From Spherification to Instagram: How Technology Promotes Food as an Artform and Transforms the Act of Eating
My math professor is discussing the Taylor series in my 10:30 am lecture, and it takes every bit of energy to keep my eyelids from surrendering to gravity. I discreetly slide out my phone underneath the desk and pull up Instagram. All I need for some short-term entertainment is my favorite Instagram page: BuzzFeedTasty. I click on the most recent post—an artfully-produced video of hands rolling soft dough into a cinnamon bun, topping it with a glistening white glaze, and slicing it at the very end so viewers can marvel at the gooey interior. I feel satisfied yet hungry, and the prospect of lunch sustains my motivation for the rest of lecture.
My obsession with food bloomed in high school, and attending Stanford has made me all the more eager to explore the Bay Area’s diverse cuisines. As someone who was raised in a household where rice, curry, beans, and chicken were all thrown haphazardly on a plate, I grew infatuated with this new side of food. A common theme in my personal discovery of the culinary arts is technology. In particular, molecular gastronomy is an approach that harnesses the chemical and physical transformations of a food’s ingredients to yield innovative creations. Social media has also significantly influenced the food industry, making the very act of eating more public and social. It is evident that the diverse culinary applications of technology play a critical role in promoting food as an artform and transforming the simple act of eating into something significantly more interactive and virtual.
Originally a tool for practical purposes like heating raw food and mass distribution, technology has recently been creeping into an entirely different realm of cooking: presentation aesthetics. With this new shift in priorities came the development of molecular gastronomy, or a branch of food science that combines science lab methods with kitchen ingredients. Novel technologies have redefined the concept of fine dining to not only include exquisitely tasteful dishes, but also dishes that invoke curiosity. Whether enhancing the aesthetics (like transparent ravioli) or the textures (such as exploding liquid olive) of food, the technology involved in molecular gastronomy is critical to helping diners understand that food can be an art form rich with creativity.
Molecular gastronomy has elevated the entire restaurant industry and shifted the criteria that people use to judge dishes. Today, the top-ranked restaurants are the ones that invent and utilize the most innovative techniques in their kitchens. For example, El Bulli is a world-renowned restaurant in Barcelona and ranked #1 in the world five times by the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Most people in the food industry associate it with the rise of molecular gastronomy as it has pioneered many of the techniques we see commonly today. Its head chef, Ferran Adria, is known for harnessing scientific equipment and ingredients to develop new techniques like spherification and siphoning.
Spherification is the process of forming a gel around a liquid center. Ingredients only gel in the presence of certain minerals like calcium, potassium, and sodium. The primary spherification component is sodium alginate, which is found in seaweed and acts as a thickener when added to liquid. The sodium alginate is mixed with a liquid of choice, collected in a syringe, and droplets are released into a bowl of calcium chloride solution. When calcium ions are present, they insert themselves between the alginate strands, causing them to interlock and become a gel. This has allowed for the development of novel foods like spherical ravioli, el Bulli’s famous exploding olives, and even the common popping boba.
Siphoning is a process used to aerate liquids and create culinary foams. San Francisco’s famous Blue Bottle Coffee, for example, uses a siphon to brew drinks. The siphoning contraption consists of two chambers, the upper compartment which holds the coffee grounds and the lower which holds the water. The flame heats the water to produce water vapor, which expands and builds pressure. This pushes the hot water into the coffee chamber, where it starts to brew.
Furthermore, siphoning is commonly used to generate foams. Originally invented as a way to create a lighter mousse, chefs can now make foams out of nearly any ingredient to subtly infuse flavors of herbs, fruits, and vegetables into their dishes. By combining liquid mixtures of these ingredients with nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide inside the siphon, the mixture’s texture can convert from liquid to foam. Foams add sophistication to presentation and provide undertones of the root ingredient to enhance flavor.
Molecular gastronomy promotes food as an art form by enabling the expression of creativity through the incorporation of different flavors, textures, and presentation of dishes. As illustrated by El Bulli’s success, being able to apply scientific technology to culinary preparation has redefined what critics see as “good food” and leaves customers in awe over the transformation of simple ingredients into culinary masterpieces.
Social Media & Food Imagery
Technology makes huge impacts in the kitchen, but what happens when it gets in the customer’s hand? This is where social media comes in. By capturing the production and flow of food from the depths of the kitchen to the fancily-arranged dining table, the camera also promotes food as an artform. Food photography and videography have blossomed into the social media domain, particularly on Instagram and Facebook. Some of the most famous accounts are run by BuzzFeed, such as BuzzFeedTasty and BuzzFeedFood. A 2014 Webstagram study found that #food was ranked number 25 in the top 100 tags on Instagram, followed by other related hashtags like #foodporn, #yummy, and #dessert.
The scene of an oozing, bright yellow egg yolk or the cheese pull are staples in the food videography world and favorites among what is considered “food porn.” Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, has an overall negative attitude toward this new obsession. Citing several studies of hunger ratings, food choices, and television cooking shows, Spence claims that viewing food porn increases hunger and promotes unhealthy relationships with food by setting implicit norms such as portion sizes and how much butter and fat should be used in preparation.
While it may have some negative implications, food imagery also unites communities over a common interest. Social media platforms provide an opportunity for amateurs and professionals alike to admire and share culinary and artistic viewpoints. Furthermore, given that food is often considered a product and marker of one’s cultural identity, some argue that food imagery allows humans to transcend cultural boundaries, affords people a more global perspective, and represents cultures creatively through edible products.
The Act of Eating
Beyond influencing consumers’ relationships with food, technology also increases their awareness of what exactly they are eating. For example, the San Francisco-based startup 6Sensor invented a portable gluten-detector called Nima. The user places a pea-size sample of the food into the cartridge, which gets ground up and mixed with a solution inside the device. The resulting mixture then reacts with a test strip and a sensor displays the result onto a screen. After this three-minute process, if the amount of gluten is less than 20 ppm, a smiley face appears; if not, a wheat symbol appears. This $280 device has been well-received by patients with Celiac disease, who suffer from extreme gluten sensitivity.
Technologies like 6Sensor’s Nima have not yet gained abundant recognition, but there is no doubt that their unique approach to health will affect the way people consume food. By being able to determine the nutritional content and health impact of a meal, people can afford to be more particular about what they eat and put into their bodies.
It is evident that technology has been pivotal to the modern food industry in many ways. From the rise of molecular gastronomy to the showcasing of food on Instagram and the presence of technology at the dinner table, food is becoming more of a creative artform, social activity, and scientific discipline than ever before. So now, I encourage you, Stanford students, to explore beyond the halls of your nearest dining hall, and see what the culinary world has to offer.
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- “El Bulli, ‘world’s best restaurant’, closes.” BBC News, 30 July 2011. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14352973.
- “The Science of Spherification.” ChefSteps, www.chefsteps.com/activities/the-science-of-spherification.
- Spence, Charles. “From Instagram to TV ads, what’s the science behind food porn?” The Guardian, 19 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/mar/19/science-of-food-porn-gastrophysics-alluring-food-imagery-psychology.
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