The National Institute Of Standards and Technology was founded on March 3, 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, taking on its current moniker in 1988. The organisation is charged by the government with ensuring the uniformity of weights and measures across the United States, and generally helping out industry, academia and other users wherever some kind of overarching standard is required.
One of the primary jobs of NIST is the production and sale of Standard Reference Materials, or SRMs. These cover a huge variety of applications, from steel samples to concrete and geological materials like clay. However, there are also edible SRMS, too. Yes, you can purchase yourself a jar of NIST Standard Peanut Butter, though you might find the price uncompetitive with the varieties at your local supermarket. Let’s dive into why these “standard” foods exist, and see what’s available from the shelves of our favourite national standards institute.
Know Thine Measurements
NIST produce approximately 1300 different Standard Reference Materials, with 45 of those being in the Food and Beverage category. They’re most famous for their peanut butter, which got attention online when a photo of Dr. Carolyn Burdette testing samples of the material went viral. The range of standards available is vast, though largely unpalatable, with such items as Meat Homogenate and Infant/Adult Nutritional Powder available.
It’s fun to think about a government organisation creating a “standard” peanut butter to rule them all, one neither better nor worse than one could expect a peanut butter to be. However, these standards are not intended to be a guide on how manufacturers should craft their foods. Instead, the materials are intended for use as calibration standards.
Manufacturers need to verify the nutritional content of their foods, and also need to verify that they’re safe and free of dangerous contaminants. This requires the use of a variety of complex tests. In order to verify that the results of these tests are valid, it’s necessary to have a known standard material on hand to check with. For example, if you run a test on NIST’s standard apple juice, and your measured levels for arsenic match the documented values, you can be relatively certain that when you measure your own company’s product, the numbers you get are valid.
While the NIST standards could technically be considered edible, they’re not intended to be ingested, and prices are orders of magnitude higher than what you’d pay at your local store. A 3-pack of standard peanut butter will set you back $881 before shipping, while five bars of baking chocolate will cost you the same. Suffice to say, NIST aren’t known for handing out holiday promo codes, either. If we had to cater a picnic with nothing but SRMs, we’d lean on the milk & egg powders along with flour samples to bake a nice standard loaf of bread, topped with either oyster tissue (a steal at $672 for 25 grams), bovine liver, or perhaps the slurried spinach for those wanting a vegetarian option.
Overall, these reference materials serve an important role in ensuring the quality of the foods and beverages we consume every day. Combined with the formal, bleak aesthetic of their label designs, they also make an excellent gag prop for your refrigerator, albeit at great cost. NIST’s work makes life easier for manufacturers, and helps produce better products for consumers. Thus, the enigmatic Standard Reference Materials play an highly important role in the food and beverage industry.