FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show…

That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more! I had intended to try to come up with another post for this month’s “The Giant’s Shoulders” anthology, but I’ve just encountered such an appalling concentration of disappointing un-science that I cannot restrain myself any further. Guess I’ll have to settle for one post in the anthology this month.

FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show sounded so promising. I thought to myself “‘MythBusters’ meets ‘Good Eats’!?!? That would be pure, refined, pharmaceutical-grade WIN!” Then I saw their premier episode. The “experiments” appeared blatantly and badly staged, and in some cases shockingly badly designed. For example, their “experiment” with refrigerator deodorants involved showing a guy sticking his face into a ‘fridge allegedly full of smelly stuff and filming him making faces while they timed how long he pretended to be willing to keep his face in there.

Dear “Food Detectives” people: a staged and scripted “experiment” on a science-themed show is just stupid. If you don’t want to run a real and potentially awkward experiment then don’t.  It seems pretty obvious from the show that your writers already expect a certain outcome and script the presentation to simulate it.  Research is an important part of science, so it’s okay to just present us with some peer-reviewed science and your conclusions from them without staging a pretend-experiment. Major bonus points if you actually cite the real peer-reviewed papers on the show so we can look them up ourselves for more detail.  Thank you.

However, it was what I assume to be the second episode that really…well, how shall I describe my reaction? Those of you secure enough to admit a liking for classic animated cartoons may be familiar with the term “spit take“. Since I just wrote about the Gram stain again and today’s overdose of vitamin WTF concerns this technique, I feel I must speak up.

They were talking about how the dry-aging of beef is not the same as leaving a steak out on the counter to rot and how the bacterial colonization of the rotting meat is different. Fair enough so far, if a bit obvious. Then the bad stuff starts. The presenters suggest that a Gram stain can tell you something about whether or not bacteria growing on a piece of meat can make you sick, which is wrong enough by itself. But then, after an (excusably) grossly-oversimplified description of the Gram stain and Gram-negative vs. Gram-positive bacteria, the host of the shows pops out with this:

“And most Gram-negative bacteria are harmful

Okay, I didn’t literally spew a beverage at that point, but I did involuntary exclaim “…WHAT?!?!?” aloud. Were they really going to imply that if you smear your meat on a slide and find out it’s mostly Gram-positive bacteria that means it’s okay, but if it’s mostly Gram-negative it’s not? That’s really their “experiment”?

Yes. Yes it was. Now, as the sole member of the currently fictional organization PADL (Prokaryote Anti-Defamation League), I fear I must speak up against this blatant phylism.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health lists 22 different phylum-level groupings for bacteria (not counting the “unclassified” category). Of those, all but two (the Firmicutes and in some contexts the Actinobacteria) are considered “Gram negative”. I’m pretty sure the great majority of species in the 20 “Gram negative” phyla are quite irrelevant to human health or sickness. What’s more, the “Gram negative” bacteria that they probably had in mind in the show’s script are not only limited to one phylum (the Proteobacteria), but within a single class within the phylum (the ?-proteobacteria), and the only bacteria their “Molecular Biologist who is an expert on bacteria” (who I feel sorry for, since he had to recite the poorly-written script) actually mentioned are limited to the “butt-bacter” family (Enterobacteriaceae) within that class. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t count as “most Gram-negative bacteria”. On the other hand, there are a number of “Gram positive” bacteria that can make you sick through your food. Clostridium botulinum (“Botulism”), for example.

Anyway, they take the rotten countertop steak and a slice of normal dry-aged steak, allegedly make Gram-stained bacterial smears from each (at this point I’m not convinced that wasn’t just staged, either – what they showed could easily have been two different views from the same “canned” demonstration slide – I could be wrong, but I don’t seem to remember there being microscopic food-bits in the view as I would have imagined there’d be if it was a real swab from a real steak…) and sure enough, the one that they claim to be from the rotten countertop beef has a visibly larger proportion of “Gram negative” bacteria on it than the mostly “Gram positive” view which was alleged to be from the dry-aged beef. With this, the script has the show’s host acting confident enough to declare the following (or something very close to this – again I didn’t write it down) of their “experiment” :

“We’ve scientifically proven that dry-aged beef is safe to eat.”

Admittedly, I tend to pay a lot more attention to intentional food microbiology than to medical microbiology (and food-microbiology prevention), but the entire segment seemed to be homeopathic science education – that is, out of fear that if there was too much science in their food “science” show it would scare people away, they diluted the science out to the point that there was not actually any left.

Normally, I wouldn’t care. It is just a TV show, after all. The problem is that not only does bad presentation of science in the media contribute to scientific ignorance (and irritate me personally in the process), but the degree of disappointment I felt here was noteworthy. The show sounded so promising. I feel as though Ed McMahon showed up at my door with an oversized novelty check for $500,000,000, but after the camera crews left and the excitement died down a bit, I looked at the fine print and discovered that the prize was in Zimbabwe dollars

The verdict: Alton Brown needs to stroll over to the “Food Detectives” studio and give all of their butts a good kicking – most especially whoever is writing the episodes. There’s a reason Alton Brown is my second[1] most favorite Celebrity Chef. Purely by happy coincidence, you can see what I mean tonight (assuming you’re reading this on August 15th, 2008) as the “Myth Smashers” episode of “Good Eats” is on FoodTV (twice – if you’re in mainland North American, it’s in the evening and then repeated in the middle of the night).  It’s an example of what “Food Detectives” should have been and just maybe – if we’re very lucky – might be someday.

Just to close on a positive note, their segment in the first episode on the “five-second rule” was actually not too bad, though even there I’d have liked them to investigate their results in a bit more detail.  The brief segment on the caloric content of celery (with no staged experiment!) was okay too, if a bit obvious. I suspect part of their underlying problem is they’re trying to cram too many different topics into each show and having to squeeze out most of the science to make it all fit.

[1] My most favorite celebrity chef is Tako the Octopus. I heard somewhere that the guys responsible for Tako are now working as writers on Good Eats, which might explain why there haven’t been any new episodes of “Deep-Fried Live” in several years (insert sound of piteous sobbing here).

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The Author is (currently) an autodidactic student of Industrial and Environmental microbiology, who is sick of people assuming all microbiology should be medical in nature, and who would really like to be allowed to go to graduate school one of these days now that he's finished his BS in Microbiology (with a bonus AS in Chemistry). He also enjoys exploring the Big Room (the one with the really high blue ceiling and big light that tracks from one side to the other every day) and looking at its contents from unusual mental angles.

6 thoughts on “FoodTV’s new “Food Detectives” show…”

  1. I didn’t know you were so upset, dear. I’ll come home from work now – and even though it was a hard day of Terzaghi corrections to remove borehole directional sampling bias in my fault and fracture data, I promise to make you some Prunus persica puree in a mixed emulsion of glutons, polysaccharides, triglycerides, glycerol-derived esters, fatty acids and DHMO.

    Your Bio-Challenged Spousal Unit

  2. I’m crushed, I tell you!

    You mis-spelled “glutens”, and “DHMO” is the industrial name. I prefer the more proper “Hydroxic Acid”.



  3. Excuse me, dear, but about the DHMO: in case you hadn’t noticed, I just happen to work in INDUSTRY, so there: “{insert Rubus idaeus noise here}” And just for that, maybe I won’t make you peach cobbler tonight…

  4. I’ve never heard berries make a noise before. Were you referring to a “geostr:40.8501002,-73.8662464,49f:geostr cheer”?

  5. Have you seen “America’s Test Kitchen”? It’s on PBS, and it’s fantastic. They test different recipes, isolating different variables, testing different hypotheses. They generally have well designed experiments, and it’s much more like Mythbusters where they use the scientific method, without cramming the word science down your throat. They even “busted” the myth that you can sear in juices in meat.

  6. I’ll have to keep an eye out on the schedule for “America’s Test Kitchen”. Alton Brown did the “seals in the juices” thing on that “Myth Smashers” episode, too. (I’ve always assumed the more intense flavor of pan-seared meat compared to un-seared meat was due to our friends, the Maillard reactions, rather than retention of meat-juice anyway…)

    Thanks for the show tip!

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