Food Science Brings Us Kale on a Stick and Twinkies That Last Longer

With so much interest in what’s in our meals, food innovators are focusing on making the healthy palatable.

Kalelicious Smoothie Pops: A big hit at the Fancy Food Show
Kalelicious Smoothie Pops: A big hit at the Fancy Food Show Photo courtesy Specialty Food Association

Two remarkable things happened in the food business this month.

The first you probably know about–the return of the Hostess Twinkie. Earlier this week, it was back on the supermarket shelves of America, eight months after its seeming demise.

The second, which is probably news to you, is the rise of kale on a stick. That’s right, a popsicle made out of kale, known as a Kalelicious Smoothie Pop. It was one of the big hits of the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York earlier this month. In fact, a UPI report went so far as to say it was one of the trends “giving bacon a run for its money” at this year’s event.

What? Now how is that not remarkable.

Matters of taste

Taste still matters, of course, but increasingly in the food industry, so does science. So much of the focus now is on what’s in what we eat–Out damn gluten! More antioxidants! Bring on the flavanols!–and on finding ways to make healthy food more palatable. Which is why some of the other hot items at the recent Fancy Food event included such comestibles as Tomatina juice–a blend of tomatoes, beets, red peppers, cucumbers, carrots and celery that’s the equivalent of three servings of vegetables–herbal tea pops for kids, quinoa chocolate bars and something called Chia Pods, a mix of chia seeds, coconut milk and fruit packaged in little snack cups like way-healthy pudding.

Researchers are also paying closer attention to the emotional attachments we make with food, how we can associate it with different events in our lives or more broadly, with different feelings. The AZTI-Tecnalia’s Foodstuff Research Unit in Spain, of instance, has already done a study on how people feel about coffee. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, every person surveyed had only positive things to say about drinking a cup, whether it was first thing in the morning or while hanging out with friends in the afternoon or downing a leisurely mug alone.

Those who were surveyed linked that first morning cup of coffee to words such as “activity,” “energy” and “pleasure,” and they used terms such as “calm,” “sweetness” “happiness,” and “tranquility” to describe how they felt about a cup taken leisurely. “When it comes to linking coffee consumption with the emotions,” said lead researcher Maruxa Garcia-Quiroga,”we have not found any link with negative sensations.”

Which brings me back to the Twinkie. Science was involved in its revival, too. People in the lab tinkered with its ingredients and were able to double its shelf life to 45 days. The old version ran past its expiration date after 26 days. (So much for the urban legend that Twinkies will live with cockroaches in perpetuity.)

And, based on less than a week back in business, it’s safe to say that the pudgy bar of cake and creme still has a powerful hold on a lot of people. So far, Twinkie sales are seven times higher than they used to be.

The bite stuff

Here are other recent examples of scientific studies on food and our relationship with it:

  • Unless, of course, your habit is a vat of Ben and Jerry’s: Conventional wisdom has it that in times of stress, we take the plunge into high-calorie comfort food. Not so, says a study presented to the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting. Based on an analysis of UCLA students during exams, the researchers found that in such stressful times, people turn to foods that have become personal habits, which could be fruit and non-fat yogurt just as well as it could be flavored popcorn and sugar cookies.
  • I knew there was a catch: A big reason that it can be so hard to lose weight is the diabolical inverse relationship between sugars and fats. Writing in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, researchers determined that there’s a clear “seesaw effect”–people with diets low in sugars were likely to be higher in fats and vice versa.
  • Break out the plastic spoons: A study from the University of Oxford in the U.K. found that the type of cutlery people use can affect how it tastes to them. Specifically, they determined that people felt that cheese tasted saltier when they ate it with a knife and that yogurt tastes denser and more expensive when eaten with a plastic spoon.
  • But will they eat hot peppers while running with scissors?: People who like to take risks are more likely to prefer their food spicy, according to research at Penn State University. The scientists observed that people who scored high as risk takers on personality tests also continued to eat hot peppers during a meal, even as the intensity of the burn increased.
  • Must have cupcakes: Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concludes that refined carbs, such as corn syrup, can spark food cravings not unlike what drug addicts experience. The scientists say that the quick spike and subsequent crash in blood sugar after eating highly processed carbs actually activates reward and addiction centers in the brain.
  • So it’s not a good idea to graze on fries all day?: Eating throughout the day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll gain weight; it’s what you eat that matters. Researchers have found evidence to support the notion that eating a number of small meals can help you manage your weight as long as you’re smart about what they include. The scientists also found that women tend to be smarter about this; their little snacks often are fruit, while men chow on candy.
  • And this is news? In another study, researchers concluded that a school cafeteria may be the worst place to have a meal. Although they ate the same food, participants gave their lowest ratings to meals they consumed in a cafeteria, even lower than those they ate in a research laboratory.
  • No, must have doughnuts: And finally, the most “craveable” food in the U.S. are Krispy Kreme doughnuts. A study by the Chicago research firm Technomic found that Krispy Kremes topped the list of food obsessions that people can get at only one place. Next were Coldstone Creamery ice cream and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels.

Video bonus: Get a little taste of the Fancy Foods Show with Fox’s Heather Childers.

Video bonus bonus: Not only are these foods good for your mood, but they dance, too.

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