By Alan Dean Foster
When we think of science, our initial thoughts likely turn to physics, chemistry, geology, or biology, zoology, and the other life sciences. I doubt anyone’s first thought is of food science. But there really is such a thing, and it impacts our daily lives as profoundly if not more so than any of the others.
If you live in the woods and off the land, you’re not likely to have much interaction with food science. If, on the other hand, like most of us you buy your food in a store, you’re much more likely to encounter food that has been intensively studied, dissected, modified, and very possibly enhanced. As the old adage says, “better living through chemistry.”
I was reminded of this by seeing on the soft drinks shelf of a local supermarket several bottles of blue raspberry soda. I bought one, took it home, drank it. It wasn’t bad and it certainly tasted of raspberries. But it didn’t have any raspberry in it (artificial flavor) and it didn’t look like any raspberry I ever encountered in its natural state. Blue raspberry is also a popular flavor of shave ice and other “foods.” But … there is no such thing as a blue raspberry. Raspberries are red, shading decidedly to black.
For the food industry, that presents a problem. Because a more popular flavor, cherry, is red. Strawberry is also red. So in an obvious effort to avoid further confusion among a visually-oriented purchasing species (us), someone decided that most raspberry-flavored liquids should either be blue or colorless. Why blue? Well, probably because the rest of the primary colors were already taken by other flavors.
On the face of it, this makes no sense. Given that mature raspberries tend toward blackness, black would be a much more accurate coloring. But black sodas, black shave ice, etc., would likely tend to put consumers more in mind of, say, asphalt, than a refreshing beverage. So the choice was blue, almost by default.
Yet my mind knows raspberries are red. So drinking blue raspberry soda presents a visual contradiction. If helps if you close your eyes when drinking it. Children have less of a problem with the color and certainly don’t ponder the chemistry involved.
As a public service, I now offer for your contemplation the synthetic food dye Brilliant Blue BCF, which is probably what is tinting your blue raspberry soda. Though it is an approved food coloring, it can induce allergic reactions in folks with pre-existing moderate asthma. So, no blue shave ice for you overheated asthmatics.
On a side note, “scientists who were conducting in vivo studies of compounds to lessen the severity of inflammation following experimental spinal cord injury had previously tested a compound called OxATP to block a key ATP receptor in spinal neurons. However, OxATP has toxic effects and must be injected directly into the spinal cord. This led them to test a related dye, Brilliant Blue G, in rats, which improved recovery from spinal cord injury while temporarily turning them blue” (source: Wikipedia).
This naturally leads one to wonder if the favorite drink of the Blue Man group is blue raspberry soda. Food science = unnatural food coloring = innovative biochemistry = fictional speculation. But only, I suppose, in the mind of someone who occasionally writes fantasy for a living. Oh, and BCF is pharmacologically inactive and 95 percent of what you ingest of it ends up in your poop.
Now, doesn’t all that info you didn’t ask for make you just want to rush out and buy a nice, cool, blue raspberry soda?
I use this as an example to show that what goes into your gut these days is decided as much by a committee of chemists as by a farrago of farmers. All the uproar and print raging about pesticides and hormones in our food drowns out the fact that nearly all that we consume except purely “organic” edibles have in some way been chemically altered to appear tastier and more visually appealing than they would in their natural state. That includes everything from tomatoes, potatoes, and frozen foods to — Count Chocula help us — children’s breakfast cereals. You really do need a degree in chemistry to figure out half of what is listed under “ingredients.”
As for The Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, that was a flower in the great 1940 film “The Thief of Bagdad” that, when its fragrance was inhaled, caused the sniffer to lose all memory of everything. The food industry hasn’t quite figured out how to do that to us yet, but you can be sure that somewhere, someone is working on it.
Meanwhile, instead of maybe a banana, I think I’ll go heat up a nice, tasty, frosted strawberry Pop-Tart. Here are the ingredients:
Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, Vitamin B1 [thiamin mononitrate], Vitamin B2 [riboflavin], folic acid), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean and palm oil (with TBHQ for freshness), sugar, cracker meal, contains two percent or less of wheat starch, salt, dried strawberries, dried pears, dried apples, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), citric acid, milled corn, gelatin, soybean oil, modified corn starch, caramel color, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, modified wheat starch, Vitamin A palmitate, Red 40, niacinamide, reduced iron, color added, turmeric extract, Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), Yellow 6, Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (thiamin hydrochloride), Blue 1.
Chemistry quiz next week. Have a cookie.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.