The art and science of food

The art and science of food


Monsanto Australia & New Zealand managing director Tony May says there's a lot of science that goes into every meal.



FOOD is one topic that a lot of people are very passionate about- myself included.

The phenomena of culinary shows like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules have inspired many to be more creative and adventurous in their own kitchens as they are introduced to new flavours, techniques and ingredients.

There’s a blend of skill and art (and in my experience, a bit of luck) to creating real “master-chef” style dishes that don’t just look great but taste great too.

But the reality is that there’s a lot more to food than just art (although we often don’t consider it while indulging our taste buds) - and that’s science.

The food on our plates is all about science

Everything we eat is made up of atoms that through an array of complex chemical reactions trigger our senses and our brains to prepare our digestive system.

From the moment food hits the saliva in our mouth it’s all about chemistry. As unappetising as that sounds, science is essential to sustaining life.

For example, consider two very different food items: an orange and a steak

  • The orange contains water, sugars plus “diverse phytochemicals, including carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein and beta-cryptoxanthin), flavonoids (e.g. naringenin) and numerous volatile organic compounds producing orange aroma, including aldehydes, esters, terpenes, alcohols, and ketones.”
  • Steak is muscle - which is roughly 75 per cent water, 20pc protein (each cell is made of filaments of two proteins: actin and myosin), 5pc fat and some carbohydrates.

Well before food arrives on our plates, science has played a critical role through the life cycle of the plant or animal and of course production.

It is science that gets your next meal from paddock, to plate, to stomach.

A recent media report showed researchers have identified more than 32,000 genes in a typical orange carrot.

They found a gene responsible for high levels of beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A and the genome could help breed carrots that have high levels of beta-carotene and are pest resistant.

So what?

Given the serious health implications of vitamin A deficiency in parts of the world, especially in children and pregnant women, the insights of scientific research like this may lead to the development of crops, like genetically modified golden rice, which can specifically target and address this deficiency.

Conveniently, the carrot story raises the issue of the role genes play in our food.

"Food" and "genes" are two words many prefer not to hear together. But, as FoodStandards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) notes: "People have been manipulating the genetic make-up of plants and animals for countless generations. This is referred to as traditional cross breeding and involves selecting plants and animals with the most desirable characteristics (e.g. disease resistance, high yield, good meat quality) for breeding the next generation."

In the language of food, it’s when the words "genetically" and "modified" come together that some worry and the role of science in food is questioned.   

Questioning is great; science is driven by questions. But it moves forward on the basis of evidence.

When it comes to evidence about GM foods, the top national and international science organisations we trust concerning their stated views that human-induced climate change is a fact, have also publicly stated GMOs are safe for our health and for the environment.

Knocking technology is easy to do on a full stomach. - Tony May, Monsanto

In Australia too, scientific evidence drives the nation’s Safe Food System. It pays special attention to GM foods.

The Safe Food System is overseen by the federal government. It details the roles and responsibilities for food regulations, notably the Food Standards Code.

These regulations are broad and deep, covering policy, administration, surveillance and enforcement of the Code.

Within this structure the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator regulates genetically modified (GM) organisms.

If GM crops or animals are to be used in food then they must be approved by FSANZ.

In this light, the Regulator has specific responsibility to protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The science of food is increasingly serious: our planet will need to produce more food from less.

Globally, the language of science and food over coming decades will become increasingly serious as population growth, climate change and rising sea levels place increasing demand on arable lands.

Knocking technology is easy to do on a full stomach.

We simply do not have the luxury of turning our backs on science as part of the discussion on how we are going to feed a rapidly growing population.

In Australia, we should not forget the many scientific and technological advancements that have helped establish the nation as a globally-respected producer of clean and green food over many decades.

The last two decades have, for example, seen successful GM cotton crops grown across Australia, helping our farming sector respond to the demands of a changing environment. Impressively, this technology has allowed Australian cotton farmers to reduce pesticide use by 22 million kilograms, and lowered carbon emissions by 71.5 million kg.

While it may not be heard in your kitchen, or on MasterChef, the science of food is undeniable, yet understanding it is critically important.

The sustainability of crop and food production in years to come will depend on it.

  • Tony May is the managing director for Monsanto Australia & New Zealand.

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