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."

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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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