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Don't Live in a State with Oranges? Engineer One in Your Kitchen

A new website shows you how chemicals and the razzle dazzle of molecular gastronomy might save the world, or at least reduce your carbon footprint.

How chemicals and the razzle dazzle of molecular gastronomy might save the world, or at least reduce your carbon footprint

Consider the orange. Citrus sinensis. Its fleshy, segmented fruit has a tight-fitting skin and contains at least 300 different chemicals. It is not easy to grow. It takes about 13 gallons of water. The fruit only ripens on the tree before it’s picked. And since they’re only grown in six states, oranges are either packed and shipped to places where citrus doesn’t grow or processed into one of America’s favorite breakfast drinks: orange juice.

If you’re like me and live in a region ill-adapted for citrus groves, the sustainable orange options are pretty limited. The only way I could grow an orange tree would be to turn my garden into a palace of plastic that might resemble a Christo and Jean Claude sculpture and ask for a huge tax break on my utility bills. But a new website called carbonfoodprint is trying to provide an alternative.

Carbonfoodprint is designed to help you create all-natural alternatives to high carbon-footprint flavors from ingredients right in your backyard. By using knowledge of molecular gastronomy, the theory goes, one can find locally available flavors that, in the right combination, taste like an orange.

I first heard about Bernard Lahousse, the man behind carbonfoodprint (who is also the project manager at The Flemish Primitives and a food scientist at Sense for Taste), from Martin Lersch’s website Khymos. Lahousse has created an online flavor thesaurus that graphs the volatile compounds in foods. One use for this resource is inspiring chefs to play with unusual combinations of foods based on what they have in common at a molecular level. This has meant injecting the scent of a kiwi into oysters (it turns out they both share methyl hexanoate, a chemical with a fruity pineapple-like taste). Or opening up the possibility of substituting coriander, tarragon, clove, and laurel for fresh basil.

While that application of molecular gastronomy veers off into the culinary avant-garde, carbonfoodprint has the potential to change the world. Or at the very least, cut the carbon associated with our oranges.

“Orange is quite difficult to make,” Lahousse told me. “First we said, ‘Which are the flavor components? What are the key odorants? What other products could we use to replace those key odorants? What products do we have locally to recreate the orange?’” This may sound like conceptual cooking, but bioengineering an orange was not a theoretical project. Lahousse says it’s possible to replicate some of the flavor-packing that OJ makers do in the confines of your own home.

Lahousse charted the 10 key components of an orange in a sunburst diagram. Each color stands for a key flavor component and using the right combination of other ingredients, one could create the taste of an orange without actually using an orange. You could use grapes, cucumber, cilantro, tarragon, or a number of other components depending on where you are. “The aim of the project is to inspire people how they can use local products to recreate exotic or high carbon footprint products,” he says. “These flavors are all around.”

His “orange” recipe (currently the only one available on the site, more are coming soon) calls for:

  • 20 grams of groundcherry (also known as husk cherries or Physalis)
  • 10 grams of melon
  • 5 grams gooseberry
  • 3 seeds of coriander
  • 1 juniper berry
  • \n

I was able to find most of these ingredients—all it took was a trip to the coast for some juniper berries and a stop at the farmers’ market. As I weighed them out and blended them together, I realized I had never really noticed the orange-like smell of a melon, but the sweet fruity scent was there. It turns out acetaldehyde is found in both oranges and ripe melons. My end result—an orange juice that actually looked quite green—tasted sweeter and less tart than Minute Maid and more like the orange liquid you get from sucking on a citrus throat lozenge. Call it the power of placebo, but something about making “orange” myself made the drink taste more like orange, a flavor that’s nearly impossible to replicate.

And here’s the thing—to have both your “orange” and your locavore merit badge in much of the world, you may need to have an open mind about molecular science. “If these flavors are connected on a molecular level, they might go well together food-wise. You still need to use skill and knowledge to make it happen,” says H. Alexander Talbot, author of the blog and the forthcoming book Ideas in Food. “It’s not just some miracle donkey dust that you sprinkle on things. The rabbit doesn’t just come out of the hat. There’s a reason it does.”

And maybe that’s the larger message. The public shouldn’t dismiss avant-garde scientific techniques off-hand just because they haven’t heard of them before. Lahousse’s latest project makes it clear that molecular science is not merely smoke and mirrors and frivolous foams. It can also be about the possibility of reinterpreting the lime flavor with cilantro and lemon grass, re-imagining cranberries when a recipe calls for lemons, or unlocking the secret to fried bacon in basmati rice, strawberry, and black tea. For those who want to eat local and seasonal but don't want to give up whole swaths of flavors, food science may have found a solution.

“We are scientists. We want to have the best taste,” Lahousse told me. “Mother Nature is very intelligent. It’s up to science people to understand that intelligence and use it well.”

Illustration by Junyi Wu

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