112: Food Scientist Ali Bouzari on the 8 Ingredients Every Cook Needs

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The Only 8 Ingredients any Cook Needs with Food Scientist Ali Bouzari
Wellness Mama » Episode » 112: Food Scientist Ali Bouzari on the 8 Ingredients Every Cook Needs
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112: Food Scientist Ali Bouzari on the 8 Ingredients Every Cook Needs

Ali Bouzari is here to talk about food and the way we think about it, and he’s incredibly qualified to do so. As a chef and culinary scientist (literally, he has a PhD in Food Biochemistry), Ali knows exactly how food works and why. Companies and culinary programs all over the world consult with him to find the best ways to make new and innovative foods.

Ali Bouzari on the Science of Food

I met Ali Bouzari at a conference, and I’ll admit at first I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant by “food science.”

Ali sees any recipe from two sides. On the one hand he’s a chef who appreciates crispy bacon, creamy dressing, or a perfectly seared steak. On the other hand he’s a scientist who sees all food as a sum of 8 Ingredients: Water, Sugars, Carbs, Lipids, Proteins, Minerals, Gases, and Heat.

Understand each of these players, he says, and you will know how to create with food like never before.

His presentation on the 8 Ingredients fascinated me that day, and I’ve started to use what he taught me in the way I approach cooking at home. Thankfully he wrote an amazing book about it in a way that’s accessible to the home cook. It’s called Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food and it’s like a comic book meets cookbook … even my kids love it and get a lot out of it!

So, let’s see what’s cooking!

In This Episode You’ll Learn

  • how to see everyday foods through a scientific lens and make them work for you in the kitchen
  • why Ivy League schools and the Culinary Institute of America turn to Ali Bouzari for the latest food ideas
  • the science of what makes ingredients burn, emulsify, whip, crunch, wilt, and more
  • how you can learn to control your ingredients like a chef
  • the psychology of how we evaluate and appreciate the food we eat
  • alternative, natural ways to preserve or alter mass-market food … and whether Ali thinks these methods are better
  • when mass-market food production became a reality, and why (it’s fascinating!)
  • some of the clients Ali has helped over the years, and the stories behind the products they created
  • a different take on nitrates, carrageenan, phosphates, and other infamous food additives
  • the encouraging percentage of Ali’s clients who want to bring real food ingredients to the mass market
  • new frontiers in food: how culinary scientists discover new ingredients (little “i”) and new ways to use them
  • why Ali thinks sugar doesn’t totally deserve the bad rap it gets (I’m interested to hear this one!)
  • and more!

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

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Katie: Welcome to The Healthy Moms podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And today’s guest is going to be a real treat, and there’s a little bit of a pun intended. Ali Bouzari is a culinary scientist, an author, an educator, and he co-founded a company called Pilot R&D, which is a culinary research and development company. And I met Ali recently. And I heard a presentation of his and was absolutely blown away. So as a chef with a Ph.D. in food biochemistry, he has helped to really lead the charge in changing the way we think about cooking by teaching and developing curriculum at top universities and Ivy League schools and even the Culinary Institute of America. And he has worked with many top-level chefs. And he now actually helps companies develop food. So welcome, Ali. Thanks for being here.

Ali: Thanks, Katie. Good to talk to you.

Katie: It’s gonna be fun. So I must admit I first saw your name on the lunch time slot of a schedule at a conference, and it was something along the lines of it was gonna deal with food science. And I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a little bit and figured that might not be the most interesting of topic, and I will also admit that I was 100% wrong, because your presentation was probably one of the most fascinating I’ve heard in a long time. And I’m hoping we can translate all those topics from the PowerPoint presentation you had into audio only so that everybody listening can benefit. So to start, let’s break through some of the dogma around food. You say that you are food-agnostic. Can you explain what that means?

Ali: Yeah. And to your first thought of how unsexy the phrase “food science” sounds, I don’t blame you at all for not being excited about the prospect of something described that way. And when we talk about food science as a phrase, food science as a field came out of basically, World War II where, all of a sudden, we were figuring out how to feed massive numbers of people from centralized hubs in order to cope with industrial postwar world. And so a lot of food science was geared towards how do we make food that lasts a long time so it doesn’t spoil and how do we be able to distribute food all over the country and all over the world in a way that doesn’t kill people?

So food science sort of very quickly became the science of like potato chips and canned tomatoes. And what’s unfortunate is that study, it’s opened up so many amazing things that we know now about how food works and how food becomes delicious and how you can cook anything. But the field of food science has still stayed grounded in the like big-retail-industrial-food-complex kind of a way of looking at food. And coming from a background of being a chef and working in these, you know, amazing fine dining or top restaurants around the world, food has always been more of a vibrant, dynamic, delicious thing rather than a problem to be solved.

So when I say that I’m food-agnostic or nutrition-agnostic, it means that I will eat anything that’s good. I will eat anything that’s delicious, whether it’s, you know insane five-hour tasting menu at three-Michelin-star restaurant or it’s really, really good tacos out of the back of a truck or it’s like the best, you know, early season stone fruit from where I live in Sonoma County. I will eat anything. And since my job is a lot of developing recipes and restaurant ideas and food product ideas for other people, for other companies, our…my and my partner’s goal is to play in whatever sandbox that our client creates.

You know, if somebody is trying to avoid gluten or if somebody is trying to focus on plant foods or if somebody really, really believes that for them high-protein, low-carb is the type of food that they wanna eat, we can make anything taste good with our approach to food. So, yeah, our focus is you tell us what you need, and we will make it enjoyable.

Katie: Yeah, it’s so cool. So let’s delve into that, how you think of food differently than most people, because I think a lot of us think of food in terms of, unfortunately, a lot of people, like good and bad, or there’s a lot of guilt around certain foods or certain types of food. Or other people think of food very utilitarian in broad categories like macros. There’s protein, fat, and carbs, and that it. And you really opened up an entirely different side of food with the biochemical. So let’s talk through that. How do you think of food differently than the rest of us?

Ali: We call our field, our methodology, we call it culinary science, which is basically taking all of the amazing science, that foundation of knowledge that people have created over, you know, more than half a century studying food and funneling it into actual, real food rather than things that are only produced by touching stainless steel. So the way that that works is by having a foot grounded in two worlds equally, the world of the chef as somebody who… I don’t think there’s anybody out there who has better hands-on, just gut instincts when it comes to how food works, how to make food delicious, how to make food wholesome. And then also pair that with the vision and the understanding of a scientist who can see all of the components of food and how they fit together and understand all of the underlying patterns.

So we like to talk about food as sort of a picture in picture, right? If you imagine like macroscopic and microscopic at the same time, you’re holding a mango and you’re eating that mango and you’re like, “Wow, this mango is incredibly juicy. It’s super sweet. It’s got a lot of nice acidity. It’s got a lot of great aroma. I can feel all the fibers getting stuck in my teeth,” just everything that goes into eating a mango, there is a way that we approach food that involves understanding how that mango is sweet, how that aroma is so pleasing, how the mango got that beautiful bright orange-yellow color that doesn’t require a bunch of weird complex chemical names, doesn’t require memorizing a bunch of formulas.

And it was funny when you mentioned people who take a very utilitarian sort of basic view of food, looking at just macros, looking at “What does this have in terms of proteins, water, sugars, complex carbs, lipids, etc.” For us, what’s amazing is those exact same building blocks that are already in the cultural conversation and are oftentimes the thing that we feel really guilty or proud of when we look at the back of a package, those same fundamental macro components, those macronutrients, the building blocks of food are the things that also dictate whether food is going to taste good or whether it’s going to be crispy or whether it’s going to be juicy or whether it’s gonna have a lot of aroma. Those things that you read on the back of a nutrient label aren’t just, you know, what kind of like guilty conscience day you’re gonna have or not. They are the actual recipe makers for everything that you’ll ever cook, eat, or serve again.

Katie: Yeah. So let’s go through some of those. I feel like your understanding of food let you create these really novel ways of using them. And in your presentation, you talked about things like watermelon seeds and how that can be used in food or roasted red peppers and all these different ways that we would just consider these maybe an ingredient in a stir fry. But you actually use them in biochemical ways that make them really interesting. So what are those building blocks that are broken down, and how can we use them differently?

Ali: Yeah. So the basic idea of this way of looking at food is that literally everything, from a piece of celery to a shrimp or a gluten-free muffin, is made of just eight different building blocks, water, sugars, complex carbs, so things like starch and pectin and so on, proteins, lipid, minerals, gases, and heat. Heat, obviously, isn’t a physical thing, but it plays just as much a role in making food what it is as the others. So each of those seven things, which are already things that we’re talking about when it comes to food. The cool thing is each of them only has like a handful of tricks. They have like a universal personality that they just…they exhibit that personality in everything.

So what I mean by that is…you know, let’s pick sugar. Sugar is the current demon of the decade. Sugar is the thing that we’re now…as a society that’s always thinking about the next health trend and the next health findings, sugar is the Freddy Krueger that’s gonna pop out of a can of coke and kill us. Sugar is interesting because it does five things in our food. It does things like helping to retain water. It breaks down and becomes brown when things caramelize and get like roasty brown in an oven or on a grill. Sugar is what microbes ferment for the most part. So when you’re talking about everything from pickles to kombucha or beer, a lot of that is coming from sugar being broken down and so on.

And the interesting thing is sugar does those five jobs, and it can only do those five jobs, and it does those five jobs in literally everything. So what I mean by that is sugar is just as important to eating a stick of celery as it is to eating like a 32-gram-per-serving popsicle. Sugar is at play in every single food that is out there. Anything that can turn brown in an oven, anything that has even mild sweetness is coming from sugar. And I’m not advocating that people eat a ton of sugar. I’m just trying to give people X-ray vision to see that sugar, even in tiny quantities in different foods, plays a similar set of rules. And so when you realize that these rules are…they’re nothing incredibly sciencey. It’s not something that takes going to school to learn. It’s not something that you have to learn a whole new vocabulary.

Learning that, for instance, anytime you have sugars, carbs, proteins, or lipids or even gases in your food, it will help to make, just an example, it will help liquids get thicker. So what I mean by that is when you make a sauce or when you make a batter or when you’re just drinking a beverage and it’s thicker than just pure water, the reason it’s thicker is because the sugars or the carbs or the proteins or even the gas bubbles are getting in water’s way as it rolls around in your mouth from point A to point B. So if you zoomed in on just a pure glass of water, water is basically just shaped like a marble. So when you swirl it around on your tongue, it’s just rolling around freely, and it feels thin because that water can roll and slosh back and forth pretty easily. When you put…when you thicken gravy with cornstarch or almond flour or whatever you might be using, what you’re doing is you’re throwing a bunch of carbs, which are like a giant fallen tree branches, in the water’s path. So that is it’s trying to roll around on your spoon or on your plate or even in your mouth. It takes a lot longer to get where it’s going because of all of those obstacles.

And what’s amazing is, okay, great, yeah, now we know how cornstarch in Thanksgiving gravy works. But that’s not just something that’s particular to gravy. It’s not just something that’s particular to starch. That is how the thickening of everything works. So let’s say that you are a fan of double-churned ice cream because that is a form of ice cream that you can have that’s supposed to have like half the calories. It’s supposed to have half the sugars and so on and so forth. The way that double-churned ice cream became a thing and made such a splash on the market was because they took out a bunch of sugar. They took out… Sometimes, honestly, they take out some of the like stabilizers and binders and other thickeners that people don’t like to see on a label.

And they replaced the thickening power. They replaced the power of those sugars and carbs and things to make stuff thick and creamy with air, because just like the froth on the top of a beer is thicker than the beer that’s below it, you can make ice cream thicker by churning more bubbles of gas, more bubbles of air into that ice cream because those bubbles actually fill the exact same role as that like fallen tree branch of a carb would do where water is still trying to get from point A to Point B. It’s trying to flow. It’s trying to make the ice cream melt and move from place to place. But those gas bubbles are sort of crowding the space and making it harder for things to move around, which results in something that feels really creamy, even though it may be lower fat, maybe lower sugar, so on and so forth.

So what I’m talking about with these examples is a way of looking at food that all of a sudden exposes all of the moving parts so that you can pick and choose exactly what you wanna do with them. When you were talking about watermelon seeds just now, yeah, that was an example we discuss at this retreat. Turns out watermelon seeds have a ton of protein. It’s something that I don’t think anybody has looked at before because it’s, I don’t know, it’s counterintuitive that some little, weird, dinky, white seed on the inside of a watermelon would carry a ton of protein, but it does. It has a massive amount of protein compared to actually a lot of foods out there.

And what that means to me as a chef and as a person with this sort of X-ray vision approach to food is that now, all of a sudden, maybe if I’m using watermelon seeds and I grind them into a flour, maybe there is potential for using that in a marinade to make something turn really beautiful golden brown on a grill, or maybe that’s the ability for me to have a low-carb thickener for a salad dressing rather than having to use some emulsifier or having to use something like eggs if I want it to be a vegan product. It basically, looking at what that watermelon seed is made of, turns it from just a seed that, you know, might not really be super exciting into kind of a toolbox.

And that is really our way of approaching food is that all of these ingredients that we call “ingredients,” like tomato or peach or a piece of beef, they’re toolboxes built out of these eight sort of like mother ingredients that…what we call the “Ingredients.” And understanding how those Ingredients do these very simple universal tricks helps us sort through the fact that… I mean, just walking through the Whole Foods produce aisle is a mind-blowing and intimidating thing now. And finding these patterns that connect things really helps to simplify and make life a lot easier for people who are just trying to have good food that fits their lifestyle.

Katie: For sure. And as you were talking in your presentation originally, my mind was like going off to all these ideas, especially for those with allergies, because when you broke down the foods to their building blocks, into their components of what they do in food, like a lot of people think it’s really hard to substitute, for instance, eggs because they have a really specific purpose in foods. But if you look at like the variety of things eggs do in a recipe, you basically could like kind of essentially pull those building blocks from other ingredients, right?

Ali: Right, exactly. And let’s use eggs as an example, right? So in Silicon Valley, there is this amazing like… And I mean amazing in not necessarily in the sense of it being good, but it is…it amazes one to watch this all happen. There is this gold rush to make mayonnaise without eggs, right? If somebody would have told us that like 15 years ago that the new IP in Silicon Valley would be how to make the best vegan mayonnaise, that would be an amazing conversation to have. But let’s say you’re just trying to avoid eggs, and you want to make some like creamy spread to go onto a sandwich, or you want to make a Caesar or ranch-style, like creamy salad dressing, but you don’t wanna have eggs in the recipe. There is nothing necessarily special about those eggs except that they contain some fat. They contain some lipids that make it nice and rich. They contain some protein that is helping to keep stable emulsion, you know, keep oil and water mixed together so that it can be creamy and also to thicken it so that it can be creamy. And you know, maybe the eggs have a little bit of water. So it’s got those three things. It’s got some fats, some protein, and some water.

Well, oh my gosh, we can find that in so many different foods, and we can use it in so many different ways depending on the flavor of what we’re trying to get after. So instead of eggs in like a mayo, you could use roasted garlic that you had roasted in like coconut oil. You could use avocados. You could use pureed okra. You could use pureed roasted red peppers. You could use sun-dried tomatoes that you mash up with a mortar and pestle. You could use hazelnut butter if you had some around. You could use pureed chicken livers if you were going for, you know, something that felt super Paleo.

The point is there are so many different ways to make everything. And what we’re talking about doing of swapping things in and out and giving people the ability to compensate for allergies and avoid certain types of food is something the food industry has done forever. It’s just the things that they’ve been swapping out have been these like purified, isolated compounds where, instead of using hazelnut butter to thicken a sauce or make something creamy and thick, they would use like refined hazelnut starch that then they chopped up into much tiny pieces to make hazelnut maltodextrin or something like that because they wanted only the thickening power from that hazelnut.

Well, as chefs and as home cooks, we are lucky to be able to have delicious things like avocados and hazelnuts that have a lot of great aroma and color and other nutrients that come with them. So why not learn how to take these examples from the bigger food industry and sort of use that power for good. You know, why don’t we use this mindset to be able to swap real foods in and out for what we want so that maybe…if you’re trying to figure out how to cook things that don’t contain gluten, maybe now this is a way for people to become less dependent on those like, you know, mysterious bags of white powder that they get from a health food store and sort of take the ownership back over what they can eat.

Katie: Yeah, that’s such a cool concept because, as a culinary scientist, you’re working in this very controlled environment. But as you were talking, I found myself thinking of all these ways I could use the same kind of ideas and principles in everyday cooking. So let’s go a little deeper with that. How can what you’re doing as a culinary scientist help the home cook? And how would you suggest actually integrating these kind of concepts into home cooking?

Ali: Well, I mean, so for the shameless plug moment, I wrote a book about how all of this stuff works. It’s called “Ingredient.” And the idea was basically, each of these eight building blocks that we’re talking about, I gave each of them a chapter. And rather than go through and like give you the like textbook level science of how all of these things work, I teamed up with a comic book artist and a NatGeo photographer to basically turn the book into an illustrated guide to getting to know the personalities of each of these Ingredients. So you can read through the proteins book, and you can see all of the things that proteins do for you laid out in super vivid color along with examples of how, you know, shrimp ceviche is very similar to peanut butter, is very similar to a chia cracker, and how proteins are helping to facilitate all of those things being really tasty.

So the idea there is that I didn’t put any recipes in the book. I didn’t want to try to… I didn’t want to try to tell people how they should or shouldn’t cook because the thing that I’ve noticed from working as a chef and working with so many different types of clients in the industry is that now, more than any time in human history, everybody’s cooking a little bit different at home. Everybody has different needs based on what they can and can’t have, what their family does and doesn’t like, where they live in the country, what season it is, and, you know, a million other factors. So what I wanted to do was give people a blueprint for cooking how they like to or have to cook, but with the lights turned on, in a way.

So when we’re talking about people cooking at home, this X-ray vision is something that, if I’ve done my job, should not add any extra steps to your day-to-day cooking life. There’s been a lot…I mean there’s a lot of really great books written about the science of food and you know, making the best possible roast turkey for Thanksgiving and making, you know, the greatest ever avocado toast and whatever. And a lot of that writing involves stopping to consult this perfect recipe, follow what are usually a bunch of extra steps, which make, you know, that recipe all the more delicious, and basically pulling yourself out of the flow of day-to-day life in order to think about the science of food.

The way that I like to talk about this stuff is on a level of just the same kind of intuition that we all have in our gut from spreading peanut butter on toast for, you know, three decades. And what I mean by that is I think the example that I gave at this retreat was, “Think about when you’re sautéing onions in a pan. Everybody’s really, really familiar with the hissing sound, that sss that you get when onions are sort of happily sautéing away. There is a point when you’re sautéing onions when that hissing sound turns into a crackling sound.”

I asked a bunch of people in the room, unprompted, and all of you guys said…when I said, “When that hiss turns to crackle, what do you do?” everybody said some version of, “Go over and look at the pan, shake it, stir it, take it off the heat, whatever.” And it was this thing that like we didn’t have…nobody had to explain that the hissing dies off because water is gone. When water is gone, the temperature goes up. When the temperature goes up, proteins and sugars start to break down. When those proteins and sugars start to break down, they start to caramelize. If they break down too much, they start to burn. Nobody actually goes through that whole line of thinking. And I think I said in our talk like, “If you actually do go through that line of thinking, you might be a sociopath.”

But what I wanted to do was I wanted to create a bunch of very visual ways of just understanding those concepts instinctively, to sort of overlay almost like smartphone navigation on to your gut instinct so that after reading this book or learning this type of vision in the kitchen, you can go through your day. And if you’re trying to follow a recipe that your friend gave you and referred to you online, you can follow that recipe better. If you’re trying to come up with something just based on the four things you have in your kitchen after coming back from a weekend vacation, you’ll be able to do that more fluidly.

If you’re trying to take your favorite recipe and adjust it for somebody who’s coming over who can’t have alliums or is avoiding nightshades or doesn’t want anything animal derived in their food, all of a sudden, the feeling of, “Oh crap, now I have to start from scratch,” or, “Now I have to go online and find a recipe that is exactly that,” starts to dissipate. It starts to fade away, and you start to take a little bit more of the reins and feel more confidence in being able to execute whatever your vision is. Even if your vision is “I want to spread something creamy on this toast,” something that simple can be accomplished with this like terminator vision of being able to look at food and just understand what makes it good or what makes it bad and how to work around that according to your household rules.

Katie: Yeah. And I’ll echo…I’m definitely… There’s a link to the book in the show notes. It’s available in most bookstores as well. But it’s absolutely beautiful and super fascinating. In fact, it’s been a fun book to look through with my kids, because it’s also kind of an intro into food science and understanding these things but in a really visually gorgeous way. So thank you for writing it. It’s beautiful. I also wanna touch on…so you have a different perspective on food additives and “chemicals” than a lot of us do. And there’s kind of a reaction to all these unnatural additives in food that you’ve mentioned and things like carrageenan or nitrates in bacon, etc. And you have some interesting points on this as well. So first of all, like why are those necessarily not as bad as we think in some cases? And also how are you guys getting around them with creative ways?

Ali: Well, so there is…I think one thing to just touch on in my head is whether or not I think that like from being a biochemist and also just a healthy guy, whether or not I think something is healthy shouldn’t necessarily have a ton of bearing on what everyone else thinks. I mean the one lesson that we’re coming away from this whole era, this really like dynamic, interesting era in our cultural relationship with food is that “different strokes for different folks” really holds true. I mean there are personalized diet nutrition that’s going to be the wave of the future.

So that said, I do think that there are certain times in our culture where we’re willing to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in food because of how it’s been marketed, because of stories that we may or may not have read on, you know, Upworthy or whatever it might be. As a general rule, I stay away from things like benzoates and preservatives that are expressly included in food to kill stuff, to kill microbes. For me, just as a general rule, any compound that its like purpose is to prevent the growth of life on earth, like, okay, I can probably do without that in my food.

In terms of like texture modification, let’s talk about that, so there are a lot of clients we work with that they don’t want corn, they don’t want soy. But maybe they’re okay with like tapioca, if there has to be something starchy. Those clients are usually really, really averse to the idea of using tapioca starch. They don’t want something that seems like it’s been refined and processed and isolated. But they would be totally fine using tapioca flour.

Now for me, I see zero difference. I mean in terms of the starch that’s in that tapioca flour versus the starch that’s been pulled out of that tapioca flour, not a ton of difference. But when somebody looks on a label and they see that the ingredients are almonds, tapioca, honey, and carrots, that’s a very different story than if they look on the label and they see almonds, tapioca starch or tapioca maltodextrin, honey, and carrots. There is a tendency in our culture to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And, you know, we have finally, which I believe this is a great thing, we have finally become awakened. We’ve become conscious about reading the back of labels and questioning things that we aren’t familiar with and rightfully so because the stuff that, you know, our parents’ generation was eating in the ’50s and ’60s was probably atrocious.

That said, not everything that is…not everything that doesn’t sound like just a carrot or just a plum is necessarily gonna kill us. But the thing that we found is that that doesn’t matter. My partners and I, in what we do, we’re called on a lot by companies and publications and whatnot to do like trend forecasting, figure out, “Oh, you know, what’s gonna be the new spice blend that’s gonna be big in three years?” Or if we’re very anti-sugar now and we’re very anti-fat in the ’90s, what’s gonna the next thing that we need to avoid? So those trends are sort of a merry-go-round. And my like…my hot stock tip would be that within the next 10 years, we’re probably gonna start finding people having some gastric problems with all the protein that we’re eating in our sort of protein craze right now. And so the pendulum will swing back towards, you know, a reasonable amount of protein, a reasonable amount of sugar, a reasonable amount of fat and carbs, and just finding balance.

The one food trend that I think is actually trend-proof, that is never gonna go away is what we’re talking about here that people are always gonna feel a kneejerk reaction of distrust for stuff that they can’t understand on a food label. You know, as anti-carb as we were in the height of the Atkins craze, it was still really hard to make a logical discussion about why like a potato was gonna kill us. At the end of the day, it’s still a potato. It grows in the ground. We’ve been eating it for centuries. And that mindset is really our approach to “chemicals” in food.

When you’re talking about nitrates as a thing that is a synthetic compound that’s added to bacon to make it have it’s bacony flavor and preserve it, the thing that is going on on almost every package of bacon, hotdogs, or even like pastrami that is labeled as uncured, you’ll see that. I mean once you start looking for that, you will see it everywhere. Everything that’s uncured, if you flip that package over, it usually contains on the ingredient label celery powder or celery juice or just celery, sometimes. Well, what happens is celery as a plant naturally fixes. It grabs on to nitrate and nitrite from the soil. And it accumulates that. It like stores it up in the celery stalks so that if you just need to get some of the function of nitrate into your bacon to make it taste like bacon and make it work like bacon, you can actually get that power straight from the celery.

Similarly, you know, in chicken breasts that you buy in stores a lot of times, in order to keep that chicken breast from drying out on the shelves, meat manufacturers, going way back to, again, the ’40s and ’50s, have been adding phosphate salts to those chicken to… Phosphate basically binds water. It’s a mineral that binds water really well. So it keeps those chicken breasts plump and juicy and, honestly, probably lets the meat purveyors sell you more water per pound than chicken. So that is another thing. Phosphate is another thing that people are trying to avoid. Interestingly enough, phosphates are found in super high quantities in raisins and prunes and plums.

So we worked on a project recently where we were working on sort of like a Turkish style like rotisserie meat kind of restaurant. And they wanted it to all be super clean label, super whole food. So rather than using phosphates, like some white mineral powder to keep water in that meat, we used prune paste, which ended up having very much the same effect as we would have gotten if we would have just added the isolated “chemical.” And there are stories about that all over the industry where, you know, carrageenan and alginate and all of these like carb thickeners that people are really, really worried about, those were originally isolated from seaweed. Like they were…they are the carbs that help seaweed flap around in the super turbulent surf in the ocean without breaking. It helps them bend but not break.

And so we’re like, “All right, if we’re gonna make…let’s say we’re gonna make like a savory granola that is gonna be like sort of like a Japanese flavor profile, why would we go and use like some weird syrup that carries a lot of sugar and all these sorts of things when we could just use the seaweed, the sticky seaweed itself?” If there’s already gonna be toasted nori in the flavor profile for this granola, why don’t we use that nori and all of that natural thickening power that it has to bind the thing up in the first place and use a whole food the way that people have traditionally been using these isolated “chemicals”? And oh my gosh, the trend continues. And with this sort of X-ray vision that we talk about, you can kind of do it for everything.

If you need an antioxidant in your food, a lot of times, people will put vitamin C or ascorbic acid on a label. You’ll see that in everything from green drinks to like raisin bread. That ascorbic acid keeps fats from breaking down when they’re exposed to light and air and just time on a shelf. Rather than getting that ascorbic acid in like isolated white powder, again, you can get it from a cherry. There’s actually a type of South American cherry called an acerola cherry that, naturally, if you like…if you just dehydrated it, if you took all the water out, the dry, the solids that are left over, it’s something ridiculous like 30% vitamin C or something like that. And so people are adding cherry powder to their guacamole to keep it from turning green if they wanna take it to a farmer’s market.

And whether or not like ascorbic acid in powder form or in cherry form is actually gonna hurt us, listen, I don’t think so, but all I care about is making people happy and giving them the food that they want in a way that makes them feel like they’re living their healthiest lifestyle. So if I can accomplish that with just using cherries instead of something I would order from a “chemical” company, I’m happy to do so. And it’s a really exciting frontier in the way that our food is being made that is facilitated by understanding food from a cheffy and sciencey perspective at the same time.

Katie: It is so fascinating. So you run Pilot R&D, which is the company where you do research and development with food. Can you talk through what like the day-to-day looks like for you? What does food science look like on an everyday basis?

Ali: Yeah. So Pilot…there’s four of us that founded Pilot. And my partners and I all share this very interesting and very unique background of having done R&D for chefs at the highest level. So we’ve worked at places like the French Laundry and Dave Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in New York. And all of these amazing restaurants, the thing they share in common is they gotta come up with cool, new stuff in a hurry. If you go to one of these restaurants, you are likely getting a brand new menu, a brand new experience that day because of how much pressure these chefs are under to take the best quality produce and meat and seafood and everything and turn it into a mind blowing experience. So we had experience running the engines that would help to put new things on those menus as quickly as possible and with as much flavor and as much impact as possible.

And one of the things that we realized was, this is amazing. Like we have to turn over an entire menu of 47 different things in a matter of a few weeks or sometimes days or sometimes hours. And yet, you know, people are taking five to seven years to get like the first hummus to market. You know, like when hummus caught on or when Greek yogurt happened or when we all fell in love with coconut water and kombucha, those were food trends that took years of trickling down and refining and figuring out how to get it onto a shelf.

So the function of Pilot is for us to say, “Okay, we’ve got a lot of experience doing this for restaurants where it’s gonna serve 50 people a night. With our knowledge of the science of food, can we use that to expand our reach to work on healthy, delicious food for the mass populace, whether that’s something that’s gonna be designing a retail product or helping a meal delivery service do what they do better or helping people just generate recipes and applications for all of these wonderful new ingredients that we’re finding? Pilot is basically a creative engine that can be hitched to any number of things.

And right now, I mean we work on… Probably about 70% of our projects are like retail products. And I’d say, of those projects, the vast majority is these like new healthy whole food type of products. So we’re looking at making new options for snack foods that are based out of…based on mostly plants that don’t taste like flavorless veggie chips. We’re working on new options for beverages that don’t have, you know, the 30 grams per can of sugar that sodas do, but also aren’t quite the like LaCroix, just seltzer water plus natural flavors, where we’re working on like middle grounds to color in all the gaps that we think are left behind by, you know, kombucha, which there are a couple of brands that taste great. The rest of it I think is crap.

You know, as a population, we are sophisticated enough that there’s no reason that eating healthy has to taste like compromise. And a lot of what we do is we work with really exciting entrepreneurs and small and medium and even huge companies on designing foods that lean into the natural tendency of what those foods are. If something wants to be crispy, don’t try to make it chewy with a bunch of fake ingredients. Make the crispiness shine through in a way that feels natural. Or if something…if you want to have something that goes on a shelf and hangs out for six months at Whole Foods, probably not the best idea to try to make that thing green just because green foods turn brown. And the only way that we know of to make green foods not turn brown over the course of months in a retail setting is to add artificial colors. And since we don’t wanna do that, we would rather make something that was really delicious and purple.

So, yeah, we work with a lot of different people, big and small. We work with startups who are just, a man or a woman who is changing careers and they’ve done being in finance or corporate wellness, or they’re done playing baseball, and they have a really great idea for a protein bar or a snack or a sauce or a beverage, or they wanna open a restaurant. We help those people make everything to do with the food taste really good within the health and nutritional vision that they have for that brand.

Katie: That’s so cool. I’m sure you probably have nondisclosure for some of them, but what have been some of your favorite projects to work on? And had there been any that you just could not crack the code, and you had to say like, “This is impossible the way you want it”?

Ali: Actually, one that we’ve talked about we talked about a fair bit at that retreat. One of our favorite clients are these guys, have a company called Kettle & Fire. So it’s two brothers, two brothers who I think also have like four or five other brothers. But two of their brood went into business together to make really, really high-quality, delicious bone broth. And, you know, they take whole ingredients. They simmer them for a long time. They strain it. And then they have come up with some really interesting ways of packaging it so that the quality of that product shines through even on a shelf. They came to us. And I’ll not dive into specifics yet, but suffice to say that you guys out there in the world will be able to taste this stuff pretty soon. We’ve worked with them on saying, “Great. Here’s a product that is a real success. What’s the next step? What’s the next line of stuff that you guys can do?”

And a lot of what we’ve been doing have been looking at what this bone broth manufacturing entails, like what’s left over? What are other parts of the animal that maybe aren’t getting used that could so that we can make something super delicious, yeah, but also create less waste, also make something that’s more, you know, sustainable, more environmentally friendly, looking at what we’re starting to call like nose-to-tail CPG, like nose-to-tail retail foods where… Chefs have been doing this in restaurants forever. They’ll order like whole ducks or whatever, and they’ll use the bones for one thing. They’ll use all of the joints and connective tissue for one thing. They’ll use the meat for different purposes. Why can’t we do that for retail food?

And so with the guys at Kettle & Fire, we’re working on a bunch of new, exciting products that are going to explore that idea of what can we do in a world where people are willing to try delicious whole foods of a bunch of different styles now? What can we put out there that people haven’t seen before that has a lot of other fringe benefits of addressing some of these problems of waste and sustainability and health and so on and so forth? So those guys are great.

We have worked with a lot of people in this sort of Paleo space lately. One thing that’s interesting is there are a lot of…there’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there about things that you can and can’t do with Paleo products. And we really enjoy challenging that, because when you look at something like a coconut, man, the article that you guys have up of everything you can do with coconut oil, it was…it’s amazing to see that because of how versatile these plants are. And we’re digging in with a lot of our clients into cracking the code of a coconut. Like what are all of the tricks that a coconut can do? How far can we stretch it to do really amazing things in terms of making unique textures and making unique flavors and giving people really delicious food that fit the nutritional requirements that they’re trying to hit?

Katie: And I love that you said 70% of the people who are coming to you are in the real food and health space, which is exciting. It obviously means, hopefully, this trend is not a trend and is here to stay with the real food ingredients. But that’s really cool, and I’m definitely also a fan of Kettle & Fire. I’ll make sure we link to them in the show notes as well. But their broth is amazing. I’ve got a bunch in my kitchen. And my husband had surgery this week, so he’s drinking a lot of it right now.

Ali: Oh yeah, nothing better.

This podcast is brought to you by The Good Kitchen. Have you ever wished you could have delicious and healthy meals on the table in mere minutes? The Good Kitchen answers that problem. So they provide quality sourced meals including healthy school lunches right to your door. Their meats are grass fed and pastured and they use freshly sourced produce as well. And they don’t just send you the ingredients like some delivery services. They send you the fully prepared, chef quality meals. You can check them out at wellnessmama.com/go/goodkitchen
This episode is also brought to you by Primal Kitchen, all the good kitchens today. It’s founded by my friend, Mark Sisson and Mark’s Daily Apple. The Primal Kitchen is now my source for some of my favorite kitchen staples. So if you haven’t tried their delicious avocado oil mayo, including their chipotle mayo, you are seriously missing out. I have made my own mayo for years and years because there were never any good options to buy that didn’t have vegetable oils in them and now there are. Primal Kitchen has completely changed that with their products. They also have some delicious pre-made salad dressings and we use their products all the time. You can check them out at primalblueprint.com and if you use the code wellnessmama you get 10% off any order.

Katie: Yeah. So definitely I would encourage people to check out your book, which is called “Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food.” Like I said, it’s super fascinating and really fun even to read with your kids because you both will learn so much from it. But where else can people find you?

Ali: They can find me on Twitter and Instagram. I have a super weird, unique, Iranian name. So I’m very easy to find, @AliBouzari on Twitter and @bouzariali on Instagram. They can find us through the Pilot R&D website which is just pilotrd.com. I mean more people than ever have cool ideas for food products. So we would love to talk about that. Yeah, those two would be super fun. I actually just, this last weekend, got to live a lifelong dream, and I got to be a guest judge on Iron Chef.

Katie: That’s awesome.

Ali: Yeah. So they could watch that if they want. But the one last thing that I would say about the book is if you were the person that was really interested in chemistry and biology and stuff in high school, like, obviously, you’re gonna be into reading anything about the science of how food works. If you were a person who science has just never clicked with you or if you’ve just never had time to dig into it or if it just bores you, I would still be curious what you think because this is… I mean, Katie, tell me if you disagree, but this was written to be human speak with the type of illustrations that can engage you and make you understand this stuff just in the same type of way as if I was explaining it to somebody on a podcast or in a bar. It’s not meant to be a return to chemistry class. And, yeah, the illustrator who did all of the amazing renderings in this thing is a fantastic talent. His name is Jeff Delierre. And I mean he does comic books and cartoons. So it’s his job to tell stories visually. And it definitely is not a dense read, and it’s something that you can probably tackle in a couple of weekends.

Katie: For sure. Yeah, it definitely does not seem overly sciencey. I thought it was actually a fascinating read. And it opens up this whole other side of food that a lot of us never think about. And so I’ve been trying to figure out ways to integrate that, even… I mean I obviously cook a lot and have a lot of recipes of my own. But going forward, with new recipes and just cooking at home, even without the…developing new products, it’s fascinating when you start thinking in that way, all the things you can do in your home kitchen. So to wrap up, like what encouragement would you give to the home cook, especially, I hear a lot of women who don’t think they’re great cooks or think that they’re just not very good at it or they never learned it? What would be your encouragement to people when it comes to food and cooking and trying new things?

Ali: I would say that there is a level that you’ll get to. I think going from the first time you turn on to a stove to the first time you’ve made something that you enjoy, that is probably the biggest hurdle. There are some growing pains there. There are some moments where you’ll have a catastrophic failure, and that’s totally fine. There’s this amazing thing that happens that the best way I can equate it is if people go to the gym and they’re like learning to do squats or something, there is a moment in everybody’s like fitness progression where you’ve learned how to do a new exercise, and there’s in like, within a week, you’ll double or triple the amount of weight or the length of time that you can go doing that exercise just because you’ve sort of figured out how your body is put together, and you’ve figured out how to do it without crushing yourself.

There is an analogous thing in cooking where after… Honestly, and it can happen, like a couple of days, if you just sit down and you try to get a sense of how hot your stove is and, like this sounds stupid, but how salty your salt is, just being able to taste like a pinch of salt and see really how much salt that is adding to your food, just figuring out like a couple of the basics. Once you get past that basic point, there is a level that you can achieve very quickly where you’re conversational in cooking. And by learning the language of how this stuff works, and that’s one of the big benefits that…when we’re talking about seeing the patterns in food, just saying, “Oh, okay, I know now how stuff burns. I know now how stuff begins to smell bad. I know now how stuff wilts. I know now how stuff becomes too dry.”

If you start to get a sense of those like universal patterns, then all you have to do is just figure out how to make one thing that’s good, and then you can spin that off into a million different directions. If you’ve mastered the ability to like grill a steak, then something that can feel like a warm and fuzzy, reassuring blanket is the way that that steak gets nice and brown and black on the outside and nice and juicy on the inside is the exact same universal, you know, laws that make a grilled tomato work out or make a grilled zucchini work out. And you know, because you’ve cooked a steak, honestly, you know a lot more than you think you know about cooking the next thing on that grill. Because you baked, you know, cake or cookie number one, there are things that you’ve picked up without even knowing it. There’s weapons that you’ve added to your arsenal that will make the next thing that you try to cook a lot easier if you’re shown which things to pay attention to.

And so, yeah, there’s a million things out of there. And if we were all trying to go through life learning recipe by recipe by recipe and going through each style of food from all over the world, nobody would ever get to the end. The cool thing is if you just square off to it and are okay with the idea of, you know, maybe a couple…the first week that you’re cooking, things won’t turn out super great, or maybe they will. But even if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. After that first week, there is a crazy growth spurt that your cooking skills can go through if you just sort of start to get a sense of the currents of how things move in your food and start to see, “Oh, man, this is just the same thing over and over again, whether it’s a peach or a plum or a piece of bacon.

And, yeah, that reassurance has always helped me. And I cook a lot with my family. And my mom and my sister…I have a younger sister who’s in college. She feels so much more in control of…if she wants to try a new recipe that she got in a magazine or if she forgot to pick up garlic from the store, she feels so much more capable of making something that’s good and figuring out ways around that lack of garlic than she did before. So there is hope. The stakes aren’t all that high. And the speed, man the way that we can learn about food with tools like Epicurious and, you know, all these amazing resources that are out there, it’s a lot quicker to pick up than it ever has been before.

Katie: It’s true. And it’s such a fascinating new way to think about food as well. So I definitely would encourage everybody to pick up your book and to just delve into it and to learn that new language when it comes to food because it’s been fascinating for me in about a month since I heard your presentation, just adapting my own cooking. So I would encourage others to do that as well.

But, Ali, thank you so much for being here. You are such a wealth of knowledge, so fascinating to hear. And I really appreciate you sharing with us.

Ali: Yeah, likewise. This is a blast. Thank you.

Katie: Absolutely. And thanks to all of you for listening. I’ll see you next time on The Healthy Moms podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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Thanks to Our Sponsors

This episode is brought to you by The Good Kitchen. Have you ever wished you could have delicious and healthy meals on the table in mere minutes? The Good Kitchen answers that problem. And they don’t just send you the ingredients like some delivery services. They send you fully prepared, chef-quality meals (including healthy school lunches) right to your door. Their meats are grass-fed and pastured and they use freshly sourced produce as well. You can check them out at wellnessmama.com/go/goodkitchen.

This episode is also brought to you by Primal Kitchen. (We just have all the good kitchens today!) My friend, Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple founded it and The Primal Kitchen is now my source for some of my favorite kitchen staples. I made my own mayo for years and years since storebought options were full of vegetable oils, but Primal Kitchen completely changed the game with their products. If you haven’t tried their delicious avocado oil mayo (especially the chipotle mayo!) you are seriously missing out. You can check them out at primalblueprint.com and if you use the code WELLNESSMAMA you get 10% off any order.

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


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