Reader Cici writes in to ask:
What is homogenization and why must all grocery store milk be homogenized and/or stabilized?
The trouble with cream for big commercial processors is that it separates easily. The fat globules that make up 36 (or more) percent of it tend to become attracted to one another and clump up into…well, you can see the results below. Homogenization — essentially hot, high-pressure spraying that tears large fat globules into teeny tiny pieces and distributes them evenly through the milk — helps to inhibit that natural separation.
However it can’t defeat it entirely. That’s where stabilizers come in. A common one is carrageenan, a natural seaweed extract, the molecules of which get between the fat globules to prevent them from clustering together.
What does all that do to the taste of the cream? It changes it, there’s no question. The simple act of homogenizing cream changes it’s physical characteristics, making it blander than it would otherwise be. The reason again has to do with fat and how it interacts with the tongue (see my posts from two weeks ago for more on that!). Add a stabilizer and you get a little further still from cream as it was on the farm.
But then what are the alternatives? Heavy cream is one of the grocery industry’s most returned items, as the clumps of fat that sometimes plop out of the little cartons are commonly mistaken for signs of spoilage. Imagine the response to an un-homogenized and/or un-stabilized mass-market product. The taste would be truer to the real thing, but the texture would probably cause a panic.
Thanks for the question, Cici!