2 Comments »Posted on Friday 13 February 2009 at 11:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong

Now don’t laugh, but in the interest of bringing you a 100% factually accurate report, I’ve just been sniffing my ironing board.

It’s all because of a recent press release informing us that the aroma of chips is made up of butterscotch, cocoa, onion, cheese and ironing boards. All ready, your bullshit meter should be tingling.

Oh, where to start? First off, although the press release appears to come from the University of Leeds, if you look at the top it has actually been issued by the British Potato Council, an organisation devoted to promoting potatoes which in 2006 was reported by the Sunday Times as voted Britain’s most useless quango.

Reading on, the “research” was designed to promote National Chip Week, making it a perfect example of what Charlie Brooker recently dubbed PR-reviewed phindings. Dr Graham Clayton from the University of Leeds was in charge of a team that collected aromas from chips and analysed them with a very sciencey sounding Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. I’m not dissing the machine, it’s a proper piece of scientific equipment used by a variety of disciplines. It seems to have been used here to create graphs you can smell, however:

The output of the analysis is a series of peaks on a graph or a fingerprint. Each peak indicates the occurrence and levels of a different component of the aroma.

Each peak was also sniffed by an analyst to record if it could be detected and the type and strength of the aroma recorded.

Clayton himself is the Commercial Manager of Food Chain CIC, a commercial entity based within the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds. His LinkedIn profile (a sort of Facebook for business) declares “[p]rojects are delivered by academics but constructed on industry needs” – in other words, he makes a living creating nonsense “science” for PR companies. The end of the press release helpfully informs us that Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry analysis is often used by food companies to determine the shelf life of food products. Guess who’s offering a shelf life check up? Food Chain.

It’s not a lie to say that he is Dr Clayton of the University of Leeds (he holds a PhD, after all) but the impression that description evokes is a bit far from the truth. It’s also not the first time this rubbish has been presented as academic research – Clayton was in the news a couple of years back with the formula for the perfect bacon buttie. You can imagine my thoughts on that particular “discovery”.

The impact of this chip aroma “research” could be pretty big, according to Clayton:

“Perhaps these findings will see chips treated like wine in the future – with chip fans turning into buffs as they impress their friends with eloquent descriptions of their favourite fries.”

Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what will happen. Oh, and the aroma of ironing boards? Mine at least, smells like…iron.


  1. 2 Comments

  2. Nice post. But you know ‘it’ starts with ironing boards.

    By Tim Jones on Saturday 14 February, 2009 at 1:44 am

  3. Remember the film ‘Perfume’, with Dustin Hoffmann. I thought that was all rubbish until I started sniffing rocks. Damn cat’s out the bag now.

    Seriously – rocks have a smell. It must be absorbed sheep doo-doos or something caught in the granitic matrix etc.

    By Tim Jones on Saturday 14 February, 2009 at 1:49 am

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