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Television Review : Tasty Technology in PBS' 'How to Create Junk Food'

January 26, 1988|BILL STEIGERWALD

It's a good thing Adelle Davis and Euell Gibbons are already dead, because if they were to see "How to Create a Junk Food" on "Nova" tonight, it would probably kill them (8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, 9 p.m. on Channel 50).

"Nova" goes to Britain and into the amazing world of "food fabrication," where gangs of white-coated food engineers and marketers try to develop a profitable new snack food that's tasty, healthy and contains no artificial additives.

Something crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Or, to quote one food techie, a bite-sized, integrated sandwich with a "crisp bite and a moist mouth feel."

Though the fascinating hour is so straightforward that it often seems like a super-subtle Monty Python sendup, it's really a wonderful course in the slightly mad but ingenious science of snacks.

Concept generation seminars, technology consultants, automation, video cameras, computers, graphs, taste profiles, psychiatrists and even human taste buds are among the modern weapons employed.

The ultimate weapon is the flavorist, a 20th-Century alchemist who analyzes natural things like Danish blue cheese or barbecued beef, reconstructs them chemically in the lab and produces their essences to punch up the taste of bland fillings.

Marketing and technology co-produce a croissant-dough cone with a moist meat or cheese filling that appears perfect. But when they test it on the mouths of real consumers (English housewives), it's a bloomin' flop.

Undaunted, the technologists go back to their gizmos and test tubes. After doing such goofy things as gluing electrodes to a chewer's cheeks to get "chew profiles" of different fillings, they come up with a second prototype, Crack a Snack. The wheat-cracker wrapped "savory tube" is called a "triumph of food engineering," which, we're warned, if it is given the proper image, "there's little doubt we'll buy it."

A test production run of Crack a Snacks includes a moment of hilarity that Chaplin couldn't have improved on: Food engineers running in circles trying to fix a cutting blade as their customized cooker-extruder machines squirt tubes of Crack a Snack at 80 feet a minute.

"How to Create a Junk Food," though needlessly bookended by unfunny cameos by jolly Julia Child, is full of interesting scientific facts and provides further testimony to the double-edged wonders of technology. It's probably too scary for natural food nuts, but for a documentary on food, it's got a "highly desirable mouth feel."

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