Reverse Engineering

We combine ingredients to get the final product. Now, food scientists are doing it backwards.

Reverse Engineering

We combine ingredients to get the final product. Now, food scientists are doing it backwards.

If you had a secret written down, where would you keep it? Would you tell other people where that place was? The answer, in the case of the Coca-Cola company, is a surprising yes.

I remember my visit to the attraction in 2016. I was in Atlanta, Georgia reuniting with some of my college roommates, and as the resident food scientist, I convinced everyone that we needed to take a quick trip to the World of Coca-Cola. For an $14 admission fee, I was let into the very building where the 135-year-old secret is stored, and led right up to the locked vault.

The path to the vault is lined with stories of the legendary secret — some true and others myths. I learned about all the locations the secret formula had been previously hidden over the years: places like bank vaults and train cars. Walking through the chamber makes one realise the sheer amount of history behind this well-known secret.

When I finally made it to the sealed vault, I saw Coca-Cola had spared no expense. The entrance door was large and elaborate, with golden accents decorating the otherwise silver door. There was even an old-timey key hole, although I had to wonder if that was real.

But that’s as close as myself and many others will come to the secret formula worth billions: separated by a thick vault door.

I’m guessing most of us would take a very different approach if we held a secret that was so valuable, especially considering the threat of competition, which Coke has no shortage of. For all their dramatic protection, they surprisingly — though for reasons that’ll soon become clear — never bothered to patent their secret.

For over a century, countless others have tried to copy the fizzy, brown drink. Some with miserable failure and others with great success, because even with the secret formula safely hidden away, the classic drink isn’t immune from copycats. After all, it makes its way into the hands of billions of people every day. What’s to prevent them from inspecting their Coke closely and analysing it to figure out the ingredients?

This kind of analysis, though difficult, is not unheard of — particularly in areas beyond food and drink.

In 1889, entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi decided to open a new business. But instead of selling sake, silk or tea like everyone else, he opted to try something new: playing cards. This was only five years after the Japanese government had legalised cards, and it was still considered a controversial product. Being one of the early players, his company quickly dominated the market.

In fact, the company is still a household name today: Nintendo.

Using its well-established distribution network, Fusajiro’s son Sekiryo branched out into what the company is now famous for: video games. That includes arcade consoles, as well as home consoles which you can plug into your TV or play on directly. Though it was new to the US market, Nintendo eventually got a foothold there too, competing with big name players such as Atari.

Nintendo is a classic example of a top video game manufacturer: they design the devices, manufacture and distribute them, and also write the video games that you play on the consoles. There is, however, another kind of video game available: third-party games that other people have designed to piggyback on Nintendo or Atari’s hardware. To do this, third-party manufacturers need to carefully inspect the code of the original videogames, figure out how they work, and come up with similar code that also runs on the console.

Like Coca-Cola, gaming companies try to make their consoles’ formula exclusive — but unlike the beverage, their secrets have been cracked. The main culprit behind this whole operation is a technique called reverse engineering.

Consider coffee: how would you describe it? There’s many different ways to look at this universally adored drink — by its taste or quality, by its price, its popularity, or its chemical properties. You and I might look at it in the first or second way, a shopkeeper by the third, and a food manufacturer wanting to understand coffee might see it the fourth way.

In fact, a food manufacturer might even think of coffee as a sum of its different components like tannins, proteins, fixed-oils, and even some wax (among other things), but it’s best known for another chemical: caffeine.

Caffeine, or 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine if you want to sound scientific, contains nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. It’s best-known property is making you feel less tired, but it also has a darker side to it — inducing side-effects like insomnia or dependency. Caffeine isn’t just found in coffee; it also exists in tea leaves, kola nuts, and cacao beans. There’s a lot of research into it, and many more details about it not mentioned here, but that just goes to show how complex a chemical it is!

To understand coffee, we’d have to do a detailed analysis of each of its chemical components: firstly to understand what they are, and secondly, to see what each of them contribute to coffee in terms of taste, smell, or colour.

Obviously, this would be no easy feat.

For millennia, people have been trying to understand how the world around them works. Sometimes, this meant looking at natural phenomena and trying to replicate or understand it. Other times, they would do the same to man-made objects. Both of these processes can be described as “reverse engineering”: the process of taking apart an object not made by you to figure out its secrets.

Once you have those secrets, you could use them to start producing copies of your own.

Reverse engineering was popular during wartime, and one of the most famous examples is the Tupolev Tu-4. After World War II, the USSR wanted bombing technology comparable to the US’s planes. Despite the fact that the two powers were currently allies, the Americans refused to supply the Soviets with their more modern models. However, four American planes did crash into Soviet territory during the war; instead of returning the planes to the Americans, the Soviets kept them (again, despite their partnership at the time).

Stalin ordered the planes moved to Tupolev, the Soviet aerospace research centre in Moscow. Here, one was dismantled in an effort to understand how it worked, another kept for flight tests, and a third was used as a reference. In this way, the USSR was eventually able to make a comparable aircraft, which was named the Tu-4.

This may have been a smart and sneaky move by the Soviets, but as an idea, reverse engineering is far from new, especially when it comes to war.

The Assyrian Empire has been described as the “first military power in history.” Their King was also the commander of the entire army — and while today’s rulers are appointed through force or democracy, the Assyrian King’s reign was sanctioned by none other than the gods themselves.

Their army wasn’t a small one either: in one instance, King Shalmaneser the Third gathered a force of over a hundred thousand men to invade neighbouring Syria. Elaborate preparations would be made beforehand to supply food and resources to all the soldiers. Size aside, the Assyrians took advantage of the latest in military technology, from cavalry to siege engines and everything in between.

But the key force behind the Assyrian army was its chariots. Fast, manoeuvrable, and with a raised platform to give commands or fire at enemy troops, the chariots were the perfect weapon — for flat ground, at least — and none made chariots better than the Assyrians.

Until, that is, the Egyptians managed to capture one.

The Egyptians already had their own chariots, and with the more advanced Assyrian model in their hands, they quickly discovered how to make copies. All they had to do was look at the captured one and figure out how it worked — reverse engineering at its purest.

With this new technology, Egyptians ended up dominating the region for the next thousand years.

In today’s world, campaigns and sieges have been overshadowed by a different kind of competition: the players are not nations but companies, and their conquests lie not on physical land but in the realm of market share.

And while the food industry is new to the game of reverse engineering crops from Mother Nature, the method has long been used to match a competitor’s product.

Many food scientists’ sole role is to create a product that closely mimics an already existing one. Take the famous Oreo cookie for example, it’s not the only chocolate cookie with a cream-filled centre. In most stores you’ll find nearly identical versions like Newman-Os, Hydrox, and numerous store-brands. Copycat products all begin with a food scientist trying to reverse engineer the original product…as did the makers of Oreo, when they replicated and eventually sidelined Hydrox.

This copycat competition is so widespread that it has another effect. Remember I mentioned that Coca-Cola never bothered to patent their formula? Here’s why.

In order to patent something, you have to describe what exactly you are patenting. You have to say “I am patenting the process to create such-and-such by including that and this,” where “that and this” is the exact recipe and process you’re staking your claim on. These patents are, of course, public, which means patenting its secret formula would require Coca-Cola to — horror of horrors! — reveal it all to the world.

Instead of doing this, food companies like Coca-Cola hold their methods as tightly guarded secrets, which is a double-edged sword. It prevents people from replicating their products right now — but once the secret gets out, there will be absolutely nothing they can do to retract it.

Of course, many countries require ingredient statements to be printed on foods, which does aid food scientists in their efforts to reverse engineer a product. But these labels don’t require the amount of each ingredient to be stated, much less the process by which it was made.

That said, it’s best to beware. If you do create a successful food or beverage, copycats won’t be far behind.

Like the food industry, video games are also prone to knock-off versions, and of course, top manufacturers like Nintendo aren’t excited to see copycats. While this could affect their bottom-line, there’s the additional issues of third-party games being lower quality.

When too many flood the market it can bring down the reputation of all video games. A notorious example is a set of games by Data Design Interactive: Ninjabread Man, Anubis II, Myth Makers: Trixie in Toyland, and Rock ’n’ Roll Adventures. Buyers were outraged to find that all four games had the exact same gameplay; just with a different skin and textures. Then there are controversial games such as Custer’s Revenge, a pornographic game developed by Mystique and revolving around the rape of a Native American woman.

With no specific law against third-party games, manufacturers turned to other techniques. This could involve a special code or sequence at the beginning of the videogame chip, which the console would check for before allowing a game to be played. But those codes can be inspected too, as happened in the case of video game manufacturer Sega.

In the 1990s, Sega used a somewhat unorthodox way of discouraging third-party videogames. They made their consoles check for a special sequence of characters in the code, including the letters S-E-G-A. So, to make their games work, third-party manufacturers would have to tell a lie of sorts: claiming to be Sega when they actually weren’t. Of course, the lie was only in the source code, but is a lie a lie even when you don’t see it?

That interesting question unfortunately never got answered. When tested in court, the judges took a different route, saying that it was Sega who was at fault for making this arbitrary rule and thereby forcing third-party developers to lie.

While the food industry has long used reverse engineering to mimic competitor’s products, it is just beginning to use the same method to recreate products that once Mother Nature was only able to make.

When it comes to our food supply, you might be thinking: why tinker with it? What’s the point?

Many different edible plants from the coffee bush to the cacao tree (used to make chocolate) are being negatively affected by rising global temperatures. Coffee farmers are increasingly forced to move to higher altitudes (with lower temperatures) to grow their plants. This move often includes deforesting the new land to set up their farm.

The chocolate industry has problems of its own. In addition to global warming making it difficult for the trees to grow, the farms often use child labour and are notorious for worker exploitation.

Other industries, including those that produce alcoholic drinks, claim that reverse engineering these spirits allows them to be produced using only a fraction of the resources.

That’s why the company Endless West has launched several reverse-engineered beverages including wine, whisky, and a sake-like spirit. Both Atomo and Voyage Foods are formulating a synthetic coffee but have yet to make their products available. Beyond coffee, Voyage is also planning to reverse formulate peanut butter and chocolate.

What happens when we, third-party species living on this planet, try to outdo Nature with our own creations? This has happened in the past, on different levels, and — like in the case of any third-party product — the results haven’t always been pretty.

In 2015, an 18-year-old by the name of Gaby Scanlon decided to celebrate her birthday with a shot of a new drink: the Nitro-Jägermeister, which contained liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is known for being super cold, which is why it’s used to preserve blood and reproductive cells, shrink-fit machine parts together, and…to make novel kinds of cool ice-creams and drinks.

The catch: liquid nitrogen isn’t great for the human body. Besides being cold enough to cause severe frostbite and freeze living tissue, excess nitrogen in the air decreases the concentration of oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. Scanlon says she felt an “explosion” in her stomach as she took the drink, and felt agonising pain as smoke billowed out of her mouth and nose.

Because liquid nitrogen was a new development, people didn’t know they had to wait for it all to evaporate before they began eating or drinking the food.

As you can see, artificial foodstuffs can be quite risky, and aren’t always safe. But that’s also because they’re new, and we haven’t had time to get used to them yet. Everyone knows not to gulp down a bowl of steaming hot soup, but they don’t know not to gulp down a glass of freezing cold nitrogen.

While the problems are out there, so are the solutions: testing, testing, and more testing. Study your product properly to make sure it’s safe before releasing it to the world — and continue studying it once it’s out there. Different companies are taking different approaches. Voyage Foods, for example, is avoiding the “completely synthetic food” route entirely. Instead, it’s opting to make its “peanut” butter from other regular foods such as upcycled grape seeds. You could think of it as a very high-tech form of cooking.

Reverse engineering is only the first step to making something new. Once you have the original blueprint, what you do from there makes a big difference. Will you quickly produce knockoff versions with the cheapest material you can get your hands on? Will you study everything in intricate detail and produce an exact lookalike? Or will you dive deeper, giving yourself a good understanding of how everything works, and use that to design your own, original, better versions?

Don’t forget that, when the Egyptians copied the Assyrian chariot, that was only the first step: their final product ended up dominating the region for the next hundred years.

With a hot new technology like molecular food making, it’s easy for people to get tempted and go ahead with fancy new dubious products. Equally easy is to stay away from it altogether and stick with what’s “natural”. And then, there’s the middle path: researching everything thoroughly, taking your time about it, and ending up with something that works better than anything worked before.

Are we going to build a Ninjabread Man or an Egyptian chariot? It’s up to us.