Olive Crazy: All About Olives and Olive Oil
Jan 062014
Crispy space fries

Crispy space fries

What do olive oil and space exploration have in common? So far, two things, frying and food safety.

When sending people into space, food preparation is important. What is more important than making sure space explorers have some of their favorite comfort foods available, fried in olive oil of course?

For decades we have been assured that astronauts are well fed. Remember the Tang commercials? Even the most imaginative among us probably can’t envision them dining on fresh fruits and vegetables or even juicy burgers and fries. I know my imagination is limited by my ten years of Army field dining that involved freeze-dried nibbles encased in thick plastic enjoyed while securely anchored to planet Earth. I can safely assume dining in Earth orbit isn’t much better.

Recently, those intrepid foodienauts at the European Space Agency (ESA) conducted the first of a series of experiments on deep-frying in different gravitational conditions. In the first experiment potatoes were cut into thin strips and placed in a centrifuge with hot olive oil. The potatoes were then spun at several times Earth’s gravity (supposedly to mimic Jupiter’s gravitational pull, however news outlets differ on the gravity data). At some point in the process the potato strips had to be turned over to crisp on the other side (I’m guessing the centrifuge was stopped for the fry flipping). The results weren’t so great. The crispy bits on the top sides were delicious but the bottoms of the fries were soggy since the water in the potatoes was escaping and keeping the hot oil from cooking the watery parts. I bet a lot of the problem was using a centrifuge for frying since it does more than mimic gravitational forces, I’m just sayin’. The results of this study will be published next month in Food Research International.

On the food safety side, a science team’s bad luck may be a benefit for those of us who would like to be assured that our food is real. For the last seven years the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL Space) in England has worked on a laser device to measure carbon and hence the possibility of life on Mars BUT the device wasn’t completed in time to be part of the payloads for the ESA’s Aurora ExoMars launches. The first one goes up in 2016.

All is not lost for RAL Space and certainly not for us, the consumers of food. With funding from the ESA for a Technology Transfer Demonstration project, RAL Space has teamed with another UK company, Protium MS, to develop a small, portable device that will probe for counterfeit foods among some of the most commonly faked – honey, chocolate, and olive oil.

Dr. Damien Weidmann, team lead at RAL Space, explains how the repurposed device works to make sure the foods we Earthlings buy is real. “Each molecule, and each of its isotopic forms, has a unique fingerprint spectrum. If … you know what you are looking for, you can simply set the laser to the appropriate frequency. You take a food sample – a few milligrams of olive oil, chocolate, wheat or whatever – and you burn it. As the sample burns, it releases carbon dioxide you test with the laser instrument. You will know, in the case of olive oil, if it genuinely comes from Sicily or if it is a counterfeited fake.”

At this point Olive Crazy obsesses over Dr. Weidmann’s use of “counterfeited fake.” Is it a double negative, therefore meaning real? Or does it mean another type of fake? Or … STOP IT!

Follow this link to the ESA website for a photographic example from Dr. Weidmann’s olive oil identification research. Very cool.

Even though space travel and olive oil seemingly have at least two things in common now, I believe that if space is our final frontier, olives and olive oil will certainly be along for the journey.

May the sun shine through your branches.


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