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Downsizing our dinner

By Barbara Santich - posted Tuesday, 4 October 2005

Science is intimately associated with the foods we eat. We would not be eating what we do without science.

William Farrer used science to develop Federation wheat, a new strain of drought and disease resistant wheat bred specifically for Australian conditions. Around the same time nutrition science discovered vitamins and recognised their essential roles.

Cooking can be considered a form of applied chemistry. A chemical reaction - known as the Maillard reaction - occurs whenever we slip a slice of bread into the toaster or lay a juicy lamb chop on the hot bars of a barbecue. The combination of carbohydrate and protein, with heat, yields those enticing aromas that set your tastebuds dancing.


Science is implicated in even the most primitive forms of food processing, from salting (anchovies, bacon) and fermenting (bread, yoghurt) to preserving in the form of jams and jellies. Science has the magic to make edible even the most bitter fruit, the olive.

The application of science in the modern food system has given us more foods than Adam and Eve ever envisaged, and a diversity of foods far beyond their wildest imagination.

It has removed some of the fat from butter and replaced it with water; it has given us instant coffee and instant mashed potato. It has also given us fat substitutes, sugar substitutes, vanilla and even smoke substitutes (albeit of questionable value).

But science yields mixed blessings. With such a cornucopia of foods available comes the obligation to choose - we can’t eat everything. We make choices based on our personal preferences and what we can afford, but within cultural parameters.

The influence of culture on food choice has long been recognised. Less well known is the influence of culture on how much we eat.

The relationship between how much we eat and how much energy we expend is crucial to our weight and whether it increases or decreases. In Australia and many other western countries, the trend is towards increasing average weight and Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing one’s weight by the square of one’s height.


This has given rise to what has been called the obesity epidemic. The prevalence of obesity in Australia, as defined by BMI, has risen from 7.1 per cent in 1980 to 18.4 per cent in 2000.

The finger of blame is often pointed at three of the trademarks of the modern era - television, computers and fast food. Fast food is implicated because it is typically energy dense, which usually means it has a high fat content. Fats have been the guilty culprits ever since the 1960s when science discovered the relationship between dietary fat and coronary heart disease. Curiously, however, the average fat content of the average Australian diet, in both absolute and relative terms (as a proportion of total energy), has
decreased over the last 50 years.

Clearly, the demonisation of fat has given food scientists lots of challenges but has not necessarily solved the problem. We need to indulge in some lateral thinking and shift the focus from what we eat to how much we eat - and also, perhaps, involve some social scientists. For example, a cross-cultural study comparing France and America has demonstrated cultural differences in the serving sizes considered appropriate. While the incidence of obesity in France is increasing, at less than 8 per cent it’s nowhere near the average 22 per cent for the USA - even though the average French diet has a higher fat content than in America. Further, the mean BMI in France is less than in USA.

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First published in Issues magazine in September 2005.

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About the Author

Barbara Santich has responsibility for the new Graduate Program in Gastronomy, offered jointly by Adelaide University and Le Cordon Bleu.

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