Kristen Matak is in some ways like any mom. She walks down the aisles in grocery stores trying to find healthy foods and snacks that are good for kids but still work on long car trips.
You know the ones—where you want to avoid the spilling and spoiling that’s bound to happen when the whole family is wearing seatbelts and moving at 70 miles an hour.
But what sets her apart from your mom is that she invents food.
The truth is that there are going to be nine billion people in this world in 40 years, and we’ll need all the food we can get. We also need that food to be safe and full of useful nutrients, such as protein.
Matak is working with food scientist colleagues at West Virginia University to increase the proportion of food to inedible material from a fish that has so far proven to be a total nuisance.
Silver carp. It is the most farmed fish in the world. Originally from northern Asia, the species was brought to the American South because it excels at filtering water. But the Mississippi River flooded as it’s known to do, and sent the fish free into the wild.
They became another invasive menace, outcompeting their fish neighbors who have lived in the area much longer and less aggressively. Silver carp have even injured boaters by leaping from the water at inopportune times. That can be a significant injury when you consider the fish that make it to the WVU lab weigh about 40 pounds each. In short, it’s the perfect fish for experimentation.
“Every time you walk through the grocery store and look at the stuff on the shelves, you’ve got to think that there’s a team of food scientists behind that product.”
A FISH WALKED INTO A LAB
Matak is part of the team at WVU that is trying to figure out what products can be made from this difficult fish. Even after it’s harvested and cooked it’s quite bony, making it impossible to fillet.
A simple pH shift using an organic acid such as vinegar can separate the edible material—protein—from the leftover trimmings and oils that aren’t edible and make the fish spoil more quickly.
When Matak goes to the meat lab and pulls out a clear plastic sandwich bag, you can see how much imagination and creativity it takes to think of the possibilities in food, especially this food. The protein looks like a whitish mass that’s malleable enough at this stage to be shaped. If you look closely, you can see that the protein is in small fibers—think of horseradish—that make up the whole.
What does it taste like? Matak doesn’t know. It could be a while before it reaches the testing phase where humans eat it. But she knows that it wouldn’t taste fishy because that particular element has been extracted.
Even if this and similar food creations don’t make it to the human table—though that’s a very real goal—there are possibilities for pet food.
This is important because if you went to a river and fished out a carp, cooked it and laid it out on your table, you would never get all of the meat from the bones that Matak and her colleagues can extract.
It’s more sustainable to get the most out of a harvested animal, especially an animal that, at least in this country, is an untapped food resource. It’s also a solution that not everyone can see and explore.
USE YOU IMAGINATION
Matak is part of the team at WVU that developed a low-cholesterol egg product, YumEGGa, an egg stick that is much like a cheese stick. Her colleague, Jacek Jaczynski, was interested in creating a snack that he could still consume while having high cholesterol.
It turns out you can remove the yolk and create a low-cholesterol stick made out of egg whites. She customized YumEGGa for different groups, such as those who want more omega-3 oils for the heart, added calcium for women or increased protein for athletes. In fact, the added protein is something her college students wanted most—something that helps them repair and build muscle after a workout. It was also her job to conduct consumer taste and acceptability tests.
“It wasn’t until we had a product that we could look at and touch and taste that the people we work with got excited about it,” she says.
It hasn’t been picked up by a producer, but she dreams of seeing it in on store shelves next to the cheese sticks and telling her kids that mommy made that.
“Food science is awesome,” Matak said. “Every time you walk through the grocery store and you look at all the stuff on the shelves, you’ve got to think that there’s a team of food scientists behind that product. And they put their blood, sweat, and tears behind that product.”