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046: What is "processed" food? By Masala Lab author Krish Ashok (Day 1 SFW2)

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

When most of us think of “processed foods”, the words emulsifier, no added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and saturated fats come to mind. However, on Day 1 of the Studying Foods Workshop, Chennai based author, musician and columnist Krish Ashok urged us to adopt a more egalitarian and nuanced view of food processing.

In its simplest definition food processing makes inedible food edible. Following this definition - everything we eat IS processed. This includes rice paddy which is mechanically separated from its husk, wheat that has been selected to be pest resistant over thousands of years of human intervention, grapes that are sun dried to make raisins, dosa batter that is fermented, animals that have been selectively bred for docility, pickles that are brined, and legumes that have been split to make dals.

The science of food processing helps make food cheaper (economies of scale), increases shelf life (preservation) and helps feed the masses (think Green Revolution and Hungry Nation by Benjamin Robert Siegal). In the process, it does make a disproportionate amount of money for select players in the trillion dollar ecosystem, creates “food deserts” across the world, has been the root cause of unethical food policies and numerous lifestyle diseases. But this same ecosystem and food processes feed us, and without them, most of us - “food parasites” in cities would not survive. As Kurush Dalal had remarked we can try and grow mint and tomatoes in our terrace garden, but how many of us can harvest millets, extract oil from seeds, milk a cow, and process salt?

In the first part of his lecture, Krish Ashok introduced us to the world of neuro-gastronomy - how our brain perceives food based on colour, shape, size, texture (elasticity, viscosity, crispness, crunchiness), and flavour (taste, aroma, mouth-feel). Why does tea served in a red cup taste sweeter than the same one in white? How does the shape of a chocolate bar dictate the way we perceive its taste? Why do passengers relish the taste of tomato juice on flights? Why do bar snacks taste bitter after your favourite sports team loses? The trigeminal nervous system sends pain, temperature and touch signals from the face to the brain, and cognitively “processes” foods for us before we even eat them.

In the second part of his lecture, the author of Masala Lab, brought alive the science behind the major food groups we use in our kitchen - water, sugars, grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, milk and fats. Suddenly the little tips and cooking tricks I had learnt through observation and recipes began to make “scientific sense”. Why do I put the pot of water to boil first when I make pasta? Why do we whisk salad dressings just before serving the salad? Why does chai become more viscous when we add sugar? Why do steamed potatoes have a fluffier mouthfeel when used in chaat? Why frozen meat and fish may be more “fresh” than the one at the markets? Why does rice flour thicken a soup?

Krish’s clear explanations and delightful anecdotes - chickens are descendants of flying dinosaurs - made more nuanced the science of food processing.


Ashok, Krish. Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking. Penguin Random House India Private Limited, 2020

Krish Ashok's Instagram: @_masalalab

Instagram Feed on Food and Science: @foodsciencebabe

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