Smog Tasting: Baking With Air Pollution

A group called Genomic Gastronomy wants to use a dessert ingredient as an atmospheric sensor, and a way to get people to face the horrible air they’re breathing every day.

Air pollution is a nasty beast. It’s been linked to brain damage, and the cost of treating the several respiratory ailments it causes is estimated to run into trillions of dollars.


But because you can’t see it, and because the damage it causes can take so long to manifest, it’s hard to get people up in arms about how polluted their air is. To draw the attention of politicians, business people, and the powers that be to the daily visceral reality and general ickiness of air pollution (and, we assume, move them to action), an experimental food group called The Center for Genomic Gastronomy has come up with a crazy way to give them a taste of the problem. Their recommendation? Send along gifts of dessert with real city air baked in.

“If you’re outside in Bangalore, or any other polluted city, you’re basically eating smog,” Zack Denfeld, co-founder of Genomic Gastronomy says. “[Air pollution] is fairly invisible and you get used to it. But if you make these meringues at different parts of the city and then offer them to people to eat, you could see what they actually feel about air quality.”

Their exhibit, called Smog Tasting, begins with egg whites–the delicious foamy, crunchy goodness that makes up meringues, soufflés and countless other dessert treats. The water-loving proteins in egg whites dry out as air is whipped in, and the proteins link up to make airy molecular cages.

“Smog Tasting grew out of this idea of using food as a biosensor,” Denfeld says. “If egg foams are a way of capturing air, could we capture air pollution as well? This could be a way of calling attention to the problem.”

Last fall, students from the Bangalore Food Labs and Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology (where Denfeld visits to teach) went out into different parts of the city armed with whisks, and made meringues from the batter that came back. Then they offered them around to people, after filling them in on the back story. “We’d say, ‘Would you eat this edible smog from Mekhri Circle or Yellahanka,'” Denfeld laughs.


Denfeld proposes that the smoggy batter could be tested for heavy metals or other particles in the air, just to note how bad it is. The desserts could be displayed on a map of the city, with, say, a cookie pinned to the zone from which it came. Other cookies could then be sent to local politicians or business owners, Genomic Gastronomy says on their website, as “trojan horse treats.”

The project ties into The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s larger goal of researching our connection to food and where it comes from. “People may not be eating smog on a daily basis,” he says, “But this is a way of connecting people to their local ecosystem.”

Smog Tasting is currently part of the “Edible” exhibit at the Science Gallery at Dublin’s Trinity College. Denfeld hopes the exhibit will start up conversations about food and air quality, and also give Dubliners a “humanized,” street-level view of an emerging megacity.