Chemists in the kitchen

Food science takes lead at military center.

I am often in awe of the magic chefs perform in their kitchens, taking in some cases a few simple ingredients and transforming them into sensual pleasures. On the other hand, I am often appalled at what chemists can do to food, taking delicious items and injecting them with unnatural additives in the name of health or some other goal.

Two articles crossed my desk this week that touched on both of those sentiments, as it regards the military. One was a write-up about the Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence, a weeklong training for 25 Air Force and Marine Corps cooks sponsored by the Hennessey Travelers Association Education Foundation and staged at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America. I had been invited to attend this seminar but was unable to because of other commitments, so I was curious to read about the experience. (Click here to read this article.)

The other was an article in the Washington Post about some of the advances being made in food at the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. The article talked about such things as lacing beef jerky sticks with caffeine to provide soldiers with a pick-me-up, adding Omega-3s and curcumin to other foods to give those items anti-inflammatory qualities and giving applesauce a jolt by adding the complex carbohydrate maltodextrin. (Click here to read this article.)

To be fair to Natick, most of the article was about improvements being made to the infamous Meals, Ready to Eat, and so the story’s headline and opening paragraphs were a bit misleading. However, there’s no denying that the U.S. Army is embracing that old tagline of DuPont: “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

My favorite quote from the Post article was from a Natick spokesman, who said, “There’s a lot of science that goes into this, and that’s what a lot of people don’t realize. It’s not just a bunch of cooks in the kitchen making up recipes.”

No, it’s not, and that’s what—to me—is insulting to the men and women who spent a week at Greystone last month honing their culinary skills. On the one hand, you have scientists trying to improve soldier performance and satisfaction by adding chemicals to food, and on the other you have kitchen pros trying to do the same thing the old-fashioned way.

I understand that there is a real ROI on making MREs more palatable, because you can’t always have cooks in wartime cooking up fresh meals for our fighting men and women. But there is also real value in providing military cooks with the skills to make those fresh meals the best they can be. Call me a purist, but I’d rather see my tax dollars spent more on sending military cooks to the CIA and less on chemists trying to jack up a Slim Jim snack.

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