By Stacy Finz
In a big nondescript building on Buchanan Street in Albany, scientists are trying to solve the world’s food mysteries.
Why do some imported black olives taste like cow dung? What is that pleasant toasty flavor in basmati rice? How can you maximize vitamin D in a mushroom?
They’re hunkering down in the lab over these questions and myriad others. But the scientists are not private food developers, but rather researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the agency is better known for its regulatory function, in the Bay Area it has a 30-member team dedicated to the science of food and agriculture.
The mission of the Processed Foods Research Unit is to make specialty crops, the kinds of foods grown in the West — fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes — more marketable so Americans will eat more of them and become healthier.
Anyone in the food industry with the same mission statement, from small family farmers to large-scale manufacturers, can tap their expertise. In some cases, the unit will work side by side with businesses to develop new technology or even create a new food.
“A big part of what we’re trying to do is improve American food and the American diet,” said Tara McHugh, the unit’s research leader. “We’re trying to solve problems and develop products that will benefit the consumer, the producer, the economy and the environment.”
Hormone to vitamin
Five years ago, John Kidder, vice president of Monterey Mushrooms, was alerted to some advantageous research from the 1950s that showed how mushrooms grown in the wild were chock-full of vitamin D. That was no longer the case with fresh-market mushrooms, which for the most part are grown indoors.
Kidder knew that figuring out a way to convert a mushroom’s natural hormone, ergosterol, into ergocalciferol, a form of vitamin D, would be huge. Few foods contain vitamin D naturally. Most of the time, it’s added to products such as milk. The largest source of the vitamin comes from sunshine, but as the world becomes more protective against harmful rays, fewer people are getting their daily dose. Deficiencies can result in bone illnesses such as rickets and osteomalacia.
So Kidder understood that not only would vitamin D-rich mushrooms be more marketable, but they would fill a nutritional niche in the food chain. He and the Mushroom Council, the industry’s research arm, contacted McHugh, and the USDA went to work in its Albany labs.
Monterey Mushrooms, the largest producer in the world, kicked in $50,000, donated some equipment and furnished the foods research unit with as many mushrooms as it needed. For the next nine months, McHugh’s group worked to discover how to enhance the vitamin D in mushrooms using ultraviolet lights (for the most part mushrooms are grown in the dark) and to develop a patent.
“We pretty much had a eureka moment in the very beginning,” Kidder said. “It was just a matter of refining the science so that we used the least amount of heat as not to damage the mushrooms.”
Ultimately what they discovered is that if you put mushrooms within hours of harvesting under ultraviolet-B lights for 30 seconds, they’ll convert enough of the ergosterol so that one serving of mushrooms will fulfill the USDA’s daily requirement for vitamin D. The mushrooms are now being sold in stores with labels that promote them as a source of the vitamin.
“Consumers are looking at them differently than they did before,” Kidder said. Although he doesn’t know for certain whether he can attribute it completely to vitamin D, sales have increased.
Tools for taste
California black olive growers also approached the food research unit for help. They were seeing sales of table olives decrease and wondered why. The USDA teamed up with experts at UC Davis to investigate the various flavor profiles of domestic and imported olives. What they found is that some of the olives coming from foreign countries tasted off — like a “barnyard,” said Gary Takeoka, a research chemist with the USDA.
While flavor can be largely subjective, there are some things that are universally unpleasant. Cow poop and chicken urine tend to fall into that category, and one bad olive can turn shoppers off the rest, Takeoka said.
“USDA has limited tools for enforcing black-ripe olive quality standards in the United States,” he said. Basically, it’s up to individual inspectors’ definition of “reasonably good flavor.” “This limits the ability of the agency to prevent poor-quality product from being sold in the U.S.,” he said.
Working with the olive industry, Takeoka and his crew are trying to develop more precise tools for assessing quality for black-ripe olives, particularly the identification of chemical markers for taste issues and standards for testing by inspectors.
Why it tastes good
Possibly one of the most famous scientists to come out of the USDA’s foods research unit is Ron Buttery. The 82-year-old has officially retired, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming to work to oversee experiments and research. Buttery was the first to identify the compound primarily responsible for the flavor of aromatic rice, which commands a high price because of its pleasant aroma. The compound is also found in certain baked goods and snacks.
So for those who wondered why bread and popcorn tastes so good — mystery solved.
— Reach Stacy Finz at firstname.lastname@example.org