the pseudo-Freudian space fantasy Forbidden Planet is when Robby the Robot obliges the poor space sailor who's been left to guard the ship with a heap of liquor. Robby scans and chemically analyses the spaceman's bottle of whiskey, and then duplicates it... and duplicates it... and duplicates it... until he has a lovely pile of whiskey bottles -- at least until the invisible Monsters from the Id come and annihilate his fun.

All matter is chemicals, after all, and all chemicals are elements, and elements are just atoms, and atoms are everywhere, so why not? Anything can become anything else; stuff can be made out of no stuff.

The wait is over (maybe): why cook, when you can print your food and eat it? Sadly, there's no gracious Robby to butler our meal for us out of thin air. This is basically a modified 3D printer, the "revolutionary" technology that keeps threatening to transcend mere novelty, one of these days, maybe. 

I mock, but this article on the print-and-eat food from the IEEE Spectrum is really fascinating. At first, 3D food printers were limited by the material it used: a paste that hardened into different shapes, pretty much the edible equivalent of the standard 3D printer's plastic. (yum!) 

But then a breakthrough: Daniel Cohen, a grad student at Cornell, had the idea to treat the printer's materials as a set of miscible components, the way the three RGB printer cartridges in a color printer can produce a full-color reproduction of a multi-hued image. That is, he proposed a standard basic palette of food materials, reimagining food's basic components as though there are edible equivalents to the primary colors, which can additively produce any hue in the visible spectrum. This itself is not a novel idea: sensory taxonomers from Linnaeus to Arthur D. Little Consulting Company (and many more) have proposed systems that attempt to break the smellable-tastable world into irreducible elements. However, It's important to note that the color spectrum is a metaphor; it translates imperfectly unto the much different (chemosensory, multisensory) system of flavor perception.

Jeffrey Lipton, the article's author and an engineering student intimately involved in the development of commercial 3D-printing technology and its applications, is concerned with making the food printer's products not only palatable but desirable. The "uncanny valley" of "mushroom shaped bananas" is too "artificial", and thus likely to be rejected by the "home cook." He also dismisses proposals to use 3D food printing as a sort of hedge against a Malthusian crisis (by making palatable foods -- like "steak" -- out of cheap or repulsive proteins -- such as insects) as off-trend: today's savvy consumers reject "highly processed foods." (Incidentally, in my research on the history of flavor additives, I've found this "socially useful" application of flavor additives cited by the flavor industry starting in the 1950s and 1960s -- that synthetic flavor chemicals will help forestall a malnutrition crisis by making cheap nutritive substances (combinations of carbs-proteins-fats manufactured, perhaps, from industrial waste) edible and acceptable). 

Instead of working from basic components, Lipton says, they've taken a "top down" (rather than "bottom up") approach with the printer, working with chefs to produce fried scallops shaped like space shuttles and Austrian cookies with writing on the inside. (How this addresses purported consumer desires for "less processed" foods is not really clear...) The most exciting result is a new form of fried corn dough, impossible to achieve without a 3D printer; the dough forms "a porous matrix that allowed the frying oil to penetrate much deeper into the food. The result was something delicately crispy and greasy, like a cross between a doughnut, a tortilla chip, and raw ramen noodles."

In this incarnation, the 3D printer becomes an exquisitely refined tool for the production of highly processed food. A tool that doesn't just replicate what already exists in the world from a basic color palate, the way a camera reproduces visible reality, but something that makes new, unforeseen things possible -- maybe. Can we use this to imagine and create new flavors, or just to dress up familiar things in fancy, unfamiliar, space-ship forms?