Food is a common but unique language that transcends words and simultaneously stimulates all of our senses.

From the sweet flavor of a winter carrot to the unctuous texture of a melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder, there is science behind all foods that we eat. Even a good old apple pie is rich with scientific concepts. For all of these reasons, food is an ideal medium to teach scientific concepts, which may be less intuitive and familiar.

Communicating science through the shared experience of food can promote scientific literacy and also help us to make better food.

To advance the public understanding of science, we are using food to engage people in the science of food. At the University of California, Los Angeles, I teach a general education science course using food to engage undergraduate students in science. Questions about science and food also inspire the evolving research in my laboratory. In addition, we create a dialogue on science and food for a general audience, hosting a series of events that feature esteemed chefs and scientists, and that highlight the role of science in foods that we eat.

This past spring, our series highlighted the science of everyday foods, including local and seasonal foods by locavore pioneers, Chefs Alex Atala and Alice Waters. We also featured the science of pie. The students of my course investigated scientific aspects of apple pie and discussed their results with a panel of esteemed judges including world-renowned dessert experts Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan. The goal of these events is to create a dialogue on how science enables us to understand food; how food helps us to better understand science; and how science can help us to understand the benefits of eating local.

Science for understanding food.

Pale and flavorless grocery-store tomatoes are hardly worth wasting energy to digest. By contrast, try savoring the intense flavor of a plump and sun-ripened deep red tomato. Edible gardens visionary, Chef Alice Waters, advocates that fruits and vegetables taste best in the peak of their season. Take for example carrots and parsnips that taste sweeter in the winter. Here, science can help us to better understand why.

Video: Edible Education
A lecture featuring Chef Alice Waters. Watch the video

When water freezes, ice crystals begin to form as the liquid transitions into a solid. When ice crystals form inside a plant, they can endanger cells by piercing the nanoscopically thin lipid membranes (think bags of fat that are ˜1000× thinner than a ziptop bag) that surround each individual cell. To minimize damage due to cold temperatures, plants have a clever strategy of generating more sugars. For the same reason salt is added to icy roads in the winter, additives like sugar and salt can lower the freezing point of water, enabling liquids to survive at temperatures below the typical freezing point. Sugar molecules produced by plants can also help to draw water out of cells, and dehydrate the area near the cell membrane, which may further impede damaging ice crystal formation next to the membrane.

Science sheds light on how we can exploit natural, seasonal variations in temperature to optimize food flavor. Instead of adding molecules to our food to enhance their flavor, we can time their harvest so that plants maximize their own production of flavor-enhancing molecules.

Food for understanding science.

The rise of cooking shows and food celebrities exemplifies how food has become an obsession for many people. Unfortunately not the same can be said for science. Decades ago Alice Waters envisioned the power of using food as a tool to educate students. From math to history to economics to science, food touches a wide range of subjects.

To engage my undergraduate students in learning science, I challenged them to investigate the science behind apple pie. This quintessential American food provides rich examples of science in a traditional food. Baking a pie also requires students to practice the scientific method. This past spring, we assigned students the task of exploring a scientific aspect of the apple pie. After a few weeks of experimentation, we held the first Scientific Bake-Off when students presented posters displaying their quantitative data, along with their best apple pies.

Video: Scientific Bake-Off
Professor Amy Rowat sets the stage for the UCLA pie bake-off. Watch the video

Both the resulting posters and pies provide tangible examples of how students — even non-science majors — got engaged in rigorous experimentation and scientific discovery. Audience members had a chance to sample pies and learn about the underlying science too. In practicing science, students also learned that a thorough, scientific approach, along with creativity and intuition, can result in new discoveries and scientific progress. Experiments included the novel application of chia seeds to thicken apple pie filling to using butter with a higher water content to make a flakier pie crust.

Video: The Science of Pie Lecture
A lecture featuring Chefs Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan. Watch the video

At the Scientific Bake-Off, dessert gurus Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan shared their unique perspectives on desserts. For example, by using the scientific method Christina Tosi and her team at Milk Bar test one variable at a time to dissect the effects of a single parameter in order to optimize a recipe. Not only does food help students to better understand scientific concepts, but it also provides a tangible way for them to understand and practice scientific method.

Science for eating local.

Sorting out what local foods are safe to eat is not a typical dilemma faced by even the most voracious locavores, but Chef Alex Atala pushes the boundary of eating local. He forages in his local environs of the Amazon, delving into unexplored regions and seeking to identify new foods to eat. Here he discovered red ants that burst with the intense flavors of lemongrass and ginger, and perfectly complement fresh pineapple. (Yes, he served taste samples at his lecture.)

Video: Primitive X Modern — Cultural Interpretations of Flavors
A lecture featuring Chef Alex Atala. Watch the video

Chef Atala is also pioneering the use of native plants for food. For example, he is forging a path for the indigenous priprioca in the culinary world. Previously known by natives for its medicinal properties and for its use in the cosmetics industry, pripioca is now appearing alongside chocolate in an original Atala dessert served at his Sao Paulo restaurant, D.O.M. Such novel culinary application of this root is made possible by science. By analyzing the molecular composition of the priprioca, using techniques like high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), Atala’s scientific collaborators confirm the root is not toxic, nor does it contain any alkaloids. In addition to priprioca, Atala promotes the use of other local ingredients, such as black rice. Using his prowess in the Brazilian gastronomy scene, he has turned this food, previously thought to be dirty, into a trendy, sought-after ingredient, which has positively transformed the lives of black-rice farmers.

On behalf of Science & Food, we hope that these lessons will help you to see the science in everyday food and provide deeper knowledge of our food — from why carrots are sweeter in the winter to how you can perfect your flaky pie crust.