Food preparation is more than just a task. It is also science. From farm to table, the quality of water used in the growth and preparation of our food and beverages has a significant impact on its taste, texture, vibrancy, and its safety.
Many of the foods and beverages we make, and their flavor, depends on the formation of solutions with solutes in foods such as sugars, salts, acids, and other flavor compounds, and their resulting enhanced ability to attach to flavor receptors. Heating water will increase the amount of solute that is able to dissolve in the water, which is why hot water is used to make coffee and tea. Unfortunately, heating increases the likelihood that these minerals and vitamins may leech out of foods into cooking water, which is often discarded, causing nutrients to be lost. The quality of the water and what it contains also impacts how solutes dissolve and bond to form the final end product and its flavor profile.
Tap water used in cooking presents special challenges. While the US water supply is generally free of most pathogenic microorganisms such as cholera and typhoid, it is so because of the use of chlorine. Chlorine will add an odd flavor to water based beverages and food cooked in or containing tap water, such as pasta. It also causes a problem in baking as it bonds with rising agents reducing their effectiveness, especially in yeast based recipes.
Tap water also presents a problem in cooking vegetables. According to an article, “The effect of water quality on food,” by O. Peter Snyder of the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management,“When fruits and vegetables are heated (cooked) in water, the amount of calcium ions in the water will influence the textural properties of the products. For example, calcium ions may form insoluble salts (calcium pectates) that are beneficial for maintaining firmness in cooked fruits and vegetables. However, if there is an excessive amount of calcium ions in the water, the fruits and vegetables may become excessively tough, and dried beans and dried peas will be difficult to rehydrate when cooked.”
While the US municipal water supply is among the safest in the world that does not mean it is free of problems. According to an article titled The Importance of Water Quality to the Food Industry published in WC&P Magazine International, the problem is bigger than we might suspect.
“Each year, seven million people are estimated to become ill in the United States, and more than 1,000 die from disease-causing microbes in drinking water.1 Likewise, foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.2 This number has increased in the past decade due in part to better reporting, globalization of food supply, introduction of new pathogens in new areas, the development of new virulence factors by microbes (physiological characteristics affecting their pathogenicity, such as the ability to produce toxins), population changes, immunity decreases, and changes in agricultural practices such as the reuse of wastewater for irrigation or manure for fertilizers.3 The list of pathogens of concern in the food industry is long and includes bacteria, protozoa and viruses (see Table 1). Not surprising is that many foodborne pathogens may also be waterborne pathogens, but little is known about the cross-relationship between these two exposure routes. In other words, what level of foodborne disease could be eliminated by improved water quality?”
The science of taste has a lot more to do with the quality of water used in food preparation than most people realize.