Vitamins or whole foods; high-fat or low-fat; sugar or sweetener. Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat?Whole Foods Market, Union Square, New York.
Amos Zeeberg is a freelance journalist who covers technology and science. His writing has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He was a founding editor of Nautilus, an online magazine on science and culture, and a managing editor at Discover.
Edited by Pam Weintraub
Several years ago, Arla, one of the largest dairy companies in the world, set out to create a product to take advantage of an inviting opportunity. Consumers were increasingly seeking out protein as a healthful nutrient, and whey protein, derived from milk, was seen as the most desirable kind, especially by athletes. Isolating protein from whey and adding it to clear drinks could make them more appealing to consumers and make Arla a lot of money, but there was a problem: the flavour. Whey protein has a milky taste and, separated from milk’s natural fat and sugar, it has a dry mouthfeel. It didn’t take a marketing genius to predict the demand for water that tasted like dry milk.
So ‘dairy technicians’ at Arla Food Ingredients set out to create a better whey protein. After years of development, the company recently released eight kinds of whey protein isolate that dissolve in water and become practically undetectable to the senses: essentially no taste, smell, cloudiness or dry mouthfeel. The protein isolates are food ghosts, an essence of nutrition utterly devoid of substance.
Arla Food Ingredients sells the protein isolates to companies that add them to consumer products. All eight have the same general properties, with each individually tuned for different applications. Lacprodan SP-9213, for instance, remains stable under acidic conditions. Imagine a glass of orange juice with the protein of an omelette.
Arla is secretive about how much it sells or what specific products it’s used for, saying only that its isolates are used by some of the biggest food companies in the world. But the Danish multinational gives strong hints about one application: ‘Tea, which has been the drink of choice for millions of people around the world for centuries, has a powerful association with wellness. Meanwhile, protein’s benefits in areas such as weight loss and muscle growth are increasingly sought after by consumers,’ says a product manager at Arla. ‘Marrying these two trends to create the unique concept of high-protein iced tea makes complete sense.’
Adding ghostly milk protein to iced tea does make sense – according to certain views of what makes food healthful. Those views are as culturally dependent as the seasonings we place on our dining tables and as personally subjective as our preferences for ice-cream flavours.
The history of humanity is in no small part the story of our increasing control over our sustenance. Around 2 million years ago, our early human ancestors began processing food by slicing meat, pounding tubers, and possibly by cooking. This allowed us to have smaller teeth and jaw muscles, making room for a bigger brain and providing more energy for its increasing demand. Around 10,000 years ago, humans began selectively breeding plants and animals to suit our preferences, and the increased food production helped us build bigger and more complex societies. The industrial revolution brought major advancements in food preservation, from canning to pasteurisation, helping to feed booming cities with food from afar. In the 20th century, we used chemistry to change the flavour of food and prevent it from spoiling, while modern breeding and genetic engineering sped up the artificial selection we began thousands of years ago. The advent of humans, civilisation and industrialisation were all closely tied to changes in food processing.
Arla’s whey protein isolate is part of the latest phase of an important ongoing trend: after modern production drove the cost of food way down, our attention shifted from eating enough to eating the right things. During that time, nutrition science has provided the directions that we’ve followed toward more healthful eating. But as our food increasingly becomes a creation of humans rather than nature, even many scientists suspect that our analytical study of nutrition is missing something important about what makes food healthful. Food, that inanimate object with which we are most intimately connected, is challenging not only what we think about human health but how we use science to go about understanding the world…