Brandon Sun (Newspaper) - June 23, 2002, Brandon, Manitoba
Dr. Joe shows that food - like love - starts with chemistry
The chemistry of food is the topic of a new series from “Dr. Joe” Schwarcz called “Science to Go,” premiering Tuesday on Discovery Canada.
By Brian Gorman © Tribune Media Services
Joe Schwarcz is a great believer in the old chemical company slogan: “Better living through chemistry.”
It’s the foundation of his half-hour series about food, “Science to Go,” which debuts Tuesday, June 25, on Discovery Canada.
“The whole idea behind the series was to use food as a springboard for the understanding of science,” Schwarcz says. “People can relate to food, and there are all kinds of interesting scientific concepts in food.”
During the course of the series, he plans to deconstruct some of our most popular foods, show us how they’re manufactured, explain health benefits and debunk myths.
In the last category, for example, the debut episode tears down two widely held notions about chocolate: that it’s unhealthy, and that it’s the food of love.
It turns out that the “food of the gods" has some serious health benefits; it contains fats that help our bodies fight “bad cholesterol,” the stuff that produces high blood pressure. But chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is just wishful thinking.
“I’m ready to say that chocoholics don’t have to hide in the closet,” Schwarcz says. “There’s absolutely no reason for people not to eat chocolate. It can fit into a healthy diet.
"On the other hand, the business about chocolate making people fall in love is scientifically silly.”
The episode is set at a huge chocolate factory outside Montreal. Footage of massive machines oozing brown liquid is blended with historical and scientific information about chocolate. The process of extracting cocoa from trees is so complex that it’s a source of wonder that it ever was discovered.
Since everything we eat is made up of chemicals, Schwarcz says, food is a natural starting point for a popular discussion about chemistry.
"People are interested in what they shovel into their mouths. They know there must be some kind of link between what we eat and health. After all, food is the raw material upon which everything that happens in our bodies is based.”
With his offbeat sense of humor, slight Hungarian accent (he emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1956, after the revolution) and wide-mouthed, toothy, Muppet-like smile, Schwarcz disarms viewers with his folksiness and educates them when their guard is down.
He’s not above soaking his feet in a clear plastic bucket of tea - to make a point about the drink’s deodorizing powers - or delivering his lines on horseback for a show about meat processing in Calgary.
He has a showman’s gift for finding just the right entry point into a discussion for viewers whose eyes may glaze over at the mention of the word “chemistry.”
For example, most of us might not be very interested in the fact that artificial and natural vanillas have identical molecular structures. But throw in the fact that vanilla comes from an orchid that flowers once a year, and that vanilla growers have to pollinate hundreds of plants by hand to produce a profitable crop ...
It’s with an almost religious zeal that Schwarcz takes his message to the masses -that chemistry is interesting. It’s just the way we learned it that was dull, he says.
"My belief has always been that chemistry is so interesting that you have to work
to make it uninteresting. Unfortunately, a lot of people do work hard at that, which is really a shame.
“If you think about it, nearly every minute of our lives is spent making chemical decisions. You wake up in the morning, and you’re going to decide whether you’re going to put margarine or butter on your toast.
If margarine, do you want any trans-fatty acids in there? Or are you going to worry about the cholesterol in the butter? These are all chemical decisions.”
"Science to Go,” is just Schwarcz’s latest popular-science endeavor.
A professor of chemistry at Montreal’s McGill University, where he got his Ph.D.
in the early 1970s, Schwarcz is a dedicated opponent of ivory-tower academia.
He’s head of the university’s Office for Chemistry and Society, which runs an information service for the public and the media. He writes a weekly column for the Montreal Gazette, is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and hosts a science show on Montreal radio. For several years, he has been doing the “Dr. Joe’s Chemistry Lab” segments on Discovery’s daily news show [email protected]
“My philosophy in teaching chemistry is that it’s wrong to teach these courses as if everyone out there was going to become a chemist,” he says. “They’re not. But they’re all going to use chemistry in their daily lives.