Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, September 2007

Scientists have had a lot to do with food over the centuries. Their role goes back at least to the Romans, and to the discovery of some scientifically-minded but misguided genius that wine tasted sweeter when drunk from pewter goblets. Of course it did. The acid in the wine dissolved the lead to produce sweet-tasting, but poisonous lead acetate.

The Romans soon learned by experiment that they could do even better by adding a syrup made of unfermented grape juice that had been boiled down in lead-lined pots, not realising that this would be at the expense of their health, and would contribute (according to some historians) to the collapse of their empire. The ambivalent relationship between science and gastronomy continues in the present day, with science being used in “molecular gastronomy” to widen our food experience, but also being used to produce uniform, monotonous (but cheaper) foods that are often full of additives. Here I investigate the ethics of the scientist’s role in gastronomy and how that role has changed throughout history, asking the question “When you sup with a scientist, should you use a long spoon?” Have scientists been responsible for damaging and devaluing our eating experience, or have they contributed to it and enhanced it?

A convenient starting point for my investigation is 1820, because this was the year when the German chemist Frederick Accum published “A Treatise on Adulteration of Food, and Culinary Poisons”. Its title page bore a picture of a skull and a biblical quotation ‘there is death in the pot’. There certainly was in 1820, because some of the additives that food producers were using to “improve” their products weren’t exactly guaranteed to improve the health of the consumer. Here are just a few:

  • Used tea leaves were recycled by being boiled with copperas (ferrous sulphate) and sheep’s dung, then coloured with Prussian blue (ferric ferrocyanide) and verdigris (basic copper acetate).
  • Strychnine was used to enhance the bitter taste of beer (and save on the cost of hops).
  • Concentrated sulphuric acid was added to beer to darken its colour, and added to vinegar to ‘sharpen’ it.
  • Red cheese was coloured with red lead (lead oxide) or vermilion (mercuric sulphide).
  • Pickles were coloured with green copper salts.
  • Sweets were sometimes coloured with any of the above, and also with ‘Emerald green’ (copper arsenite).

Accum used the methods of analytical chemistry to expose these practices. Unfortunately for his future career, he also published the names and addresses of the people who used them. He often used the library at London’s Royal Institution, where some of these people were members, and they conspired to accuse him of tearing pages out of the Institution’s library books for his own use. Instead of being praised for his whistle-blowing activities, he was hounded out of England with his reputation in ruins.

Accum’s work laid the foundations for the whole field of food analysis. The use of scientific techniques to detect the presence of adulterants has now reached very refined levels. The adulterant needn’t be deliberately added. It could be something like ergot alkaloids on rye or aflatoxins on peanuts. The latter are highly carcinogenic compounds produced by a fungus, and detectable in minute quantities because they fluoresce under ultraviolet light. It is interesting that they occur in much higher concentrations in the “natural” peanut butters sold by health food shops than they do in peanut butter produced by more ‘technological’ methods.

Food analysis reveals the presence of such contaminants, and helps to protect us from them. Surely this makes food analysis morally praiseworthy at best, or at least morally innocuous. But is it? The same techniques that are used to detect the presence of adulterants can also be used to analyse the constituents of the foods themselves, especially those that contribute to taste and flavour. Most of these can be synthesised in the laboratory, some very cheaply. They are identical to the natural product. But what is the morality of the food analyst who goes looking for them so that they can be added to prepared foods to enhance their flavour? To give one example, it is rare today to find Earl Grey tea whose flavour is not enhanced with cheaper synthetic aromas rather than the more expensive natural bergamot oil.

Does it matter? Some would argue that the answer depends on whether the addition is declared openly, or concealed. It seems obvious (at least at first glance) that there is no major ethical problem with adding synthetic flavours and flavour enhancers to a dish if the consumer knows about this and can use the information to accept or reject the dish. It seems equally obvious that trying to fool the consumer about the quality by adding synthetic flavours is ethically reprehensible. But appearances can be deceptive.

For a start there is Gresham’s Law of Gastronomy. In economics, Gresham’s Law states that “Bad money drives out good money”. I believe that a similar law applies to our food, and that too often bad food drives out good food. It can be argued, for example, that the availability of cheap but relatively tasteless convenience foods, using synthetic flavours and other additives (listed on the packet) to ensure stability and long life, has debased our communal palates to the point where it is not worth the food producer’s while to produce better foods. Our choice of options is thus increasingly narrowed. Fast food has driven out slow food. Bad food has driven out good food.

There are plenty of examples to support this argument, such as the lamentable quality of “century eggs” that are now produced rapidly by immersing the eggs in caustic soda, instead of slowly by using the traditional and gentler wood ash. I am not convinced that it is the scientists’ fault for making the process available, so much as that of manufacturers in search of a quick profit. I will return to this question later, but there is another, more subtle argument which suggests that concealing the presence of additives (synthetic or natural) is not always a bad thing.

We know by experience, and more recently by scientific experiment, that our perception of flavour is strongly influenced by expectation. We taste with our brains, not just with our tongues and noses. An added aroma can lead us to expect a better dish, and we will not be disappointed – unless some spoilsport tells us that the flavour was added, and not naturally present. Heston Blumenthal, for example, makes a beetroot jelly to which he adds some tartaric acid, which makes the jelly taste “tart”, and which, combined with the colour, can lead the taster to believe that the jelly is really blackcurrant. When he was developing this dish, he tried it out on a taster who thoroughly enjoyed it until he was told that it was beetroot, not blackcurrant. The taster immediately rejected it as unpalatable until Heston, interested to see what the effect would be, told him that it was OK, it was really blackcurrant. The taster then went right back to enjoying it.

The moral of this little story is that a person’s eating pleasure can be enhanced if the presence of a flavour-changing additive is concealed, and spoiled if its presence is admitted to. So perhaps it is morally better under some circumstances to conceal rather than reveal. This would certainly fit with the philosophy of Epicurus, who proposed as a touchstone for moral judgments that pleasure is the ultimate goal and that “The highest good is pleasure”. He even had this motto carved on the gate to the garden where he taught his students, way back in 300 B.C.E. According to Epicurean philosophy, science is good if it increases our eating pleasure, and bad if it spoils our eating pleasure.

This begs the question, though, of what we mean by “eating pleasure”. Epicurus himself had a rather ascetic definition. He believed that pleasure reaches a maximum as soon as desire is satisfied. He did leave room for manoeuvre, however, because he admitted that the type of pleasure could still be varied subsequently. So if you pop in to the Hind’s Head pub in Bray for a meal of Heston Blumenthal’s excellent fish and chips, sufficient to satisfy your hunger, and then carry on to the Fat Duck to work your way through his tasting menu, you are following the true Epicurean tradition.

Epicureanism seems to be a rather simplistic moral framework within which to make ethical judgments, but it is surprisingly difficult to find a different framework that does not also have serious flaws. Some modern philosophers have simply given up the search and returned to the ancient Aristotelian concept of “virtue ethics“, where the individual relies on personal intuition to tell him or her what is right or wrong.

Most of us use “virtue ethics” to make everyday judgments concerning food. I use it myself when I express my loathing for tomatoes where genetic selection has been used to increase physical toughness at the expense of flavour. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Medawar was using it when he described a modern loaf of sliced white bread as a “pre-sliced, pre-digested, pre-packed parallelepiped in a polythene shroud”. “Virtue ethics” might also be described as “gut feeling” – an appropriate phrase when it comes to judging the contribution of science to food and gastronomy. The gut feeling of many people is that granary bread is good, while white bread is bad; “organic” foods are good, but foods that have been treated with pesticides are bad; foods without preservatives are good, while foods that contain preservatives are bad.

But gut feelings need to be tempered by an awareness of consequences. This applies especially to preservatives in food. Would you prefer your soft drinks to contain sodium benzoate, which kills bacteria and is flushed rapidly out of the body in the urine, or would you prefer the bacteria themselves.  Would you prefer chlorine in your water, or cholera? Would you prefer peanuts that have been treated with fungicides, or peanuts covered with aflatoxin-producing, cancer-causing fungi?

The obvious philosophical framework within which to answer such questions isutilitarianism, whose central premise is that the morality of actions depends entirely on their consequences, and especially on the balance of pleasure over pain. It sounds like an ideal framework within which to judge the impact of science on food and gastronomy. It even subsumes the Epicurean concept of pleasure. There is only one problem. It doesn’t work, because in most cases it is just too difficult to predict the consequences of scientific discoveries, or even to predict the consequences of applying known science to provide technological solutions to problems.

Take the example of genetically modified foods. Man has been genetically modifying foods by selection for millennia. That is why we have modern wheat, corn and a host of other food basics that we take for granted. But our efforts to understand how living organisms develop and function, which culminated in the 1950s with the discovery of the structure and role of DNA, unpredictably resulted in a technology that provided a much wider range of genetic options, over a much shorter time scale. We can now use biotechnology to produce crops with improved nutritional or flavour qualities, faster growth, and immunity to plant viruses. None of this was predictable when the original scientific discovery was made. Now that the discovery has been made, and we have worked out how to apply it (to modify food crops, for example), we can predict the short-term consequences (cheaper or better food, at least for some nations) but predicting the long-term consequences (such as environmental damage) is a much trickier business. In fact, I believe that it is virtually impossible to predict the long-term consequences of genetic modification, for good or for evil, and hence virtually impossible to make reasoned moral judgments that are based on those consequences.

So where does that leave us? Scientists are in the position of Aladdin, rubbing a magic lamp to see what comes out. But who should take responsibility for the consequences when a genie emerges – the one who releases the genie, or the one who then asks for three wishes to be granted?

My personal view is that the one who asks for a wish to be granted holds the primary responsibility, whether that wish is for a richer food experience, a cheaper food experience or a more profitable food experience. This does not absolve the scientist from responsibility, especially if he or she suggests the question in the first place on the basis of his or her special knowledge. But making moral judgments about that responsibility can be a very tricky business, as I hope this talk has shown. Perhaps the best that we can do, after all, is to go back to Epicurus and accept that, so far as the serious foodie is concerned, if science enhances our food experience, it’s good. If it spoils it, it’s bad.

Notes and references

Lead acetate is sometimes called “sugar of lead” because of its sweet taste. Robert Boyle coined this name for it in “The Sceptical Chymist”, published in 1661. It was believed by the Romans to be an aphrodisiac, but that’s another story.

Frederick Accum was born in Germany in 1769, and migrated to England in 1793. He was the first chemist to make his living by teaching the subject, but chemistry was not all that he was known for. The architectural historian Sir John Summerson described him thus: “German by birth, and cosmopolitan by nature, he was singularly versatile. Besides being a bookseller and publisher, he was a successful coach designer, ran an art school, sold artist’s materials and fancy goods, and organized help for refugees from Napoleonic oppression.” He was also a pioneer in the use of gas lighting. Quite a man.

there is death in the pot’ II Kings chap.4, verse 40.

Hounded out of England with his reputation in ruins  See Noel G. Coley “The Fight Against Food Adulteration” (Education in Chemistry, March 2005).

Aflatoxin in peanut butter  An article in “Environmental Nutrition” (Februray 1995) quotes a Consumer’s Union survey which revealed that fresh-ground peanut butter sold in health food stores can contain up to ten times the concentration of aflatoxins found in “name” brands.

Epicurus was very much a forerunner of science in the modern sense. He was an “atomic materialist” who believed, like Democritus before him, that the Universe consisted of indivisible atoms flying through empty space, and that everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions. He is a key figure in the development of science and the scientific method because of his insistence that nothing should be believed except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction.

Epicurean philosophy One interesting factoid about Epicurean philosophy is that it was the subject of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation, submitted to University of Jena in 1841.

Some modern philosophers have … returned to the ancient Aristotelian concept of “virtue ethics” A trend that was started by James Martineau

GM foods For an excellent summary of the debate from both sides, see www.food.gov.uk/gmdebate/?view=GM+Microsite.

it is virtually impossible to predict the long-term consequences of genetic modification, for good or for evil, and hence virtually impossible to make reasoned moral judgments that are based on those consequences. Does this mean that we should stop doing science, or concentrate only on science where we can predict the consequences? Of course not, although that is what Government laboratories such as the food laboratory where I used to work are often asked to do. To quote the famous physicist J.J. Thomson, though: “If Government laboratories had existed in the stone age, we would have wonderful stone axes, but no-one would have discovered metals.” We can’t stop making discoveries, or looking for ways to apply them for our benefit, because of fear of what the consequences of our knowledge might be.

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