terra cibus no. 5: salt

For her project titled Tera Cibus, Caren Alpert has looked at everything from fried onions to table salt (shown here, magnified 45 times) under a scanning electron microscope.

terra cibus no. 8: almond

Alpert selects the sample foods and sends them to a lab in Arizona, where they’re dehydrated and coated in gold. She then uses an SEM to capture their topographic details.

terra cibus no. 12: cake sprinkles

Since SEM images are black and white, Alpert colors them in the post-production process.

terra cibus no. 33: pineapple leaf (85x magnification)

Alpert’s writer and researcher, Ingfei Chen, writes: "The deep furrows between the ridges are carpeted, it seems, by flowers (in yellow). These structures, called trichomes, are tiny, fuzzy hairs topped with multi-celled parasols that mimic fragile blossoms. To the naked eye, trichomes give the leaf a silvery-white appearance. They prevent water loss by reflecting the sun’s rays and shading pores in the leaf that resemble fat lips (stomata, lower right). Those pores close during the heat of the day to keep water in. But at night, they open to let in carbon dioxide--which, along with water and sunlight, later gets converted into food for the pineapple through photosynthesis."

terra cibus no. 36: radish

Alpert says that, when seen under a microscope, the textures of natural foods like this radish look far more complex than processed ones.

terra cibus no. 2: chocolate cake

Chen writes: "Next time you eat cake, give a moment of thanks to the forces of chemistry. They transform water, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, baking soda, and cocoa powder into desserts like this chocolate cake snack. During baking, oven heat expands air bubbles in the batter, with an extra boost from CO2 that the baking soda releases. And, liftoff--the cake rises. It derives its solid form from flour-starch granules, embedded in a loose network of flour proteins: The rounded granules [upper-right corner] swell up and, along with coagulated egg proteins, harden into thin walls around the gas bubbles."

terra cibus no. 7: roasted coffee bean

Chen writes: "Long before it launches you off the grounds into your day, a cup of joe started out as green beans--the seeds of the coffee plant’s cherry fruit. Those beans are roasted at 350º to 460º F, temperatures that rapidly expand water vapor, CO2, and air inside them. The gases get expelled, rupturing the bean surface with cracks [crevice, upper left to mid-right]. Cells of the bean end up desiccated and emptied to varying degrees, leading to a pitted texture [left side]. The unusually thick plant-cell walls are outlined in whitish rings."

terra cibus no 34: Pop Tart

Alpert isn’t out to influence dietary habits, but this image of a Pop Tart could put you off from toaster sweets for a long time.

terra cibus no. 37: French’s french fried onion

Chen writes: "French’s deep frying process, using palm oil from sustainable sources, is a trade secret. But here’s the general chemistry: In the hot oil, moisture is driven out of the onions (which are approximately 75 percent water) in a sizzling stream of vapor bubbles, which escape through the batter as it quickly fries into a hard golden crust. Those bubbles sculpt the rough, variegated surface captured in this image, where a cube-like morsel of onion fiber peeps out (right side). A lengthy drying process further bakes out surface water and oil, contributing to the stark edges and desiccated terrain of the final product."

terra cibus no. 4: fortune cookie

Chen writes: "More than 130 years ago, bakers there cooked batter in round black iron molds over coals. They quickly hand-folded each thin, warm wafer, like origami, into the familiar butterfly shape before it cooled and hardened--with a little paper fortune inside. Today huge, automated baking contraptions crank out up to 8,000 fortune cookies an hour. Starting ingredients are flour, sugar, oil, water, vanilla extract, and egg whites. Created from flour with a low content of gluten proteins, the batter doesn’t form the gluten matrix, which is what makes bagels tough and chewy. Containing few air bubbles and little moisture, the cookie dough bakes up dense, flat, and crunchy. It dries out in the oven, yielding a parched microscopic texture laced with fine cracks and gaping crevices. This image, magnifying a stretch of fortune cookie about 0.8 millimeters wide, might as well be a satellite view of a land of lakes."

Co.Design

An Electron Microscope Reveals The Hidden Horrors Of Processed Foods

Photographer Caren Alpert wants you to take a good, hard look at what you eat.

One of the most powerful tools in a scientist’s arsenal is the scanning electron microscope (SEM), which uses a beam of electrons to magnify a specimen up to 30,000 times its actual size. The technology has been used to examine everything from trace materials on bullets to the diseases behind the declining population of honeybees. But San Francisco–based photographer Caren Alpert has adopted the technique for a less than scientific purpose: to get people to look really, really closely at what they eat.

[Terra cibus no. 12: cake sprinkles]

Not that she’s proselytizing: “I’m not trying to dictate what foods are important or what foods you should like or dislike,” Alpert maintains. “I’m saying, ‘Look at it differently.’” To that end, she’s given everything from chocolate cake and candy to radishes and coffee beans the microscopic treatment, in the hopes of underscoring how natural and processed foods differ not only in their nutritional value but in their chemical structures. “If you start to look at what’s in the photos, like the pineapple leaf, there’s such a complicated scenario happening right on the leaves of the plant,” she says. “Conversely, the Lifesaver shows how our food is being changed so much in processing that it is not reminiscent of anything.” Actually, her image of a Pop Tart (see below) is reminiscent of a pink (and wholly unappetizing) calcium deposit.

Although Alpert is an accomplished commercial food photographer, her credentials didn’t translate to SEM labs, where the specialized equipment is booked far in advance for medical studies. After researching her options in the Bay Area, she decided to expand her geographical net, ending up in a lab in Arizona, where the demand for SEMs isn’t as high. There, technicians dehydrate the specimens and coat them in a conductive metal, usually gold. Once the foods are prepped, Alpert travels to Arizona to use the SEM, which, she says, “has controls very similar to a camera, like an F-stop, depths of field, and zoom.” As SEM renders images only in black and white, Alpert colors the photos in post-production to mirror what the food looks like before being dehydrated.

[Terra cibus no. 34: Pop Tart]

Alpert chooses recognizable foods that resonate with viewers, although not all of her picks are compatible with the preparation process, which expels machine-damaging water from the specimens. Says the artist: “I push the technician as far as I can to the point where he says, ‘Why are you sending me a Twinkie? You know I can’t do a Twinkie.’”

The photo series can be seen online here, or at New York’s Citigroup Building (153 E. 53rd St.) through January 31, 2013.

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26 Comments

  • Michelle Grace

    Uh... with these photos, I don't see the "horror." If have a creative or artistic eye you will agree that these photos are beautiful. I can't be grossed out by an essence of beauty. There is something missing here... 

  • hypnotoad72

    If only they would show pics of the spider eggs, insects, wax, and other delicious ingredients that get into the the chocolate candy bar...  :)

    Actually, this is a cool article but every time I see something about chocolate, I can't help but to think about the unsanitary conditions that lead to the critters, and wax (amongst other artificial ingredients) to get around cocoa butter and other real ingredients since it's cheaper to simulate than to experience...

  • Dennydeluna

    continue to shove down your throat what ever it is you want. Junk food/processed food is simply bad for you. Horror? keep eating this stuff and take a good look in the mirror a few years from now... don't bother looking at a scale, that might scare you a bit more..    

  • hypnotoad72

    The horror is what you don't see:  which is hidden in plain sight and is otherwise known as "List of Ingredients".  Or those after school evening specials that discuss those little things in life (e.g. the bugs, critter eggs, what's really in milk, what gelatin is actually made out of since it's cheaper to use a certain substitute rather than the actual tree root/bark gelatin was originally made from...)

    It's inevitable what we ingest...

    Meanwhile, on "Fear Factor" and other "reality" shows, people do what they've more or less done all this time except they're told about it for the sake of spectacle to make us all emote at their expense.

  • Jacob Katz

    Sad - the headline is nothing more than click bait. I expect more out of FC - it's starting to turn into a slick Business Insider...NOT a good thing.

  • Michael Aldridge

    I have to admit I am getting the same vibe as you. It seems to be going for quantity over quality!

  • Iban_g_g

    No horror in the detail, just the amazing shapes of the unseen. There isn't also a message or a teaching in this articlae.
    I've been using SEM for years and that is nothing specially surprising.
    Iban.

  • Writer Dave

    Agreed about the awful scare title. Everything can look weird at sufficient magnification, and these are so subjective as to be irrelevant.

    Pretty pics, bad journalism.

    p.s., if you want scaring, stick your toothbrush under the SEM.

  • Writer Dave

     All Hail the Hypnotoad!

    I'd argue that the processed food header was contrived, trying to make a shock story where there was none. This, coupled with the lack on information regarding the magnifications and coloring choices made the whole article more than a little suspect.

    Things look weird at high magnification - but not only processed things.

  • hypnotoad72

     The only bad journalism comes in four forms:

    a) contrived detail
    b) lack of detail
    c) shrouded detail
    d) no detail

    I read nothing that inherently covers any of those four criteria in the article.  Maybe "d" since the close-up of the chocolate sadly happened to be free of partly-hatched beetle eggs, but it's all good...

  • hypnotoad72

    I agree.

    It'd be cool if the technology was available to professional or prosumer photographers...  :)

  • $487483

    I'd like to see the picture showing where the simple amino acids are that are the only thing any body knows what to do with at the end of the meal deal.

  • Scott Byorum

    Wow.  I think they are all pretty friggin' beautiful.  The horror is in the article title.

  • Jeff

    Or share worthy learning moments by highlighting the bad s**t.
    I could have used this with my grandchildren, the processed cheese addicts.