[EAS]NIST Standards

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Jun 8 21:24:03 EDT 2003

Subject:   NIST Standards

Dear Colleagues -

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly known
as the Bureau of Standards) provides calibration standards and
services. I think of them in a very sober classical physics vein
when it comes to the standard Volt. Sometimes my thoughts led to
fantasies for standards I've always considered very difficult to
implement, like optical ones. I imagined a pet mouse whose eyes were
calibrated at some standard level of optical sensitivity.

But I never imagined what my colleage Steve Portigal forwarded to me


to wit below.  --PJK

June 8, 2003

You Get What You Pay for: Peanut Butter With a Pedigree

Tokyo has its Kobe beef, at $1,000 a pound. Paris has its
$100-an-ounce white truffles. But for true decadence, you have to go
to Gaithersburg, Md., and the headquarters of the National Institute
of Standards and Technology. There you'll find what has to be the
world's most expensive peanut butter. A small six-ounce jar of the
stuff costs more than $140 ($375 per pound).

NIST, as the institute is known, is an agency of the Commerce
Department, which might lead you to wonder: what is the government
doing in the peanut butter business? But this is not another example
of the bureaucratic laxity that produced the Pentagon's $600 toilet
seat. In fact, for once the government is not buying at all Ñ since
March it has been selling the stuff at $425 for three jars of creamy
(sorry, no chunky available).

This peanut butter is unique. It's "standard reference material,"
designed not to be eaten but, like many other materials NIST
produces Ñ concrete, ceramic powders, steels of all kinds Ñ to be
fed into gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers and other analytical
equipment. NIST provides a baseline analysis Ñ standards of
reference Ñ of the peanut butter's nutritional components so that
food manufacturers and testing laboratories can verify that their
analyses of other, similar foods are accurate.

The peanut butter, which is officially known as Standard Reference
Material No. 2387, is the same spread you're likely to find in the
supermarket, made from roasted peanuts, sugar, hydrogenated fat and

"It was prepared by a commercial manufacturer of peanut butter whose
name you would recognize," said Katherine E. Sharpless, a NIST
chemist, who coordinated the project. 

The high price, Dr. Sharpless said, is due to the high cost of
analyzing the peanut butter, which is carried out at the institute
and at laboratories around the country. NIST knows precisely how
much fat it contains, how much is saturated, how much unsaturated,
even the proportions of certain fatty acids. It knows how much
manganese, copper and zinc it contains. It knows all about this
peanut butter's protein, down to the individual amino acids.

The release of the peanut butter (2,800 three-jar units are
available) also marks a milestone of sorts for NIST.

While consumers and dieticians talk about food groups like meats,
vegetables and starches, food manufacturers think more in terms of
protein, carbohydrate and fat. They view the universe of foods as a
triangle, with extremes at each angle: foods that are 100 percent
fat, protein, carbohydrate. Most foods are a mix of the three, and
fall closer to the center of the triangle.

The problem faced by the food industry and testing labs was that
they didn't have reference foods that covered the complete range of
food available. The industry divides its food triangle into nine
small triangles, or sectors, and over the years NIST had come up
with reference materials that fit into all except one. 

They are not the sort of foods you'd want to throw into a recipe.
"Baby food composite" is one (four three-ounce jars cost $233);
"meat homogenate" is another Ñ a spreadable concoction of pork and
chicken that was made by the manufacturer of Spam, the Hormel
Company (which, unlike the peanut butter manufacturer, doesn't mind
being identified). But perhaps the oddest item is "Lake Superior
fish tissue," a blend of bits of fish that has been analyzed not
just for nutritional content but for contaminants like PCB's.

The addition of peanut butter completes the puzzle; it's a
relatively high-fat food that also contains significant amounts of
protein and carbohydrate.

"It falls pretty much smack in the center of sector three," Dr.
Sharpless said.

Copyright 2003ÊThe New York Times Company

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