Food Technology

By on April 15th, 2013 in Ethics, Health & Medical, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

My boyfriend just gave me a sous vide machine. So of course, I spent hours today reading not just about sous vide cooking, but also about modernist cooking techniques and ingredients – all the gels and powders and thickeners! I don’t know if I’ll ever use this to do anything more complicated than amazing carrots(I don’t eat meat, so the short ribs are out), but this all was reminding me of a book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, Salt, Sugar, Fat.

The degree to which technology and engineering have revolutionized the way food is produced is difficult to overstate. And this has done a lot of good! In 1950, American households spent almost 30% of their income on food. Now, that figure is just above 10%. For Americans on the lower end of the income scale, this in undeniably good. But scientific techniques haven’t just been used to increase farm yields. The taste and texture of processed foods themselves have been engineered to such a degree that they are nearly irresistible to many people. While on a technical level, I have a huge amount of admiration for the work that has gone into finding the most delicious cheetos possible, the social consequences of this work are pretty serious. Food science that makes high calorie food irresistible is obviously not the only reason for America’s obesity epidemic and the resulting health consequences, but it’s clearly part of the picture.

As an engineer, as someone who, professionally, optimizing things to make them as efficient as possible, I can sympathize with the people who worked to make our processed foods as irresistible, as moreish as possible. And what scares me there personally, is how many people involved in these efforts who a) Wouldn’t eat the food they produce and b) Now regret the work they did. I really try to be conscious of the consequences of the work that I do. I don’t know if I’m making the world a better place, but I like to think I’m not making it worse.