Science is a beautiful thing – but sometimes we just don’t know when to stop. Consider food. It used to be that freezing, drying, adding some salt or fermenting the things we eat was enough to keep them fresh. But now our methods of preservation have taken a turn down Crazy Street and we employ ingredients much better left in the labs. In the quest to provide consumers with added convenience and appeal to the modern palate, we are confronted with things like squirt-on cheese and ice cream sandwiches that don’t melt. Heaven forbid we should have to use a knife to spread soft cheese! Or even worse, let our children suffer the horror of ice cream dripping down their wrists on a summer day.
Now if these newfangled food tricks were presented to us by, say, Grant Achatz or Ferran Adrià – two of haute cuisine’s preeminent food futurists who very well might strive to create aerosol cheese or ice cream that doesn’t melt – the foodies would applaud. But when our everyday food is being manipulated in ways that seem covert and creepy, it just doesn’t have the same appeal. So with that in mind, allow us a proper smackdown of some of the modern world’s more bizarre food accomplishments.
Ice cream that doesn’t melt
Earlier this month Christie Watson told her local Cincinnati news station about the magical Great Value ice cream sandwich from Walmart that refused to melt. Her son left the seemingly supernatural confection outside in 80-degree weather for 12 hours, and the thing looked as good as new. "I thought that's quite weird," Watson told WCPO.
So what’s going on here? The LA Times put on its “freaky ice cream” sleuthing cap and found that first of all, the less fat and more water an ice cream contains, the slower it melts. But the reporters also found that the ice cream sandwich includes ingredients used as stabilizers that work to help the ice cream keep its perfect ice-cream-sandwich shape, including guar gum and cellulose gum. So, the more stabilizers in an ice cream, the slower it will melt. Along with guar gum and cellulose gum, the ice cream also contains milk, cream, buttermilk, sugar, whey, corn syrup, mono-and diglycerides, vanilla extract, calcium sulfate, carob bean gum, carrageenan, artificial flavor, and annatto for color.
Snack cakes that live forever
Yes, we’re talking to you, Twinkie. There was a time in the Twinkie’s early history that it contained ingredients we might recognize as food. But with a shelf life of only two days, the Twinkie's tweaking began. The contemporary Twinkie is a marvel of modern food technology; and although the official shelf life is 25 days, there is at least one Twinkie that lived to be 30 years old, according to USA Today, suffering little more than a few specks of mold. From what fountain of youth do the Twinkies drink, we ask! Steve Ettlinger, author of the book “Twinkie, Deconstructed” may have the answer. He writes that many of the Twinkie’s 37 ingredients are, “more closely linked to rocks and petroleum than any of the four food groups.”
Cheese you can spray!
While there are any number of not-really-cheese cheese products, Easy Cheese and its squirtable brethren take the cake. Faux cheese in a can. That can be sprayed. What hath God wrought? The secret behind Easy Cheese, or “pasteurized process cheese spread” as the label calls it, is the high moisture content, plus a whole host of fillers, oil and emulsifiers. According to Wired, the inclusion of sodium phosphate in the ingredient list inspired advocates of natural cheese to lobby to have the product classified as “embalmed cheese.” The feds settled on the more euphemistic category of “process cheese” instead.
Whipped cream that never falls
Oh that pesky whipped cream. You whip up some heavy cream, add some sugar and a little vanilla, and dollop it on dessert, only to have it collapse into a delicious sweet puddle when it sits for a few hours too long. If only there were a way to create an everlasting whipped cream that would hold its shape for eternity! Well, the fine folks at General Foods did just that in 1966 when they unleashed the wonder food known as Cool Whip onto the world. It has 14 ingredients – the first four, in order of volume, are water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup. It’s basically sweetened Crisco. And best of all, that special mix of ingredients combines to create a dessert topping that can perfectly hold its shape – in a bowl, on the table, outside of the refrigerator – for a minimum of 12 days, at least according to a number of home-based researchers.
Meals that don't decay
This one has seen a lot of play in the media: The McDonald’s Happy Meal that refuses to go gentle into that good night. In one example, a woman named Sally Davies bought a McDonald's Happy Meal, placed it on her coffee table, and took photos of it every day for six months. At the end of which, change was negligible. Logic would have it that if you leave a hamburger and fries out for 180 days, some decay would occur. But no, as you can see for yourself in the video below, the eternally well-preserved meal has nary a blemish. In McDonald’s defense, company reps say their food will rot in in the right environment – but if left out on someone’s coffee table exposed to six months of New York City air isn’t the right environment, what is?
Milk that doesn’t require refrigeration
Chances are you’ve become accustomed to milk sold in boxes that don’t require refrigeration. But before the 1990s, in the United States at least, the idea was a novel one at best. What kind of wizardry is at work that allows a fresh, perishable product to live forever in a box? Basically, heat. CNN addressed the question back in 1995 when shelf-stable milk first started hitting the shelves. Contrary to popular conception, irradiation and/or chemical preservatives are not introduced to the milk. Rather, it is heated to 284 degrees Fahrenheit – as opposed to the 170 degrees of regular pasteurization – which knocks the heck out of the bacteria that causes milk to spoil. (And presumably kills much of what makes milk, milk, as well.)
Chocolate that doesn’t melt
Mars may have introduced chocolate that “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” way back in 1941, but that magic – by way of a candy coating – was more mechanical than high-tech. But fast-forward some 70 years and the food science wizards at Cadbury have come up with a “temperature-tolerant chocolate,” essentially chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hands … sans sugary shell. The trick to the treat is in grinding the sugar into perfectly-sized micro particles that result in less fat coverage of the grains. “Cadbury tested different particle sizes and varied the fat content during the development process to find out what combinations produced optimal heat resistance,” notes Time magazine. Whereas regular chocolate melts into a delicious finger-licking mess just below body temperature, Cadbury's melt-shunning confection stays solid at temperatures at least up to 104 degrees.