JELL-O: A Meat By-Product?

What do JELL-O, gummy bears, and marshmallows have in common? (Besides good fun for the kids). They are all made from the skins and bones of cows and pigs. In the words of one resident sharing a neighborhood with an odiferous gelatin factory, it “smells like dead things.”

As valuable by-products of the meat industry, hides and bones can be processed to extract their collagen. But it takes many steps to turn animal parts into the white powder you find in a box of gelatin. First, it must all be cleaned. For hides, that includes removing the hair and degreasing. Then, the skins and/or bones must be ground up and boiled in acid or alkaline solution to release the protein. Since collagen is not soluble in water, this strong chemical environment is used to break it down into a soluble variant known as gelatin. The gelatin is fairly easy to filter out. Afterward, it’s sterilized, dried, and ground into powder.
Since gelatin is soluble, when a consumer adds water and heat, the gelatin goes back into solution where it forms a protein gel that thickens as it cools. By itself the gel is tasteless, odorless, and translucent. So there is usually a little color, flavor, and sugar mixed in. Who would ever guess?

Photography by Sergio Conda
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Botox - The World's Deadliest Natural Poison

Make no mistake. The food industry has known about botulinum toxin long before its popular image as a cosmetic miracle for wrinkle reduction. Botulism has long been associated with improper canning of low-acid foods. If heating temperature and time are not tightly controlled, the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which is naturally present in our environment, suddenly has the perfect oxygen-free conditions it needs to grow and produce its toxin. This neurotoxin causes paralysis and, if not quickly treated, death by respiratory or heart failure.

Since botulism is the most lethal of all foodborne illnesses, the FDA has strict regulations for manufacturers of low-acid canned foods. Their heating processes must be evaluated and approved by the FDA, and a supervisor from the company must be trained and certified through an FDA-approved program. A certified supervisor must be on hand during all canning operations. These precautions have given us a safe supply of canned foods. Today, botulism from home canning is a much more serious risk.

This toxin's ability to cause muscle paralysis is why it works to smooth wrinkles, hence the "frozen face." Of course to prevent the deadly effects above, injections of Botox must be very dilute and site specific. Still, complications can occur when the toxin migrates to nearby areas, causing droopy eyelids or difficulty swallowing. The wrinkle reduction may last for 3 - 4 months, the time it takes those muscles to heal from the toxin.

Photography by Alan Cann
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How Hot is Hot? - Measuring the Heat of a Chili Pepper

You may brave the jalapenos but pass on habaneros. You ask your friend how hot are they really? Her red-faced answer is "HOT!!!" Is trial and error the only way to find out? Fortunately not.

The food industry uses a rating scale developed by Wilbur Scoville which rates the heat of various chili peppers in Scoville units. This method uses a taste panel to taste dilutions of peppers until they can no longer detect any heat. A bell pepper is always 0, whereas a chipotle pepper may be 10,000 indicating its heat could not be detected at this dilution level. It's a subjective test so it isn't perfect. A newer method uses high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to detect and measure all chemicals known to produce the sensation of heat. For peppers, the chemical is capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-i-sin), also used in pepper spray and sore muscle ointments. These results are reported in pungency units which can be mathematically converted to Scoville units. The amount of capsaicin in a pepper plant depends on the climate, soil, and plant variety.

16,000,000 Pure Capsaicin
5,300,000 Police Grade Pepper Spray
2,000,000 - 3,000,000 Common Pepper Spray
800,000 - 1,000,000 Dorset Naga, Naga Jolokia
100,000 - 450,000 Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Caribbean Red
50,000 - 100,000 Santake, Thai
30,000 - 50,000 Cayenne, Tabasco
15,000 - 30,000 Chile de Arbol
2,500 - 5,000 Jalapeno, Mirasol, Guajillo
1,500 - 2,500 Sandia, Cascabel
500 - 1,000 Anaheim, New Mexico
100 - 500 Cherry, Pepperoncini
0 Sweet Bell, Sweet Banana, Pimento

Photography by Sven Werk
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Secrets of Food Photography

It takes more than delicious food and expert lighting for food ads to work their mouth-watering magic. Would you guess varnish, dry ice, shoe polish and acrylic ice cubes? If that's not milk in the cereal, it could be Elmer’s glue. Click the link to learn the tricks of the trade.

Photography by Gullevek
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Pepperoni is Raw Meat?

Well, yes. Pepperoni is many things, but cooked is not one of them. Pepperoni is actually preserved through curing, fermentation and drying.

Pork and beef are first ground up and mixed together with spices and flavorings. Then, salt and sodium nitrite are added as curing agents to prevent the growth of unwanted microorganisms. The nitrite also gives pepperoni its characteristic pink color. Next, the ground meat is inoculated with lactic acid bacteria, as in yogurt or cheese making. The ground meat can now be stuffed into casings, traditionally made of pig or sheep intestines, but now more commonly made of cellulose. Over the next two or three days the ground meat undergoes fermentation inside the casings. This is when the lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid, causing the meat’s pH to drop, a key step in preservation. Then, the sausages spend the next twelve to twenty days in a drying room to reduce the moisture level, also critical to preservation. After drying, the pepperoni is sliced, packaged, and shipped to supermarkets and restaurants where it can make its way onto our pizzas and subs.

Photography by Ben Pollard
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Ice Cream - How much air are you buying?

Have you noticed that food packages always list the amount of food in the container? (Check the bottom of the front label). This information is required by law to help you compare products before you buy them. In general, the amount of food is listed by weight (e.g, cereal, bread, yogurt and soup). Consider that even when you open a bag of chips to find it only half full due to settling, you still had enough information to know how much you were buying, and a way to compare products and evaluate cost because of this net quantity requirement. For liquid foods, such as milk and juice, the amount of food must be listed by volume. But there are some exceptions. Ice cream is one of them. Where you might expect to see ounces and grams (measurements of weight), instead you see gallons, quarts and pints (measurements of volume). Why is this interesting? Because ice cream is 40 - 50% air. You are, in fact, buying air.

So are you being deceived by the ice cream industry? Not really. Ice cream is a whipped product just like whipped cream or whipped margarine. The amount of air (called “overrun”) incorporated into the ice cream mix is carefully calculated to produce the texture you know and love. Without added air, ice cream would be very dense and much harder and colder than it should be.

If ice cream is measured by volume and we know the industry adds air, why not make ice cream with 60% or 70% air? Companies could save money by selling you more air and could even market the product as having fewer calories. The answer lies in the FDA’s standard of identity for ice cream. To call it ice cream, it must weigh "not less than 4.5 pounds to the gallon." By declaring a density minimum, the FDA has effectively capped the amount of air that can be added to your ice cream.

Photography by Justin Kern
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