29 August 2011

A Minor Perk of A Post-Animal-Testing World

Bowser Eats Broccoli
I am a fan of molecular gastronomy, where cooks use scientific understanding and new technology to make better and more novel food.  In a moment of half-baked entrepreneurial spirit, I wondered if the techniques for drug discovery could be applied to developing new flavorings.  So in the same way that the side chain on the penicillin molecule is varied to create benzylpenicillin and phenoxymethylpenicillin, I wondered if one could take vanillin and modify it.  I know there already exists ethylvanillin, but what about butylvanillin, pentylvanillin, or putting something crazier on there?  I think the market for novel capsaicinoids would be immense, especially if one could boost the heat.

Those of you more into the wilds more than the lab, could use a chemical prospecting approach.  There are more than 1,740,330 species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and archaea, and humanity has yet to taste them all.  Especially archaea, which to my knowledge none are eaten by humans intentionally.  Some of the inedible/poisonous ones could still have interesting flavor compounds developed through evolutionary processes.

But I bumped into a hurdle that would be pretty big even without involving my ethics.  Before putting a new chemical in food, it needs safety testing just like a drug would.  I know many labs dread the whole FDA approval process, and that's for life-saving drugs and not frivolities like funny flavors.  Personally, I do not think all those animal lives are worth it.

The science of toxicology is still very young, as evidenced by the century-old animal testing methods still in practice.  But as I have brought to your attention on a few occasions, science is slowly progressing to cheaper, more accurate, and less cruel models of testing.  As with other technological advancements like the Internet and plastics, many other advancements follow as a result.  I think that with the advancement of animal-free tox testing one of the results will be more food options.  Perhaps some new kind of algae, chytrid, or other wee thing we can grow in bulk.

In the long meantime before that day, we'll have to settle for self-testing with 'universal' edibilty tests or by desperation at times of famine. Of course, those of you that forage know that the number of edible plants, protists, and fungi far exceeds what is at the mega-mart.  So you really have no excuse for not trying something new, and living part of the dream today.

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