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Passions of Food—Special Day at #SciAmBlogs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Welcome to the huge and wonderful day here at the Scientific American blog network, where we are having great fun discussing food and trends in modern agriculture and why people are so passionate about these topics. Here is a compilation of all of today’s posts covering these topics, as well as a choice collection of some other posts that appeared recently on our network.

- Razib Khan – You become as you eat:

We are all variations on the common template, not replicas. In modern developed nations we are faced with an “obesity epidemic.” That epidemic has elicited an outcry from public health officials. Though many recommendations are easy to generalize in terms of their applicability, it seems likely that a “one size fits all” regime will exhibit diminishing marginal returns. Everyone knows individuals who can eat “all they want” and remain trim, and others who have to monitor their intake vigilantly lest they begin to pack on the pounds. We know this intuitively, so public health officials who make catchall assertions without caveat often lose credibility in the eyes of the public.

- Krystal D’Costa – Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Will Industrialized Foods Be the End of Us?:

…All of this is not to deny that there are not problems with industrialized foods, but to emphasize the ways in which we have denaturalized the natural, and this applies to whole meals as well as individual food items. What we think of as native or ethnic foods are recent developments that came about as a result of industrialization and urbanization. There’s nothing more English than fish and chips, right? This dish was adapted by the working class in the 19th-century from the Sephardic Jews who lived in East London. Indian Tandoori chicken—which is a favorite of mine—was created by Hindu Punjabis who fled to Pakistan during the Partition and learned to cook on the Muslim-style Tandoor. These are the histories we overlook when nostalgia drives us to Whole Foods…

- David Wogan – Food waste in the land of ‘Man vs Food’:

…Take a trip to the grocery store and one will find aisles upon aisles of fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and other processed foodstuffs. Food that isn’t taken home is tossed for a number of reasons; it can be past its expiration date, has accumulated moisture, or sometimes just doesn’t look “good” anymore, and is sent to that big landfill in the sky. All told, around 27 million tons of food per year is tossed from grocery stores, restaurants, fast food chains and convenience stores…

- Alex Wild – Organic Honey Is A Sweet Illusion:

Considering the revered place of honey as the oldest natural sweetener, and considering that its insect makers- honey bees- are highly intolerant of pesticides, you might think honey would be the easiest food crop to produce for the “organic” food market. But you’d be wrong.

- Bora Zivkovic – How to Fix an Authentic Serbian* Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage):

Yes, the post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. And yes, the recipe is real. But most interesting is the passion people feel about their food, how important is the authenticity (though any local, ethnic dish is likely a result of many foreign influences over the years), and especially how important it is that it tastes exactly the way Mom fixed it…

- Robynne Boyd – Food: Knowing Where it’s Growing:

Just 30-miles Southwest of Atlanta’s bustling gray-toned streets sits a verdant plot of land known as Serenbe. The farm is the source of my family’s vegetables we pickup every Tuesday at a drop-off spot in the city. It (and many other small-scale farms around the country) is also the wellspring for a new way of thinking about food, farms, fertilizers and urban foraging…

- Diana Gitig – Food for thought: Musings on sustenance and what makes us human:

Euell Gibbons​’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus is illustrated only with ink sketches of the plants, so it is hardly a field guide for a modern aspiring forager; and since he suggests adding butter and/or bacon to almost every vegetable he finds, it is not really suitable as a contemporary cookbook either. But it does have a terrific title, and his “thoughts on wild foods” are stirring.

- Christie Wilcox – Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture:

…Here’s the thing: there are a lot of myths out there about organic foods, and a lot of propaganda supporting methods that are rarely understood. It’s like your mother used to say: just because everyone is jumping off a bridge doesn’t mean you should do it, too. Now, before I get yelled at too much, let me state unequivocally that I’m not saying organic farming is bad – far from it. There are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, are fantastic; crop rotations and mixed planting are much better for the soil and environment. My goal in this post isn’t to bash organic farms, instead, it’s to bust the worst of the myths that surround them so that everyone can judge organic farming based on facts. In particular, there are four myths thrown around like they’re real that just drive me crazy…

- Jason Mark – Myths: Busted – Clearing Up the Misunderstandings about Organic Farming:

When I saw that Scientific American was carrying a web story by a regular SciAm blogger determined to bust some of the “myths” surrounding organic farming, I was excited. I hoped the article would be something along the lines of Sam Fromartz’s excellent book Organic Inc., a skeptical look at how a well-intentioned effort to protect the environment has turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry. I was quickly disappointed. The article1, by a PhD candidate named Christie Wilcox, was compromised by a slew of elisions and exaggerations. If the intention was to myth-bust, mark this one a fail: The article spread new misconceptions about the methods of organic food production.

- Christie Wilcox – In the immortal words of Tom Petty: “I won’t back down”:

In the responses to my article on organic myths, I have been called an industrial shill, liar, and an organic hater. People have questioned my motives, saying I am a bioengineer or paid by Monsanto*. They have called for my head, or at the very least, the retraction of my article. In most of them, my arguments were inflated, twisted, or flat-out re-written. I don’t think GMOs “are the only way to feed the world.” I don’t think organics are “trying to take over.” So, screw the myths. This time around, I’m just going to focus on the facts.

- David Ropeik – Food Fight: why are we so passionate about what enters our bodies:

Why is that there can be such divergent views about basically the same body of evidence regarding organic and GM food? This debate/argument illustrates two things; the subjective and emotional nature of risk perception, and the fallacy of our faith in pure fact-based Cartesian reason as the be-all and end-all way of figuring out the truth.

- Marie-Claire Shanahan – Science Education and Changing People’s Minds: Writing to convince:

…I’ll admit it here: I was once (in what now seems like a past life) a vegan and committed to only eating natural foods. It’s taken a long time (and a lot of bacon) for me to sort through my conceptions of food and agriculture and to make sense of which ideas are supported by evidence and which are everyday notions that I still cling to. Wilcox’s mythbusting is directed exactly at someone like me and might be even more effective if those readers had an opportunity to bring their own ideas to the front of their minds to be recognized. From my own perspective, on the surface I don’t think that I subscribe to these myths anymore but I know deep down that there are pieces of them still there in the ways that I think…

- Katherine Harmon – Organic milk delivers more consistent nutrition across seasons:

Like produce, milk quality can vary with the season and year. Dairy cows‘ daily diet, much of which comes from plant forage, determines the nutritional makeup of their milk, so when their food lags in quality, so, too, does their output. And a new study shows that conventionally produced milk is more prone to these unfavorable seasonal shifts than organic milk.

- James King – Dressing the meat of tomorrow:

If you take a small sample of animal tissue and encourage it to grow in vitro, separate from the original animal’s body, it is possible to create an edible piece of meat. Culturing living tissue is a routine lab procedure and an important part of medical and biological research, but using the tools and techniques of tissue engineering as the basis for industrialised food production is an idea that some people may find unpalatable.

- Erin Prosser – Nutritional Differences in Organic vs. Conventional Foods: and the Winner is…:

If you’re like me, the word “organic” conjures up picturesque images of untouched green fields, majestic trees blossoming with fruit, happy free-ranging cows and chickens living together in harmony…ok maybe its just me. For many of us though, something visceral does happen when we decide to choose the organic apples as opposed to the conventionally grown ones.

- Krystal D’Costa – Are We Ashamed of Lunch?:

Lunch is an often neglected meal of the day: sometimes skipped, many times hastily consumed, lunch is often over before it begins. It feels like an intrusion: we have to stop what we’re doing, pause our stream of thought or work, to feed our bodies? What a bother.

- David Wogan – More on food sourcing and food sustainability:

I heard this story on NPR/PRI’s The World while driving home from yoga last night. Here’s the tl;dr of it: a Dutch company is perfecting ways to grow food indoors using LED lights and elaborate climate controls. By optimizing light levels and wavelengths, a range of crops can be grown…

- Sharon Astyk – Picturing World Agriculture:

When most of us write about food and agriculture, we include references to the larger world food picture. This is understandable, but it can lead to problems of context and comprehension. We tend to tie our discussions about agriculture to the plight of the world’s teeming hungry poor – but these discussions are often loaded down with a set of underlying assumptions prevalent among citizens of the developed world. We think that the solution to hunger is more food production; and indeed, sometimes it is. But where and how our agricultural technologies are distributed has a greater effect than the technologies themselves, and until we understand what farms look like worldwide, it all too is easy for us to tout the latest breakthrough’s hypothetical ability to feed so many millions of hungry people. Unfortunately, the path to reaching those people is more complicated than that.

- Janet D. Stemwedel – Environmental impacts of what we eat: the difficulty of apples-to-apples comparisons.:

In recent years, there seems to be growing public awareness of food as something that doesn’t magically pop into existence at the supermarket or the restaurant kitchen. People now seem to recall that there are agricultural processes that produce food — and to have some understanding that these processes have impacts on other pieces of the world. The environmental impacts, especially, are on our minds. However, figuring out just what the impacts are is challenging, and this makes it hard for us to evaluate our choices with comparisons that are really apples-to-apples.

- Bora Zivkovic – Do you love or hate Cilantro?:

If you think that political or religious debates can get nasty, you haven’t seen anything until you go online and see how much hate exists between people who love cilantro and those who hate cilantro. What horrible words they use to describe each other!!!!

- Krystal D’Costa – The Culture of Coffee Drinkers:

The idea of the morning person aside, morning commuters seem to fall into one of two categories: the Caffeinated and the Un-caffeinated—the latter category being those who intend to consume coffee, but haven’t quite gotten their morning java yet. And they’re easily recognizable as such. The Caffeinated are bright-eyed and engaged with the day’s events already—they’re reading their morning papers, or checking email, or reading for pleasure. They’re sometimes armed with travel mugs or Ventis from their coffee shop of choice. They rattle the ice in the clear plastic beverage cups from mobile vendors on summer days. They walk a little faster in the early hours having long left last night behind.

- Summer Ash – Science in the neighborhood: How to make really good coffee:

As a novice with a sweet tooth, I’ve never strayed from my preferred mocha, fearing the bitter taste I associate with straight coffee. I admit that impression is at least a decade old and I can’t recall the last time I gave coffee a chance. So after witnessing my first pour over, I was eager to taste coffee again for the first time. The sweetness hit me immediately and the subtle layers of caramel were immediately apparent. It was so smooth and rich and complex. As clichéd as it sounds, I’d never experienced anything like it. The pour over is a drink that tells a story. It captures all that the beans have seen and reveals how each part of the process has left its fingerprint. After tasting my first pour-over, my mocha tasted like a chocolate milkshake.

- Janet D. Stemwedel – Every diet has a body-count: in the garden with the vegetarian killing snails.:

When the demand of my job and my family life allow, I try to take advantage of the fact that I live in California by maintaining a vegetable garden. One of the less pleasant aspects of vegetable gardening is that, every winter and spring, it requires me to embark on a program of snail and slug eradication — which is to say, I hunt for snails and slugs in my garden and I kill them.

- Julia Galef – Want to Kill Fewer Animals? Give Up Eggs:

If you’re bothered by the idea of killing animals for food, then going vegetarian might seem like an obvious response. But if you want your diet to kill as few animals as possible, then eschewing meat is actually quite an indirect, and sometimes even counterproductive, strategy. The question you should be asking yourself about any given food is not, “Is this food animal flesh?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “How many animal lives did this food cost?”

- Katherine Harmon – Chew on This: More Mastication Cuts Calorie Intake by 12 Percent:

About a century ago, a new craze gripped the country’s health conscious: mastication. Chewing each bite of food precisely 32 times would help people control how much food they consumed—turning them from gluttons to epicureans—according to the early 20th-century dietician Horace Fletcher​. Among his many ardent adherents the tactic became known as “Fletcherizing.” And Fletcher, in turn, has gone down in dietary history as “The Great Masticator,” with the purported catch phrase: “nature shall castigate those who don’t masticate.”

- Pamela Ronald – Genetically engineered crops – what, how and why:

By the turn of the century, the number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 10 billion. How can we feed the growing population without further degrading the environment? Because the amount of land and water is limited, it is no longer possible to simply expand farmland to produce more food. Instead, increased food production must largely take place on the same land area, while using less water. Compounding the challenges facing agricultural production are the predicted effects of climate change: flooding in some places, droughts in others and new pests and disease outbreaks.

- Krystal D’Costa – The Hidden Costs of Food: Food Prints and Healthy Eating:

How much do we really know about the food we eat? How do items like fruits and vegetables get to the supermarket? What goes into packaging and processing them so they’re safe to eat? Are local foods better?

- Diana Gitig – When, and Why, Did Everyone Stop Eating Gluten?:

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the ingestion of gluten induces enteropathy, or inflammation of the gut, in genetically susceptible individuals. This destruction of the gut means that nutrients cannot be absorbed, leading to a variety of clinical symptoms: anemia due to the lack of iron, atherosclerosis due to the lack of calcium, failure to thrive in children, and GI stress, among others.

- Bora Zivkovic – Offal is Good:

We need to eat and we need to systematically change the way the food industry is organized, but this also means we need to ‘try some new foods’ and be more efficient and less wasteful about it. You can start by frying a testicle or two one of these days. It’s not bad at all, I can guarantee you.

- Melissa C. Lott – 10 Calories in, 1 Calorie Out – The Energy We Spend on Food:

Pollan’s lecture was interesting, engaging and funny. This was not surprising to me, after having read his books. The bags of groceries that he brought from the Fiesta across I-35 brought in the usual laughs (“Venom” who knew it was a drink??) and groans (Twinkies… ahh, the infamous Twinkie). But, of all the things that he said about “food-like substances” – the things that trick you into thinking that they are food, but have very few similarities with the real thing – and the problems with the Western diet, the thing that stuck in my head was the following….

- Tiffany Stecker – Stem Rust Ug99–the Agricultural Bully:

Remember 1999? It was the year in which the European Union first unveiled its uniform currency and Y2K threatened to bring the technological rapture to global information systems. 1999, the year the artist then-known as Prince declared the benchmark for partying (although he sang it in 1982). It also marked the identification of a new race of an aggressive wheat fungus in Uganda that continues to plague farmers in East Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

- Katherine Harmon – What’s in Your Wiener? Hot Dog Ingredients Explained:

So just what’s in these wieners? Here’s a quick look at the ingredient list:

 

- Bora Zivkovic – Books: Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

I have read the book a couple of months ago and never found time to write a review till now. I also remember that I finished the book on a Thursday afternoon – an important piece of information as it is on Thursday afternoons that there is a Farmers’ Market here in Southern Village, barely a block from me. The first thing I did when I closed the book was to walk up to the Farmers’ Market, buy some locally grown food and talk to the farmers about all the issues raised in the book and, lo and behold, they all agree with Pollan on everything I asked them about.

- Cheryl Murphy – Will Carrots Help You See Better? No, but Chocolate Might:

I can’t count the number of times I have been asked by patients if carrots really can improve their eyesight. I think some are looking for carrots to be a magical cure for their refractive error. They want to eliminate their need for glasses and want carrots to give them perfect 20/20 vision. While proper nutrition is necessary to maintain healthy eyes and can even help slow the progression of certain eye conditions and illnesses such as cataracts and macular degeneration, consuming a certain type of food cannot “cure” your need for glasses. In recent studies, however, it has been shown that what you eat can temporarily enhance the sharpness of your vision and can even improve cognition.

- Rob Dunn – How Probiotics May Save Your Life:

Probiotics are living species (typically bacteria, though I will argue for a broader definition) taken in one form or another by animals (typically though not always humans) in order to improve their health. The great hope with probiotics is that we might eat and favor a suite of living forms that make us healthier. Stores are filled with probiotics produced and purchased on the basis of this hope. The difficulty has been actually figuring out what species of bacteria might benefit us and also how, and/or why. For the most part, the answers are. A) No one is sure. B) No one is sure and C) No one is sure.

- Robin Ann Smith – The worms within:

I met William Parker just two days before World Toilet Day, an international campaign to break taboos about, yes, potties. It’s a subject not many like to talk about. The cause is a critical one: access to sanitation and safe drinking water are key to preventing a host of diseases. But a growing body of research suggests there may be a dark side to clean living.

- Christina Agapakis – Mixed cultures: art, science, and cheese:

Cheese is an everyday artifact of microbial artistry. Discovered accidentally when someone stored milk in a stomach-canteen full of gut microbes, acids, and enzymes thousands of years ago, cheesemaking evolved as a way to use good bacteria to protect milk from the bad bacteria that can make us sick, before anyone knew that bacteria even existed. In our modern world, with antimicrobial hand sanitizer dispensers in every elevator lobby, cheeses and other microbe-rich foods lie at the heart of a post-Pasteurian debate over the positive impact of microbes on our health and happiness.

- D.N.Lee – Connecting urban communities with agriculture:

For some reasons, agriculture is so mysterious to so many people –particularly to urbanites. It is a veiled industry and as a result most of us are disconnected from agriculture. That’s a problem in my book. Even more of a problem as our population continues to grow. Some experts project that 70% of the population will live in cities by the year 2050! Who will feed us? How will they feed us?

- Katherine Harmon – Going Organic Cuts Poultry Farms’ “Superbug” Bacteria in Single Generation

But by going organic, poultry farms can cut the amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria in a single generation by nearly five times, according to a new study published online this week in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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