"Think I'll pass on the chemical sandwich, thanks."

Pam Frier Special to Times Colonist June 9, 2004

There's a food convention in Las Vegas next month that I'm planning to avoid. Under normal circumstances, of course, an occasion like this would be an irresistible draw. But these aren't normal circumstances. This is a gathering of 20,000 specialists from the world-wide Institute of Food Technologists. They will be comparing notes on such lip-smacking issues as radio-frequency sterilization, flavouring fakery, the role of biopolymers in food packaging, and how to deal with twitchy consumers and other production hurdles. I'd like to be a fly on the wall for those five days in July ... just don't ask me to eat.

In the event that, like me, you are unable to attend this landmark weird-food expo, here is a brief summary of what the industry has been up to. I have as my source an article published in The Observer on May 16.

Synthetic flavouring is a hot item. One European plant boasts an inventory of close to 20,000 pseudo taste sensations -- with 300 subtly nuanced variations on strawberry alone. A banana milkshake can be whipped up in a nano-second using such miracle ingredients as ethyl butyrate, isoamyl acetate, eugenol and cis-3-hexenol to name a few.

Ah, yes. With chemistry anything's possible.

Don't like the taste of apples? No problem. A few drops of heptyl acetate and you've got pears instead. It makes you wonder about Mother Nature and her quaint, old-fashioned ways. As far as she's concerned, an apple's an apple, always was, always will be. Quite refreshing, really, when you think about it.

Actually, Mother Nature is a real thorn in the side of these dedicated meddlers. They find it extremely annoying to have to face down consumers who continue to dig in their heels and insist on real food. And the word "artificial" gets their goat: It's "nature identical," if you please.

Call it what you will, these taste concoctions are everywhere -- in cake mixes, soft drinks, ice cream, chewing gum, soups, cookies, herbal teas and breakfast cereals. They're even shipping Worcester sauce flavouring to South Africa. And the taste of "black tea" to -- wait for it -- China!

Then there's the keep-it-sanifresh-forever initiative. Why settle for bread that's past its prime when technology can keep it fresh for years? Why pasteurize when gamma rays can do the job chop-chop? Maybe you'd prefer your food blasted -- with pressures up to 150,000 pounds per square inch. Or zapped with bursts of high-voltage electricity. Or your salad fixings flushed with gases, washed in chlorine and wrapped in forever-fresh packages lined with chemicals such as butylated hydroxyanisole -- a suspected carcinogen.

And if, after all this rough and tumble, you're still nervous about the microbe count, help is on the way. Scientists at Kraft Foods are working on an early-warning-system that is built right into the packaging: Tiny sensors that can sniff out microbial riff-raff and alert the consumer to a tainted pork chop or a dangerous wedge of cheese. (I'm trying to picture this: lights flashing, sirens wailing, my entire fridge cordoned off and declared a no-go zone. Forget it.)

Another food-lover's nightmare is the science of molecular manipulation called nanotechnology We're given an example, a pretty spectacular one, that bypasses food altogether. Instead of growing grain and raising cattle for carbohydrates and protein, your flour and steak would be created from scratch by nanotechnology: "scratch" in this instance being carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It's a simple matter of replicating the atomic structure of the meal you had in mind and serving it up in shrink-wrapped, pre-flavoured, edible packages.

How's that for back-to-basics menu planning?

A lot of this clever stuff originated with NASA: irradiation, microwave ovens, enriched baby food, freeze-dried everything. Such wizardry has now developed a sandwich that is still edible after seven years. Which is great if you're prepared to wait that long for lunch.

"Food science," says Jozef Kokini of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers University, "is in the midst of a revolution ... A bunch of new textures and flavours with mouthfeel you can't even conceive of."

Not for me thanks, Mr. Kokini. Now would you please get your hands off my food?

pam@gulfislandswireless.com

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2004