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April 21st, 2010 - Pickled Ginger & Other Delights

I will be the first to admit that I am easily waysided by little details that I notice in, on, or around things, and the crux of today's entry is no exception.
Today's entry originates from, well, our entryway.
Immediately upon entering our building, there is a large plastic bucket still containing a fair stock of 'ice melt' - the stuff you throw on the sidewalk to chemically melt the ice and make it safer to walk on. Although it is April 21st, this means nothing in Wisconsin, even in southern Wisconsin, as we could have an ice storm at any minute. Don't let the 60 degree temperatures fool you. That bucket of Ice Melt could stay out there all year for all I know, we haven't lived here long enough to find out. We'll keep you posted, and hope it stays at the ready.
The thing is, one day I saw this pastel pink label on the bucket and stooped down to see what it said. Expecting something locally-related like 'frozen tater-tots' or a gross of sauerkraut, (how else could you describe a large quantity of sauerkraut...?) I was much taken aback when the said label proclaimed it was 20 LBS of:

My first thought was, "Wow, that's a lot of pickled ginger."
It wasn't until I later looked closely at the photograph the label that I became increasingly shocked at the chemical make-up of something so seemingly innocuous as a sushi component.

Thus began a merry web-chase of research, which brought with it a story steeped in mystery, absurdity, cultural history, and bio-chemical design.

First off, the first ingredient is actually ginger, so that's good, with the first labeled ingredient being the most plentiful by volume as defined by US labeling laws. Ginger's name is thought to be ultimately derived from a Sanskrit phrase meaning "body of a horn."
Interestingly enough, "ginger is also a minor chemical irritant, and because of this was used as a horse suppository by pre-World War I mounted regiments for feaguing*.

*Feaguing or Gingering: "An 1811 dictionary states: "to feague a horse is to put ginger up a horse’s fundament, or formerly, as it is said, a live eel, to make him lively and carry his tail well. It is said, a forfeit is incurred by any horse-dealer’s servant, who shall show a horse without first feaguing him."
"Ginger is an irritant, and when inserted into a horse's anus, the horse will carry its tail high and generally act somewhat restless and more lively." No doubt. At some point we came to our senses and outlawed this sort of behavior, but I guess it still happens at shows, and they have tests for it. I'm wondering if that's where the phrase "walking gingerly" came about.
I'm not sure which is nuttier, that, or breeding dogs to look like monstrosities of nature just because we can. But I digress...

Ginger also has a sialagogue action, which stimulates the production of saliva, making swallowing easier. If you can get over the feaguing. Some say this makes ginger a proper palette-cleanser.

Next comes the water and salt; no surprise there, common stuff you find in pickled food, or in nearly all food nowadays.
After that it gets a little sketchy.
To understand more about somethings chemical composition, it helps to know a little about it's purpose or 'application':

'Sushi Shoga' is pickled ginger that is used during the sushi meal as a 'palette cleanser' or as a side dish.
It is sliced very thin and looks convincingly like a pile of Carl Buddig sliced turkey cold cuts.

Some of it is 'traditionally pink', and sometimes it is a pale yellow. Please keep this fact in mind as the story unfolds.

In Japanese, it is known as 'gari' or 'amazu shoga' and resides in the food family of 'tsukemono' (pickled vegetables).

Tsukemono are used as 'hashi-yasume', literally meaning, “chopstick resters”, side dishes that have a totally different texture and flavor.
Say for instance you had some grilled meat with a sweet-savory sauce as the main course, you might have some simple, crunchy pickled cucumber slices to go with it, as hashi-yasume.

Gari is often served and eaten after sushi, and is sometimes called sushi ginger, mostly by unknowing western dorks.
It's served with sushi or sashimi and eaten between different kinds or courses of sushi. It helps to clean your taste buds and enhance the flavors.
"Gari is usually eaten between dishes of sushi. Gari is not meant to be eaten or consumed in any type of sushi or hand roll." So DON'T DO IT, or bad things will happen to you. If you find it stuffed inside a sushi roll, put your chopsticks down and slowly back away, then report the so-called sushi parlor to your local sushi control board.

Here's the deal. This whole palette-cleansing side-dish thing is based on getting your senses ready for a new sensation. Before the days of designer food, food-lovers thought well of doing this, then the 'food scientists' and 'flavorists' got a hold of the idea and went nuts with it. Well, it has nothing to do with nuts in this case, let's just say they went crazy with it. Which leads us to our next ingredient. Actually our next chain of ingredients...

Lactic acid, acetic acid, citric acid, and aspartame.

Lactic acid is a food additive used as an acidity regulator, or pH control agent. It changes or maintains the pH balance (the acidity or basicity), assisting in, for one thing, controlling the perceived 'sourness' of of the food. When you consider that the next two ingredients are acids as well, including citric acid which gives fruit such as limes their sour taste, mmm, I could see a need for that.
The amount of lactic acid in our pickled ginger is not specified, but it does also pop up in a number of other interesting places, in varying amounts.

In the food 'industry', lactic acid is primarily found in sour milk products, such as: koumiss, leban, yogurt, kefir, and some cottage cheeses.
The lactic acid coagulates (curdles) the casein in what then becomes fermented milk.
Lactic acid has also gained importance in the detergent industry over the last decade. Being a good descaler, soap-scum remover and registered anti-bacterial agent, "an economically beneficial as well as environmentally beneficial trend toward safer and natural ingredients has also contributed to it's popularity."
In recent times it has made many infomercial-like appearances used as a facial mask, as it handily, it is said, descales and removes your facial scum and bacteria, especially your wrinkles.

Industrially, preparatory lactic acid fermentation is performed by Lactobacillus bacteria, among others. These bacteria can also 'operate' in the mouth; the acid they produce is responsible for some rather nasty tooth decay known as caries.
Caries is a progressive destruction of any kind of bone structure. Dental caries affects different parts of the teeth (enamel, dentin, or cementum) both in the crown and/or the root of the tooth. Nearly all cases contain bacteria such as streptococcus mutans, lactobacillus and Candida albicans, which produce the lactic acid responsible for the caries. (Photos withheld due to public outcry)

Lactic acid is also used as a monomer for producing polylactic acid (PLA) which eventually becomes a type of biodegradable plastic. This kind of plastic is thought of as a good substitute for conventional plastic produced from petroleum oil because of it's low emission of carbon dioxide. Handy stuff!

The acetic acid comes in the form of vinegar to help with the pickling process. Whether the acetic acid on the label is an additive, or it is from what the ginger is still saturated with when it is added to the other ingredients is not known. Table vinegar tends to be more diluted (4% to 8% acetic acid), while commercial food pickling generally employs more concentrated (18% +) solutions. The amount of acetic acid used as vinegar on a worldwide scale is not large, but historically pickling is by far the oldest and best known application.
Tapatío hot sauce is an example of a product that combines acetic acid and water to create vinegar in the production of the final food product.
Vinegar was known early in civilizations as the natural result of exposing beer and wine to open air, as acetic acid-producing bacteria are present globally.
The use of acetic acid in alchemy extends back to the third century BC, when the Greek philosopher Theophrastus described how vinegar acted on metals to produce pigments useful in art, including white lead (lead carbonate) and verdigris, a green mixture of copper salts including copper acetate.
The ancient Romans boiled soured wine in lead pots to produce a highly sweet syrup called sapa. Sapa was rich in lead acetate, a sweet substance also called 'Sugar of Lead' or 'Sugar of Saturn', which contributed to lead poisoning among the Roman aristocracy. An early food additive that didn't quite work out. Ah well, live and learn. Or not.
So after all that sourness, you wouldn't want your flavor sensing to get overstimulated in any one particular direction, so let's sweeten you back up with a dose of aspartame.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener first synthesized from naturally occurring amino acids in 1965. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar in typical concentrations, but without the higher caloric energy value of sugar. The quantity of aspartame needed to produce a sweet taste is so small that its caloric contribution is negligible.
However, aspartame and sugar do not taste the same; the sweetness of aspartame has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar. Some people feel that aspartame leaves an odd after-taste, others say it as a 'non-flavor' or 'watery' after-taste.
Under high temperatures or high pH, aspartame may hydrolyze (break down) into the amino acids that make it up. This makes it undesirable as a baking sweetener, and prone to degradation in products hosting a high-pH. Hmmm, high-pH... see the purpose of lactic acid, above...
In products that may require a longer shelf life, aspartame is sometimes blended with a more stable artificial sweetener, such as saccharin. Hey, that's on our list of ingredients too. Double-bonus! It sweetens and acts as a preservative for your other sweetener! Can it get any better than this...?
Because its breakdown products include 'phenylalanine', aspartame is among the many substances that must be avoided by people with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic condition. Hence the warning label on foods containing aspartame: "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine." In people with PKU it can reach toxic levels because their systems can't metabolize it.
One other interesting note: "In certain markets aspartame is manufactured using a genetically modified variation of E. coli." Nom.

The more I looked into this ingredients list, the more I realized it was becoming a veritable House of Cards. You need this to do that, and this to stabilize that, and this to make up for that, leading us back to this, which doesn't play well with that, so we need to tweak that, if we want the desired effect.

Somewhere along the way it stopped being pickled ginger and became Bunsen burners and Erlenmeyer flasks, and forklifts moving huge bags of white power...

Join me as we follow the tracks of the forklift to what I feel is the true philosophy behind this sensory House of Cards.
Consider the next ingredient, everyones favorite: MSG. Or in this case, Monosodium L-glutamate.
It has been fingered as the cause of the "Chinese restaurant syndrome" (That sure could mean a lot of things) and has been suspected of precipitating migraine headaches. In appropriate doses it causes burning sensations, facial pressure, and chest pain. But it tastes so damn good, we'll put up with it! Pass the soy sauce!

Here, the forklift tracks stop at the edge of a large chasm known as "Umami."
This is what our pickled ginger, industrially known as Sushi Shoga, Amazu shoga, or Gari is all about.
"The English language doesn't have a word for umami, that is why we use the Japanese one," explains Gary Beauchamp, director of Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, PA, an independent nonprofit research center focused on the senses of taste and smell.
Loosely translated from Japanese, umami means "delicious taste."
Despite its somewhat dubious past, umami is now officially recognized as the fifth basic taste. In 2000, researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine discovered taste receptors for umami, giving it scientific credibility.
Umami refers to the perceived taste of glutamate, the most common of all amino acids. It can be found in tomatoes, aged cheeses, mushrooms and other savory foods. The Japanese researcher who first isolated glutamate gave it the name "umami."
"Monosodium glutamate is the most common example of umami, but there are other substances that have the same unique, intrinsic taste," explains Mariano Gascon, the flavor lab director at Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wis.
"An important sensory contribution of ingredients like MSG and nucleotides is their flavor enhancing property," says Gascon.
Research is ongoing as scientists try to unravel the mystery of umami and its taste receptors. At Monell, says Beauchamp, scientists are studying umami in three basic areas.
First they identify receptors involved in detecting umami taste. Next, they take a look at how early experiences with umami affect food choices later in life. For example, human breast milk is very high in glutamates.
Finally, they try to determine whether there are differences in sensitivity to umami, and if so, how they influence food choices.
How thoughtful of them.
Beauchamp explains that learning how receptor molecules work can lead to the development of less-expensive ingredients and flavor enhancers. He says the food industry is very concerned with understanding why people consume what they consume.
Ya think?
Interestingly enough, glutamate is flavorless when it's isolated however.
Monosodium glutamate may be the most common example of umami, having been marketed since the early 1900s, but there is no one standard umami flavor. "It is very difficult to develop a standard because MSG, at low concentrations, has a salty taste," says Koetke. "But at higher concentrations, the taste is thought to be unique, almost lingering, and is described as umami." It's awesome right before the headache, he added. No he didn't say that. Sounds more like Xanadu to me.

Well-prepared foods delivering a flavor experience that goes beyond the five basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, create a taste sensation is called "kokumi," a Japanese word used to express the concept of "deliciousness," a blend of initial flavor, impact, continuity and roundness. Mmmm, roundness.

"The kokumi seasoning benefits a wide variety of applications. Meat and poultry products acquire a fuller, longer-lasting taste, while seafood enjoys heightened cooked seafood flavor without the fishy smell during storage. Vegetables, especially tomato, exhibit the sweetness and distinct flavor of cooked vegetables, as well as improved mouthfulness." (mouthfulness?)
He concludes by adding, (and performing accenting arm and hand gestures, I'm sure) "Umami's synergistic effect unites protein and other flavor components, resulting in a more flavorful whole.
As consumers become more familiar with, and educated about umami, they'll no doubt want it." No, doubt.

This is what you want out of your chopstick rester. A humanitarian intervention of your taste buds that lays the groundwork for an all-out, wide-spectrum incursion of your long-term food-related senses. Target sighted and recognized: your mouth.

From what's left on the label, you could probably guess the rest.
Potassium sorbate is the potassium salt of sorbic acid, and it's primary use is as a food preservative. It is prepared by the reaction of sorbic acid with potassium hydroxide.
Potassium sorbate is used to inhibit molds and yeasts in many foods, such as cheese, wine, yogurt, dried meats, apple cider and
baked goods. It can also be found in the ingredients list of many herbal dietary supplement products to prevent mold and microbes and to increase their shelf life.
Also, it is used in many personal care products to inhibit the development of microorganisms for 'shelf stability'.

As we mentioned previously, this is 'pink' ginger. The natural ginger is normally a yellowish color. The pink comes from a red dye called, "Allura red AC (FD&C Red #40) - Orange / red food dye. Allura Red AC is an azo dye (a synthesized compand that has fewer health risks associated with it in comparison to other azo dyes, and with the old way of getting red dyes: grinding up beetles). However, some studies have found some adverse health effects that may be associated with the dye.

In Europe, Allura Red AC is not recommended for consumption by children. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Sweden.
In the United States, Allura Red AC is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in cosmetics, drugs, and food. It is used in some tattoo inks and is used in many products, such as soft drinks, children's medications, and cotton candy.
Well, it's all food for thought. I wonder if you could melt the ice off of a driveway with it...

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