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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Column: In the kitchen with science

When I sit down for a tasty meal, I try not to think about poop.

I try not to think about the fact that in a day or so, my succulent sweet and sour tofu will become a little, brown lump.

I try not to think about poop. But when I heard that my friend David Lai, a senior food science and technology major, got a job at a lab studying poop, I couldn’t resist scheduling an interview.

On Sunday, Lai and I sat down over a plate of onion rings and I asked: “Why poop?”

Lai explained that his job is to analyze DNA samples extracted from baby poop. His lab wants to know what strains of a genus of bacteria called Lactobacillus have colonized the babies’ digestive systems. Lactobacilli help babies digest milk, and as babies drink less milk over time, the Lactobacilli numbers decrease.

Studying bacteria in baby poop helps food scientists understand how food affects the digestive system over time.

“It’s really necessary for us to put the pieces together,” Lai said.

Before I met Lai, I had the vague idea that food scientists were wannabe chefs.

I was wrong.

Food scientists do help companies develop new products, but they are also the ones who make sure the food manufacturing process is safe. They can look at recipes and figure out how ingredients will affect human health – babies’ intestines, for example.

“It combines culinary skills with science,” Lai said.

Lai pointed to the plate of onion rings in front of us. He’d learned about onion rings in class.

“The reason they turn brown is something called Maillard browning,” he said.

Maillard browning is a chemical reaction that occurs when amino acids react with sugars, usually because of heat. This reaction is the reason toast turns that lovely golden-brown color. It sounds like common sense – heat turns bread brown – but food scientists like Lai want to know why this happens.

“When I look at a piece of food now, it’s more than just food. There are chemical reactions going on,” Lai said.

I asked Lai what else he’s learned during his four years in the major. He laughed and then described a frightening class project.

His class took a custard-filled donut and stuck it in a blender. They made a donut smoothie and then extracted DNA from any organisms in the mix.

The most surprising result? Traces of salmonella.

“There’s bacteria in everything,” Lai said.

I was getting kind of grossed-out, but Lai said bacteria are a normal part of life. He pointed to his arm.

“Bacteria just live on your skin,” he said. “When you’re cooking, it just flakes off.”

I chomped on another onion ring.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT wants to promote David Lai’s mission to pronounce “onion” not as “un-yun” but as “on-yun.” It just makes more sense that way. Tell Madeline about your favorite foods at science@theaggie.org.


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