Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Secret Ingredient of the World’s Best Apple Pie


Algorythms can predict the future, but unlike the Delphi oracle, they do it based on hard scientific methods, instead of intestines and animal bones. Finding old friends on Facebook, recomending books you might like on Amazon, or predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential election – you name it, an algorythm does it.



So what about food? Could these same math whizzes help us bake a better pumpkin pie or mix up a tastier batch of sweet potatoes this Christmas? Lada Adamic, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan and Facebook, thinks it just might be possible. she and her team have come up with an algorithm to guess how successful a recipe will turn out. And the math works surprisingly well. It predicts with nearly 80 percent accuracy how many stars your mother's cranberry recipe will receive on allrecipes.com. Plus, it can recommend ingredient replacements to make your pie crust and potatoes more healthful.




She and her team took nearly 50,000 recipes and 2 million reviews from allrecipes.com and then hacked up an algorithm to extract out all the ingredients, cooking methods and nutritional profiles. With just these items, her algorithm could predict the recipe's rating with an accuracy of about 70 percent. But the magic happened when Adamic built a "social network" for the ingredients. She looked at how often two ingredients appear in the same recipes. Those that frequently show up together — milk and butter, nutmeg and cinnamon, basil and rosemary — sit close to each other in the network, but those that rarely appear in the same dish, such as coconut and parsley, are far from each other.



Physicists at Harvard University performed a similar network analysis on ingredients' flavors, but Adamic took it a step further and integrated the data into a recipe prediction program.

Adamic's network analysis boosted the accuracy of her recipe recommendations by about 10 percent. But it also revealed a treasure-trove of information about the way Americans mix and match ingredients, which ones we like to leave out or throw in extra.
Her algorithm analyzed reviewers' recommendations for customizing recipes, such as "I replaced the butter in the frosting by sour cream, just to soothe my conscience about all the fatty calories" and "This is a great recipe, but using fresh tomatoes only adds a few minutes to the prep time." Then the mathematics stitched together little clusters or communities of interchangeable foods and spices.

The result is a list of recipe replacements more comprehensive and scientifically accurate than anything you'll find in the Joy of Cooking or online.

Read the full article on arXiv.com, or a lighter verison on the npr blog.

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