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Posts Tagged ‘food’

Science and Food

Sorry for the lack of posts.  Busy at home and at school, and to add to the craziness, I decided to start a food blog a little while ago, you know, in my spare time.  That’s not a solo project, though, so with a few friends collaborating there should be more frequent posts and less pressure (on me) to write every day or every week.  I mention it here because I’ve given it more of my attention in the past month, and because it occupies a space in my brain (and life) where science and food overlap.  My goal is for it to to deal with food and the transformative power of salt, bacteria, smoke, and time.  I guess you could throw yeast and heat in there too.

belly and cure

There will probably be a few cross-posts, like when we make pickles, sourdough bread, and bacon in class.  (Yes, I would love to teach a food science elective, especially if we got to make charcuterie.  Imagine a dry-cured sausage lab to demonstrate the role of bacteria in lactic acid fermentation, effect of pH and drying on changes in protein structure, a study of benefical vs harmful mold growth, etc.  How cool would that be?)   So feel free to check it out.  It’s called Smoke Cure Pickle Brew, and we’re pretty excited about it.

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A Lot of Fuss about Sugar

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

…and deservedly so.

I’ve been reading a lot of Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics.  I’ve found her writing to be well researched, thoughtful, and sensible about all things related to food and, well, the politics of food.  Her book What To Eat is on the shelf in my science classroom, and it has been helpful as students research the pros and cons of fish farming (for a unit of debates in environmental science).  Through her recent posts I’ve learned quite a bit about the intricacies of sugar policy.  Complicated stuff.  Here’s a post of hers with some good background information on sugar (after her appearance on the Colbert Report).  But the main point of this post is about all the beverage and advertising ruckus that’s been happening recently in New York.

Marion is keeping tabs on the situation;  she has been updating things on via her Twitter account, and here is what I have learned from her so far:

1) the American Heart Association finally came around to recommending that people eat less sugar.  It’s amazing to me that this is a recent recommendation. But there it is.

2) the New York City Health Department comes up with an ad campaign called “Pour Off The Pounds” (that they’ve spent significant money on) to get people to drink less soda.  There are gobs of fat pouring out of the soda bottle, which is a nice touch.  See the NYTimes’s take on it here.  This ad campaign is related to the AHA recommendation (though not a result of it), as there are benefits to having fewer people run into health problems related to over-consumption of sugar and soft drinks.  Here’s an ABC News spot on soda and extra calories.  So NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene tells people to drink less soda.  Tell people to be a bit healthier.  It’s like mom telling you to eat your vegetables and not so much candy.  Simple, right?  Ah, no…

3) the American Beverage Association freaks out.  They sell A LOT of soda, you know.  Plenty of sugar.  So they weren’t happy first when the AHA came out and said that people should consume less soda: their response (which sounds frighteningly close to those HFCS commercials, which were just uncomfortable.)  And then they certainly weren’t excited about this ad campaign: their response to that. “We can’t have NY telling people not to drink soda!!  It’s not our fault that people are fat.” (my paraphrase).  What a mess.

It would be naive to think that sugar issues should be more simple.  It reminds me of those “This is Your Brain on Drugs” commercials from the 80’s.  There’s some history out there for shocking ads from various health departments.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Don’t smoke, don’t do drugs.  That’s not new.  But what would have happened if there was a response from the drug community after the “Brain on Drugs” commercials?  Like outrage, you know, a press release about such a prejudiced ad campaign…

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green-archesI’ve posted on greenwashing before.  I like Wikipedia’s use of the synonym “green sheen” in their description of the term.  In June I posted a link to an article in the Guardian about advertising and misinformation in relation to actual sustainability and environmental benefit.  Greenwashing is common, it’s unregulated, and it’s big money.  But I read an article the other day about McDonald’s from the Environmental News Network (ENN.com) and CleanTechnica.com that was very interesting.  It’s worth reading.

The main question the article poses is this: Is McDonald’s a green company?

Well, what constitutes a “green” company?  And how would one go about evaluating its “greenness”?  That’s an awkward term, I know.  But is the company doing things like cutting its emissions, purchasing renewable energy, reducing its overall carbon footprint, building sustainably, supporting local farms?  McDonald’s can answer “yes” to some of those things, but not to all of them.  How about if it was partnering with organizations to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel (Brazil, Chile, Argentina), reducing water usage (Australia), and providing electric vehicle recharging stations (North Carolina)?  Sure, points for those things, and it’s great that they’re doing anything along those lines.  But then you need to weigh those positive efforts against the company’s existing footprint and/or track record.  And this is where you lose points.  In the case of McDonald’s, many points.  Now we’re into the issues of fast food and obesity in America, liberal use of high fructose corn syrup, conventional beef and the major problems associated with CAFOs, support of monoculture crops (by sheer tonnage of what they purchase), genetically modified crops and transgenic produce, contributions to overall human health; the list goes on.  Is “green fast food” an oxymoron?  Maybe.  I’m not saying that it has to be.  But it’s not as cost effective if you don’t cut all those corners, you know.  (See Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” for more on externalizing costs).  If another company was taking some of the steps listed above that McDonald’s is taking (according to its own Corporate Responsibility page — “Look, we’re green!!”) would we laud those achievements?  Is it a step in the right direction, or just a drop in the bucket?

I’m not shilling for Mickey D’s here.  I’ll answer my own question and say that I think it’s a small drop in a big bucket, hence the title of this post.  I’ll admit, I like their fries, and I’ll stop for a chocolate shake on a long road trip, but I don’t generally eat there.  If it comes down to a gas-and-a-burger stop on the road, whether it’s the golden arches, BK, or Wendy’s, I don’t care that much.  It’s either that or gas station Fritos.  Others have bemoaned the beast that is Fast Food in America, and I’m not going to rehash that now.  There’s plenty of research out there.  For additional reading and watching (for a cheery summer afternoon), see Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc…

Let’s put aside the oxymoron for a second.  What if McDonald’s is becoming a force for good?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they’re not there yet, I know.  Long way to go.  Maybe here’s the real question: What would they have to do for you to say that McDonald’s has become a force for good? There’s plenty of room for improvement.  According to Yahoo! Finance, at the end of 2008 McDonald’s was operating 31,967 restaurants in 118 countries.  Think about all the potatoes and beef that they buy!  Small changes in policies and purchasing from the front office could have huge ramifications.  Well, they do have huge ramifications now, just not good ones.  Think of what they could be doing.

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An interesting and detailed article from the Ethicurian on a study reported by The Chicago Tribune on pesticides and peaches; includes info on local, organic, local non-organic, imported, etc.  Lots of options, and generally lots of residues.  Well reported, with lots of links to the original studies and background information.  A nice counterpoint to the recent UK study on nutritional value of organic vs. conventional food, explained in this excellent post from two weeks ago on Marion Nestle’s blog Food Politics.

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from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

from the movie poster for the documentary “Food, Inc.” from director Robert Kenner. Image credit: Magnolia Pictures

There has been a lot written about Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. already.  Not surprisingly, the food blogs were abuzz before it even came out.  It covers topics that I’ve been reading a lot about over the past two years: topics in books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, et al.  Sustainability of food, welfare of animals, agriculture in general, pesticides, health, fast food, small farms, etc.  We reference The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food fairly often in our house.  (And I’ve written already on this blog about reading Pollan.)  As a family, we consider the provenance of our food, discuss toxicology on a daily basis (the wife’s Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy comes in handy here), and we enjoy the farmer’s market, sourcing organic and local meats when we can.  We’re on board.  We get it.  So I’d like to see the movie, but I haven’t seen too many movies (other than rentals) in the last 10 months with an infant in the house.  It’s currently showing at the Bethel Cinemas, and I’m planning to go.  I have the general idea that most of the people that will go see Food Inc. are already on board, though, that for the most part the film will be preaching to the choir.  Plenty of silent “Amens” from the crowd?  The people who would most benefit from it probably won’t go see it.  That’s too bad, because the movie sounds enlightening and disturbing.  That’s exactly the point.  There are huge parts of the food industry that are disturbing.  But not everyone wants to be enlightened or disturbed about their food, and that’s a big part of the problem.

I won’t have anything to add to the movie buzz until I see it, so at this point I can only pass along what I’ve read.  Michael Ruhlman wrote a blog post about the documentary yesterday that I thought was heartfelt and persuasive.  He writes with clarity and emotion, and he was definitely moved by the film (moreso than he thought he would be).  Read his post here, go see the movie, and we’ll talk about it.

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