Food & drink

Oil or food?

Changing diets in developing countries such as China are putting increased pressure on the supply of grain, livestock and vegetable oils. In developed countries, grain supply is threatened by the growing market for bio-fuels, which are being seen as the latest guilt-free alternative for our petrol tanks. While the increased production of bio-fuels such as ethanol is being driven by the increasing price of oil, there is another cost. The grain required to fill a SUV tank could feed a person for a year. There is now competition for grain between hungry people and thirsty cars. And the cars are very thirsty. Even if all of the US grain harvest was converted to bio-fuels, it would meet less that one-sixth of the country's demand. Food and energy economies are merging as corn (in particular) wheat, soybeans, rice and sugar cane are being used for fuel and in Iowa and South Dakota ethanol distilleries are claiming most of the states' corn crops. Malaysia has become the chief supplier of bio-fuel in Asia, exporting palm oil. The answer to this dilemma could be overcome by increasing fuel efficiency (and producing more hybrid and electric vehicles), but Detroit isn't co-operating. As the world's largest user of oil, and largest producer of grain and ethanol, the US is firmly behind the wheel when solving this one.
Ref: Various including Fortune (US), 21 August 2006, 'Appetite for destruction', L.Brown.
Search words: food supply, biofuel, shortages, commodities

Everything in moderation isn't that fad

Since ancient times, we have learnt we are what we eat. Even Hippocrates told us, "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food". In modern times, our relationship between health and food has translated into fad diets and a multi-million dollar diet and wellness industry. The decades of studies and claims and counter claims about what is good or bad for us has resulted in a lot of confusion, fuelled by media hype. Carbs have been good then bad, and now are good again. Well, some carbs. Drinking eight glasses of water a day is crucial, but is it? The latest demon is trans fats. This at least is agreed upon. So why so little information and evidence? Partly because research often focuses on only single components of our diets rather than the whole. But according to the World Health Organisation and a UN Food and Agriculture Program report that reviewed over 400 studies, foods that we can categorically prove to be beneficial to our health are few and far between. Out of all the links between food and health, the only convincing evidence was that eating salted fish increases the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and vitamin D and calcium will decrease the chances of osteoporosis. Eating fat and salt will increase your risk of cardiovascular disease but eating fruit, vegetables and oily fish will decrease it. Oily fish does seem to be our friend though. Higher levels of omega-3 (found in oily fish) in our bloodstream correlates with lower levels of depression, impulsiveness and pessimism. Depression is 60 times less common in countries where fish is consumed regularly, as are rates of bi-polar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. The food pyramid that has been the basis of dietary guidelines for the past 50 years still seems the best basis for good nutrition. And dieting? Eat less, move more.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 23 September 2006, 'The good, the fad and the unhealthy', B. Trivedi.
Search words: health, well-being, diet, food

Murky waters for organic fish

What makes a fish organic? The answer is troubling the US Agriculture Department, as farmed fish, bred under controlled conditions, are more likely to meet the criteria than wild fish. This is ironic, since free fish tend to swim in pristine waters. The debate gets murkier. Carnivores such as salmon eat other fish, and to be defined as organic, their diet must be organic. While this can be controlled - expensively - in farmed fish, environmentalists argue that farmed fish live constrained by nets and their conditions can pollute the water, perverting the idea of organic. Others argue that organic produce is about agriculture and catching wild fish doesn't count. Confusion also abounds regarding how to apply the rules to different kinds of fish. Despite the uncertainty, the market for organic food is ever increasing and everyone wants the bait.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 28 November 2006, 'Free or farmed, when is a fish really organic?', A. Martin.
Search words: organic, fish, agriculture

Going bagging ... haute cuisine

One of the hottest trends among some chefs is 'sous vide' - the fancier French term for vacuum packed. 'Cryovac' is a food-grade plastic that is used to store, seal, cook, keep and eventually reheat food - generally boil-in-the-bag poultry or meat. The end product looks more like a rubber chicken than haute cuisine. While the method may not seem salubrious, many upmarket American restaurants are using it on their menus (often unannounced), and it is an everyday occurrence at elegant soirees in France. Some chefs are averse to the trend - kitchens become more like laboratories with heating and immersion tanks, and you can't touch, taste or smell the food as you prepare it. Yet it is surprising who has fallen for the idea. New York chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, known for his farm-to-table advocacy, is an enthusiast. He says the method ensures the consistency and quality of the meat, and "levels the playing field", making all cuts of meat, and all varieties - grass-fed and grain-fed - tender and juicy. In professional kitchens the sous vide products are reheated and chefs choose how to present the meat, often searing it to make it look grilled or to darken the skin. There is still skill in the presentation and the accompaniments, and the final product is said to be dazzling. Hygiene standards for serving vacuum-packed foods are monitored by the US FDA, and licences are being issued to serve sous vide. Two chefs, Jonathon Benno and Thomas Keller are hoping to write a cookbook for sous vide in the home kitchen. Nevertheless, some chefs feel the method of cooking is impersonal and while quality, tenderness and consistency are assured, some diners miss the element of revelation in a good meal, when varying elements make the flavour and texture of meat unique.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), November 2006, 'Out of the frying pan, C. Kummer.
Search words: food trends, cooking

Nobody here but us chickens

Are you concerned that the wool has been pulled over your eyes down on the farm? That those free-range hens aren't so free after all? Perhaps egg utopia isn't all it's cracked up to be? Then check out happy hens, the barnyard with its own webcam at There you can view the happy scratchings of Phillip Lee-Woolf's chickens as they roam around their field. Lee-Woolf established the farm in 1994 to revive the tastier eggs of British breeds. Brits eat 240 million eggs each week and Lee-Woolf's business is growing at 40 per cent a year as the public grow ever more keen to know where their food comes from. These eggs are from fitter, healthier hens that produce larger more nutritious eggs. Their pastel or chocolate-brown hens' eggs, along with duck and quail eggs are stocked at all major supermarkets and Harrods (where you can also view the webcam) and have the endorsement of celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein.
Ref: The Times (UK), 28 October 2006, 'Happy hens', T. Gaudoin.
Search words: traceability, provenance, eggs

From tailored to self-serve - the world on a plate

From Mumbai in India comes Calorie Care - a meal-delivery service providing a healthier option to fast food in the fast-paced city. Tailored to individuals, a nutritionist spends an hour with each client, designing a menu to cater to the client's nutritional needs and tastes. Customers can choose from six meals each day and meals are delivered three times a day, ensuring freshness. Currently only in Mumbai, the company is planning to expand and is offering franchise opportunities. Elsewhere in India, Seva Caf� is experimenting with selfless food - wholesome meals which customers value and pay for from the heart. Any profits go to support social services projects. If that leaves you feeling a bit sweeter, Brulee is a US dessert-only restaurant creating a theatrical experience with flamb� and other treats in a live studio kitchen. Also booming in the US are cook-it-yourself restaurants, where customers are given fresh produce, utensils and left to play with their food. Arising out of immigrant traditions such as Korean barbecues, Thai hot-pot cooking and Japanese shabu-shabu, self-serve is meeting the mainstream. In Las Vegas, a pizza place lets you roll your own dough, and it seems that fondue is back. A chain based in Florida has doubled in size in the past three years. Hudson Riehle of the National Restaurant Association thinks the DIY experience "embodies the quintessential American values of freedom of choice and independence". Although cooking your own barbecue has been popular in Australia too, with Sydney pubs like the Coogee Bay Hotel and The Oaks providing indoor barbecues in their restaurants. You may wonder why people would pay to cook for themselves, but it seems that in our fast food nations we are missing the hands-on experience of meals and are happy to cook and not clean up. Restaurant owners are happy too. There are fewer complaints about the meals.
Ref: Various including Springwise (Neth), 17 September 2006, 'Calorie controlled meal delivery'; Time Magazine (US), 1 March 2004 'Have it your way', L. Cullen.;;
Search words: restaurants, DIY
Trend tag: Self-serve

Novelty nibbling

New foods are always being launched and the Fancy Food Show in the US has been showing off its latest 21st century menu. One company is hoping to sell hermetically-sealed spring water ice cubes. At US$4 a packet, they may not succeed in selling ice to the Eskimos, but are branding a version with Chivas Regal for liquor drinkers called Scotch Rocks. Seasoned skewers are also hitting the market - with flavour-infused wood for cooking kebabs. Similarly, spice-infused plastic mats for preparing fish and meats have also hit the shelves. One of the most successful innovations might be self-heating meals. Like microwave dinners, but without the microwave, Quick Cuisine meals cook in their own box at the push of a button. The technology is similar to that used by the army and is popular with campers and office workers.
Ref: Business 2.0 (US), September 2006, 'Cooking up innovations',
K. Newman.
Search words: food innovation, technology, self-heating