New Foods FROM THE Test Tube (Jul, 1934)
New Foods FROM THE Test Tube
By Edwin Teale
HOLDING a tiny mound of white crystals in the palm of his hand, a New York scientist recently came to the end of a twenty-year trail of investigation.
He is Robert R. Williams, head of the chemical research department of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and the crystals he has produced are a concentrated food vitamin of amazing possibilities. When white rats, scurrying about cages in a Columbia University laboratory, sipped water in which the magic crystals had been dissolved, they made astonishing spurts in growth. Applied to humans, it is suggested, the new food may increase the stature of undersized children or even, in the realm of the fantastic, produce giants!
Aside from these sensational possibilities, the concentrated vitamin has shown itself a potent nerve food, valuable in treating neuritis, neuralgia, and beriberi, the dread nerve and heart disease of the Orient.
Twenty years ago, in a bamboo hut in the Philippines, Williams saw a child, dying of beriberi, saved by a few drops of rice extract. The two decades that have followed have seen him struggling year after year in an effort to concentrate the life-saving vitamin that is found in rice husks and to produce it in quantities. During the search, he has made countless experiments and has journeyed half around the world. Now, more than 10,000 miles from the point at which he began, his quest has ended in success.
By adding fuller’s earth, a claylike substance used in filtering oils, to an extract made from rice husks, he is able to isolate the vitamin, B sub 1. The vitamin molecules are caught like flies, on sticky flypaper, and held by the earth particles in the solution. In fact, they adhere so tenaciously that the hardest problem of the research has been to dislodge them. Hundreds of attempts ended in failure. Finally a form of quinine was poured into the mixture. Its molecules immediately pushed the
vitamin particles off the soil grains and took their places, thus freeing them so they floated in the solution. After that it was an easy matter to concentrate and crystallize them.
To produce a single ounce of the concentrated vitamin, the scientist has to use from five to ten tons of rice hulls. Six years ago, two Dutch chemists, working in a European laboratory, isolated the vitamin. B sub 1. But their methods could produce no more than a few flakes of the precious substance. Williams’ discovery, however, permits large-scale manufacture and may play an important role in producing new foods of the future.
Thus science has added another link to the long chain of its achievements in the realm of food.
New foods, improved foods, purer and more nourishing foods—these are the goals of a host of workers. This scientific army, fighting in the white uniform of the laboratory, stands constant guard over the nation’s food supply. It has prepared improved containers and better methods of packing; new and ingenious tests for freshness and nutritive value, and it has given us such recent striking innovations as powdered soups that can be shaken from sprinkler-top cans, flaked coffee that can be percolated with cold water or brewed like tea, and plastic creams that have their fat molecules elongated by centrifugal force to enable them to pack more closely together.
We have learned much about food since that day in 1912 when the Polish chemist, Dr. Casimir Funk, coined the word vitamins for the mysterious, invisible elements in foods which are so potent in their effect upon health. Everyone now knows how vitamin A, found in greens, dairy products and fish oils, builds resistance to infections; how vitamin B, derived from fruits, yeast, and lean meats, stimulates the appetite and is a tonic for the nerves; how vitamin C, plentiful in oranges and tomatoes, prevents scurvy; how vitamin D, from milk, butter, and cod-liver oil,prevents rickets; how vitamin E, found in molasses, lettuce, and wheat germs, prevents sterility, and how vitamin G, the anti-pellagra vitamin found in yeast and egg yolks, annually saves hundreds of lives in southern states.
One of the mysteries of science is how vitamins perform their life-preserving tasks within the body. Nobody has ever tasted, seen, heard, touched, or smelled a vitamin.
Science knows about them only from a study of the effect of different foods upon white rats and other laboratory animals. A possible explanation of this riddle of how vitamins function has just come from the research laboratory of an American university. Tests there have shown a close relationship between vitamins and those curious chemical factories of the human body, the endocrine or ductless glands.
Recently vitamin C has been concentrated into a more effective form for fighting scurvy by the Norwegian scientist, Dr. Ottar Rygh. By evaporating the juice of unripe oranges in a partial vacuum and treating it with chemicals, he produces a yellowish oil shot through with needlelike crystals. From these needles, he produces his food-medicine. What has taken place not even Dr. Rygh knows, yet in a single step he has brought nature into his laboratory and helped pave the way for vitamin C to be made easily available for the world.
When the Byrd Expedition headed south for a long stay in the Antarctic, several cases of orange concentrate were carefully stored away among the provisions. In an emergency, the leader counts upon this material to prevent scurvy among his men.
In tiny death chambers in the Los Angeles, Calif., laboratory of Dr. Roger W. Truesdale, white rats were recently gnawing at the wire netting that restrained them from freedom. They craved some- thing lacking in their rich foods. Beside them were cages containing sleek and contented animals. What the first rats lacked was vitamin D, that mysterious element provided in the past chiefly by cod-liver oil.
Dr. Truesdale was demonstrating that a yellowish concentrate obtained from sardines and tuna is also a potent sunshine oil, that it is really the stuff babies and the aged, as well as white rats, require when their bones ache and they lose their taste for good food. As a result of his experiments, special apparatus in one large California macaroni factory adds drops of the vitamin oil to the flour as it passes down the production line to the machine that turn it into macaroni.
One hundred gallons of fish oils yield only one ounce of the Truesdale concentrate. This is so powerful it cannot be taken in the pure form. When it is mixed with fourteen gallons of sesame or corn oil, it is still, tests have shown, sixty times as rich as the vitamin D content of standard cod-liver oil.
Incidentally, the discovery promises to prove a boon to American fishing. Previously the dark tuna meat was made into poultry feed and only the white packed. Now oil from the dark meat and sardine oil, formerly used mainly as an ingredient of paints, become important health sources.
Another discovery about vitamin D has just been reported by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The more sunshine a hen gets, the more vitamin D there is in its egg yolks! Fifteen minutes’ irradiation with an ultra-violet lamp was found • to have the same effect in increasing the vitamin content of the eggs as adding one percent cod-liver oil to the diet.
Heat and air are vitamin-killers. Not long ago, that brought up a curious problem in an eastern factory. Tomato juice canned in this plant was found to contain fewer vitamins than the juice put up by rival companies. All the companies used the same kind of tomatoes. The vitamins were in the tomatoes. Somewhere between the farm and the can part of them disappeared, Where? An industrial chemist tackled the riddle. He found that the machinery beating up the tomatoes drove air into the juice, oxidizing and destroying the sensitive vitamins. A simple change in the apparatus overcame the trouble.
That vitamin B? in addition to its accepted value as a nerve conditioner and appetite builder, has a mysterious effect upon the intelligence has just been disclosed by tests in one American university. Rats deprived of this vitamin had twice the trouble extricating themselves from mazes as those whose diet contained it. Whether it will also prove a gray-matter vitamin with humans, scientists are not yet prepared to say.
Because different sizes of animals and different methods are used in research laboratories in determining the vitamin content of foods, an International Conference on Vitamin Standardization is being held this month in London, England. Delegates will seek to work out units for measuring vitamins which will be adopted throughout the world.
The work in vitamins is only part of the activity of the food research battalions. Developing new foods and working out improvements in old ones form important phases of the research.
Take for instance, a new plastic cream recently placed upon the market. It is produced, oddly enough, as the direct consequence of defying an apparent physical law. The fat concentration limit in an emulsion is, due to the globular form of the fat particles, about seventy-four percent. Why not change the shape of the particles so more would fit in a given space? That was the question one research worker asked himself. Harnessing terrific centrifugal force,he elongates the particles, packs them closer together, and accomplishes the apparently impossible. Creation of this new kind of cream has made possible a variety of new spreads through the addition to them of honey, fruits, and various flavors. Milk that won’t curdle is another gift of the laboratories. It is of especial value in feeding babies. The process, recently perfected, filters the milk through zeolites, one of the family of silicates used in making glass, thus removing the calcium which is responsible for the curdling. Additional vitamins, introduced into the milk, increase its value.
To enable infants and invalids to digest thick vegetable purees, laboratory men have just worked out a new method of pressure cooking. It breaks down the starch cells in the soups thus making them easier to digest.
Flaked coffee, that can be brewed like tea or percolated for icing with cold water, has proved a success in the laboratory and is expected on the market soon. Gases, generated within the coffee bean during roasting, were found to escape and carry away much of the aroma when ordinary roasting and grinding methods were used. By rolling the coffee into leaves as soon as it is ground, the scientists find they can squeeze out ninety percent of the gases without loss of aroma. After a lapse of two years, leaves packed in containers filled with carbon dioxide gas, to exclude all air, were found to be perfectly fresh.
Vacuum packing, excluding all oxygen, is an advance that has been widely adopted by American manufacturers. An oxygen detector, which is placed in such cans, is the latest innovation in the field. It is a slip of paper treated with chemicals so it will change color if any air finds its way into the container. Thus the purchaser is able to check up on the freshness of the goods he buys.
A few years ago, midwestern canning companies were flooded with compaints about sweet corn that came out of the can spotted with black. Investigation revealed that minute quantities of sulphur in the corn were uniting with the iron which had penetrated the tin plating from the steel of the cans and thus formed iron sulphide. By enameling the interior of the cans, the packers overcame the difficulty. Today, die-formed aluminum cans are being brought out as a further aid in this development.
A cardboard carton, impregnated with sulphur, is another recent advance in packing. A New York City experimenter produced the new containers. The sulphur not only strengthens the boxes but also is expected to prove of value in preventing the growth of fungi when fruit and vegetables are packed in them.
A MYSTERY in connection with icing food products for their preservation was recently solved by laboratory tests. Quick freezing, now widely employed, retains the flavor and appearance much better than slow freezing. Why? The experiments showed that slow freezing forms large ice crystals that break down the cell structure of a product and result in loss of flavor and color when thawing takes place. Quick freezing, on the other hand, produces small crystals that leave the cells unchanged.
The development of mobile freezing plants, producing temperatures as low as fifty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, has made it possible to take these rolling refrigerators into the orchards and fields to pack the farm products when they are most delectable. Both fish and meat are now preserved by similar rapid freezing.
When are peas ripe? That question recently brought about involved tests in a laboratory and resulted in a new method of determining exactly when these garden vegetables are most fit for canning. The peas are subjected to a hot bath containing eighty percent alcohol. This bath dissolves the sugars and the proportion of sugars dissolved to the starches, proteins, and fiber gives an accurate index of the suitability of the peas for canning. With fish, freshness is ascertained by measuring the amount of acid necessary to neutralize the products of decomposition. Further addition of acid shows the degree to which the proteins have broken down. The fresher the fish, the more readily the acid is absorbed.
Battling fungi, bacteria and stubborn chemical affinities that threaten the flavor, color, and wholesomeness of foods is a prime job of the research worker. Often he has to sift evidence and follow clues like a scientific sleuth in tracing the cause of trouble to its source.
A case in point is reported from California.
BLUE mold began appearing upon oranges coming from one packing plant in the southern part of the state. The packer was using every precaution he could think of to protect the citrus fruit from contamination. In despair, he called in an industrial chemist to solve the riddle of the mold. This expert put his finger upon the curious source of the trouble after a quick inspection of the plant. Workers, he found, were in the habit of moistening their fingers with a squashed orange nailed to a post to help them pick up the tissue paper wrappers in which they placed the fruit. Thus one moldy orange • transmitted the fungus infection to thousands of others. As soon as the workers changed their method of moistening their fingers, the trouble disappeared.
The type of contamination most dreaded of all, and the one against which the food expert is always on his guard, is caused by the bacteria which produce botulism. In widely separated parts of the country three cases of this disease recently gave added emphasis to the necessity of cleanliness in plants where foods are manufactured or packed.
Most of the trouble of this kind nowadays arises from improperly canned home foods. Manufacturers are constantly setting up new safeguards against contamination in their factories. Housewives are advised to cook all home-canned vegetables at least thirty minutes before tasting or eating and to prepare such vegetables for canning in steam pressure cookers to prevent bacteria from entering.
Candy that literally exploded not long ago presented a curious problem to research food specialists. Yeast in the chocolate candy, they discovered, was producing internal pressure within the outer coating by making the materials rise just as bread dough does. Keeping the candy at a lower temperature in the factory overcame the difficulty.
Candy without sugar, flour without starch are topsy-turvy products of the laboratory designed to meet the requirements of those who must have a sugar- or starch-free diet.
Strangest of all is the proposal of a New York physician. He has been carrying on experiments with a view to supplanting solid foods with nourishing gases! Someday, he suggests, mankind will obtain food in vapor form and chewing will be unnecessary!
Whether the time will ever come when men will inhale their planked steaks or find the table set with neatly arranged tubes holding, in gaseous form, the elements of a seven-course dinner, remains for the distant future to determine.
At present, however, the crack army that fights in the laboratory is producing new foods, pure foods, foods of increasing nutrition. It is winning the battle for better foods for us all.