Focus on Food Science for Thanksgiving

herbs-906140_1920Thanksgiving in the United States is rapidly approaching, and the magnificent feast ahead of us has me thinking about all the delicious seasonal treats I will eat… and food science.  Why food science?  Because scientific advances influenced what we eat and how we prepare it!

Food science, broadly defined, is the study of food – its physical makeup (including chemical and biological properties), how it is processed and preserved, and how we can make sure it is safe.  So, how can you bring food science into your classroom AND tie it into your delicious holiday meals?  Check out these experiments:

Food Biotechnology:

Humans have long recognized and taken advantage of genetic variation in plants and animals.  Through traditional techniques (selective breeding or conventional hybridization) and innovative biotechnology techniques (genetically modified organisms, or GMOs), scientists and farmers have been able to increase food yields.

One common GM food that you may find on your holiday table is corn.  Though scientifically tested to be safe for human consumption, the creation and use of GM corn for food products remains controversial. Using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (or PCR), your students can test food samples to determine whether the starting materials were genetically altered.  No thermal cycler?  Try a ready-to-load simulation that will let you teach the same lesson.  These experiments create the perfect opportunity for you to link biotechnology experiments to real-world issues that come up in your students’ daily lives.

Food Testing:

Allergies are one of the most common immune diseases, occurring in up to 20% of people in developing countries.  Some of the most common allergies are to the food that we eat.  In 2005, the FDA began requiring manufacturers to label the presence/absence of eight of the most common allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and tree nuts) in their food products.  This helps people with severe allergies to avoid foods that may trigger a severe immune reaction.

Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA) the most common food allergy in children.  I know in my holiday cooking, milk, and dairy products are ingredients in many of the dishes, from the mashed potatoes to the delicious desserts.   After learning about the immune system and allergic reactions, students use our Quantitative Food Allergy ELISA to test whether milk proteins are present in the foods they are eating.

Food Chemistry

We often eat with our eyes before we start eating our food.  Therefore, it is in the chef’s (or the manufacturer’s) best interest to make sure the food looks appealing and delicious.  To that end, food scientists created additives to enhance the flavor and color of food.  These can be derived from plant sources (saffron, turmeric, beet juice) or from the laboratory (FD&C colorants).

Much of the candy that we eat has been colored with FD&C colorants.  Using a special buffer solution, your students can extract the color from brightly colored candies.  Agarose gel electrophoresis allows students to characterize the mixture and identify the food colorants present in the sample.

dinner-1060352_1280Food safety

Food-borne illness is common, especially around big holidays.  Many times, the feast we cook will sit out for hours, providing the right conditions for harmful bacteria to grow.  The CDC estimates that 48 million people will get sick each year from food poisoning.

To avoid food poisoning, we can practice safe food preparation techniques to prevent harmful microbes from getting transferred between food items.  This includes keeping your working surfaces and your hands clean, cooking food to the correct temperature, and storing foods (both cooked and raw) at the proper temperature.  Students can practice clean techniques in the kitchen using a simulated infectious agent that is invisible to the naked eye.  Contaminate a cutting board or knife, then see how the germs spread without keeping clean!

We hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Experiments featured in this post: