Le Whif

The food you inhale

If you’ve knocked the fags on the head, only to get the munchies, technology can assist you towards a healthier lifestyle with the food you don't even have to chew.

According to the literature from Breathable Food, a new London-based company set up by David Edwards, the Harvard University professor of biomedical engineering who pioneered inhaled insulin, its Le Whif chocolate delivers the taste of chocolate with less than one calorie and its Le Whif coffee provides a caffeine dose equivalent to a small shot of espresso. 'Both innovations provide consumers a completely new tasting experience by allowing them to breathe in chocolate or coffee through their mouths from a lipstick-style tube inhaler,' it says.

Not only is the company selling chocolate and coffee inhalers, but vitamin ones too that 'skip the digestive phase, leading to a more concentrated delivery into the bloodstream'.

Eating seems so outdated when particle engineering means you can breathe your nutrition instead.

Volatile muesli

Some time ago, Catalonian designer and conceptual artist Martin Guixe presented a form of breathable nutrition called 'Pharma-food' at the Barcelona annual design fair, mainly as an elaborate joke. He showed a special appliance that connected to a computer, through which different values for nutrients like vitamins and protein were entered using Microsoft Excel. These combinations could then be saved on the computer as documents, which Guixe imagined other owners of the Pharma-food emitter sending to each other as email attachments. 'The particles constitute a volatile muesli that is released to be inhaled and then reach their destination by the mouth,' he explains on his website.

Guixe is the man who in 2004 held a Fog Party with artificial indoor fog made of gin and tonic. He described the event as: 'An artificial indoor meteorological phenomenon based in weather engineering for 'cultural farming' purposes.'

But the Breathable Food Company does not appear to be a joke. David Edwards has a degree and PhD in chemical engineering and his more conventional research concerns the mathematical design of novel physical parameters, which allow nanostructured materials to efficiently deliver drugs and vaccines to the lungs and other organs, with a special focus on diseases in the developing world (see box 'Breathable vaccines', right). He is also co-author of numerous scientific publications in the fields of fluid mechanics, interfacial transport phenomena, drug delivery and aerosol science.

Inspired by Bauhaus

Breathable Food emerged from Artscience Labs, a network of art and design labs set up by Edwards with what he describes as a kind of Bauhaus objective. 'We are talking about art and design experimentation and collaboration at the frontiers of science. It's about education through creation, exhibition as a way of moving ideas forward, and production too, if it makes sense,' he says.

The resulting small, slightly cheap-looking plastic Le Whif inhalers have little in common with Bauhaus functional steel furniture, austere modernist buildings or strangely angled typography. But Wikipedia reminds us that within the Bauhaus movement, mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit. Also, the most profitable tangible product of the Bauhaus was wallpaper.

Edwards is based in Paris, where he directs Le Laboratoire, an innovation space where scientists and artists hang out and perform collaborative experiments. The outcomes of these experiments are exhibited to the public in the form of contemporary art and design installations. It sounds like fun.

'Whiffing', as it has come to be known, does work. The espresso version has quite a kick, while the chocolate one is certainly satisfyingly chocolatey. The vitamins are interesting too, with a nostalgic hint of 1970s Sherbet Fountain about them. You can buy Le Whif in Fenwicks – not a shop one associates with particle engineering in the service of high art.

Swallowing food is of course extremely important, particularly in achieving a healthy quota of fibre – but if the goal is merely to taste something nice, an inhaler is a perfectly effective delivery mechanism.

'When you eat bread, for instance, 70 per cent of carbohydrates are not even dissolved in the mouth before they are swallowed and so you don't have a chance to taste most of what you eat,' says Edwards. 'Many people today would like to curb their appetite. Our chocolate Le Whif is 100 per cent chocolate, so you don't have to change the natural material, but by breathing it you get all the taste without the calories.'

You would inhale vitamins and healthcare supplements for different reasons, he says. 'For some substances like, vitamin B12 or for resveratrol, a supplement based on grapes, the molecules are heavily degraded in the digestive tract. If you absorb them by mouth, you can get a lot more in the bloodstream than if you take a pill,' Edwards explains.

Then there are substances, like coffee, that some would like to get into their bloodstreams at warp speed. Absorbing caffeine through the mouth is much faster than through the stomach, so whiffing it is like an instant espresso shot without trying to squeeze your forefinger into the handle of the little cup.

Bring on the particle engineers

Le Whif started as an experiment with the French chef Thierry Marx, a practitioner of molecular gastronomy along the lines of Blumenthal. 'Much of the work on aerosols for vaccine and drug delivery has focused on how to design particles of drug or vaccine so when you breathe them they go straight into the lungs. But we thought why not just target the mouth, wouldn't that be interesting?' says Edwards.

The particles by definition needed to be very small to dissolve quickly, and the quantities also need to be small to be delivered by aerosol. But by getting this right, Edwards and Marx thought it would be possible to deliver a lot of taste for very few calories.

This is not radically new per se – for instance, the American chef Grant Achatz has presented shrimp cocktail via a plastic atomiser – but the mass market translation of it remains a pipe dream.

Particles used in Le Whif are 50 to 100µm in size and brought into the mouth by a specially designed inhaler. An asthma inhaler ends in an open tube, so the substance is breathed into the back of the throat. The Le Whif contraption, in contrast, has a flat end, with ventilation slots at the sides so the particles emerge into the mouth.

It eventually transpires from my chat with Edwards that state-of-the-art particle engineering is not really part of this food revolution just yet. 'Right now, even though I am a Harvard professor, this has been a rather non-academic venture and the technology is quite straightforward. Our interest has been to go quickly into the commercial market,' he explains.

'But in the future, sophisticated particle engineering will come into it, perhaps with reference to work currently going on to make the experience as pleasurable and as interesting as it can be. There is a lot of work in particle engineering that your readers will know involving better solubility, longer lasting effects, taste enhancement and so forth.'

So what else can we expect from the Paris Lab?

Poetic and subtle alcoholic fog

If Le Whif is breathing to eat, Le Whaff is breathing to drink. Although the technology has yet to be fully commercialised, Whaffing will involve sipping clouds of flavourful droplets, which 'coat your palate and create gustative and olfactory pleasures'.

Whaffing uses particles around 5µm in size and relies on a technology developed for the start-up company Pulmatrix (founded by Edwards), for delivering highly concentrated aerosol sprays of drugs into human lungs. The technique involves ultrasonic waves, emitted by piezoelectric crystals, which agitate the liquids.

'You can whaff a whisky and have relatively little alcohol enter your bloodstream because the smell is everywhere and the taste is good. It's not like we're vapourising alcohol, there are just these little teeny particles of the drink. It is very poetic and subtle, not a way to get hammered,' says Edwards.

A consumer market for Whaffing might be based on something like a fondue set, he suggests. 'It can be the complement to a meal but it has a spectacular quality to it, like having a wonderful magical drinking fountain at your table. You can put a whole range of things in it: from Orangina to whisky.'

Stepping back a little, the arrival of whiffing and whaffing could be viewed as part of a wider trend towards a blurring of the boundaries between food and medicine. The food giant Nestlé, for instance has announced it intends to capitalise on a growing market for foods to help treat chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, through a new subsidiary Nestlé Health Science SA, which will start operations this month. No mention of breathable products, but surely it can only be a matter of time?

Of course, Marjorie Dawes at Fat Fighters in the TV comedy series 'Little Britain' had the measure of this food movement a little while back. I quote: 'Dust. Anybody? No? High in fat, low in fat? Dust. Anybody? No? Dust. Anybody? No? Dust. Anybody? No? Dust. Anybody? No? Dust. Anybody? No? Dust. It's actually very low in fat. You can have as much dust as you like.'

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