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More “breathable foods” weirdness

A couple of days ago, Entertainment Tonight posted a new video tidbit on “breathable” food  from the same Harvard professor, David Edwards, who invented the AeroShot “breathable caffeine” cartridge that has drawn some serious FDA attention of the negative sort.

ET’s anchor breathlessly posed the  question, could this become The Next New Diet Fad in Southern California, when what the LeWhaf vaporizer was invented for was the “aesthetic experience” of breathing food flavors. This according to Edwards, whose Paris-based design lab, Le Laboratoire (names aren’t really his thing?) offers a number of vaporized cocktails at a small sit-down bar.

When I wrote about the first set of inventions, I said I thought it might be an interesting molecular gastronomy-style taste experiment (at least if the flavors were something more sophisticated than “lime,” the flavoring in the AeroShot cartridge), depending on what was being used to create and propel the vapor.

The ET video presents an interview with a young up-and-coming chef who’s offering cocktails of various kinds served in the Le Whaf vaporizers–to be inhaled through a special straw. The accompanying visual looks, frankly, like someone about to use a bong or snort a line of coke, but that could just be the way ET’s camera crew are used to shooting bar scenes…

The chef they interviewed doesn’t serve these vaporized cocktails, not all of which are standard drinks in the daily repertoire (some of them look like beef broth) as a low-cal diet offering but rather as a sideline to enhance some other dish. Very molecular gastronomy. Still he concedes, when pushed, that he can’t see how it would have calories.

(From his doubtful expression, they must have edited out the part where the Barbie Doll reporter shoved a mike in his face repeatedly and insisted with desperation that the vapor must make it calorie-free, it just MUST. She’s the one who tried the AeroShot caffeine spritzer on-camera in the studio to demonstrate the concept, and quickly uttered the dutiful “Mmmm”,  but the video jumped at that point, so I wonder if she really sampled it or not. At least she didn’t start coughing…unless they cut that part too…)

And yet I wonder if ET hasn’t hit on something here–no, not the diet fad. One can’t live on pâté-flavored air alone. One must also vaporize some champagne to go with it, preferably Krug. Could possibly clog the nozzles otherwise.

No. In the frenzy to discover the new French technology that magically removes all calories, ET seems to have let the chef describe the mechanism at the bottom of the vaporizer. Here you are, at a cocktail bar, leaning over the open mouth of a carafe, straw in mouth, ready to inhale cocktail-flavored vapor…produced, about 12 inches from your face, by three ultrasound probes at the bottom of the carafe.

Back at Le Laboratoire, David Edwards is quick to state that he believes the vaporizing process removes most of the alcohol from the cocktail. For a lot of people that might not be a plus, of course, but it could be an aesthetic benefit. Less drunkenness, more aesthetic appreciation? I just don’t know whether it’s actually true.

Has he got actual measurements of what comes out in the vapor? Gas chromatography, distillation column and HPLC–you know, something standard laboratories do all the time? I also don’t know whether breathing alcoholic vapor directly into the lungs is more intoxicating or less than drinking the same amount of alcohol, or whether it might cause additional problems for the lung tissue with direct contact. Concentrated ethanol’s used as a topical antiseptic, after all.

But back to ultrasound.

Ultrasound is usually reserved for diagnostic visualization of soft tissue, as in monitoring the uterus and fetus during amniocentesis–or, at higher intensity, for blasting kidney stones. These are important, nontrivial uses for ultrasound that make their inclusion in a patient’s annual radiation exposure limit worthwhile, and possibly life-saving.

Cocktails–I dunno.

These probes have to be fairly small to fit in the bottom of the carafe. But how strong are they, to vaporize mixed liquids, and what radial distance is safe? Did he do the measurements, or just assume they were safe because they were small? Paperwork? A casual check of medical device safety regs for ultrasound? A back-of-the-envelope calculation? Are the drinker’s head and neck tissues likely to be exposed to some radiation from the probes, or does Edwards figure the liquids in the cocktails will absorb everything?

One of the things that bothers me repeatedly about Edwards’ inventions is his utter lack of concern, seeming awareness or sense of responsibility for possible adverse effects on users, to say nothing of legal consequences. Being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and being toasted in Wired magazine and other popular media may have contributed to the sense that he can do no wrong.

Given how much trouble the AeroShot venture is currently in, I wonder how he decided it was a really great idea to continue in this line with a public introduction, particularly since many of the other ventures spurred by his design labs at Harvard and in Paris are things like an oversized crocheted “organic environment” installation you can walk through and a telescoping tube for carrying water while biking to work. Silly, perhaps, and not always what I’d consider aesthetically pleasing or challenging or inventive, but generally harmless.

Mostly I wonder whether his LeWhaf invention will stand without protest in the US as a molecular gastronomy gizmo or whether he’ll run into the long arm of the FDA for misuse of medical instrumentation and possible public endangerment.

Perhaps he does have an unacknowledged sense somewhere in the back of his head that he’s doing something unethical that he couldn’t get away with here, and perhaps that’s why he’s introduced this ultrasound carafe in Paris, where he says he’s spending more and more of his time. Last year, it was his former student Thomas Hadfield, the young and apparently very naïf investor in and CEO of Breathable Foods, Inc., who took the hit from the FDA warning letter, even though Edwards had invented the AeroShot and still claims credit for it. This time, Edwards himself should be called to account.

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