Food & drink

Genetically modified truth?

The public has always doubted the safety and desirability of genetically modified (GM) foods and, until Californians voted against Proposition 37 at November 6 of this year, it looked as if it would continue to reject them. Proposition 37 merely required foods produced from GM crops to be labelled as such, rather than with wishy-washy words like ‘natural’.

It is perhaps no surprise that a swathe of stories appeared across the world, just before the vote, in favour of GM foods. Some $45 million was spent, mostly by biotech, pesticide and junk food companies, to encourage Californians to oppose the proposition – and so they did. Michael Le Page said the argument against GM foods was something like: "If we tell people what's in their food, they will make the wrong choice, so we shouldn't give them one."

One can’t help but notice the language in these articles: “Genetically modified foods are not in themselves harmful and could even benefit the environment”. What does “in themselves” mean? How would they “benefit the environment” given that farmers have to go back to the big five chemical companies each year for seeds, then use their pesticides that the seeds are modified to resist? Who does that benefit? Or how about this: “The idea that genetic modification is in itself harmful appears to be a minority viewpoint”. It certainly serves the Big Five to make people think they are merely minorities. Finally: “Such problems reflect the way GM crops have been marketed rather than underlying flaws in the technology.” Yes, of course, it’s all in the marketing, as Californians discovered.

One government agency, the National Research Council said, “Generally, GM crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GM crops produced conventionally.” Certainly it would be difficult to find a worse example than conventional farming methods, which have denatured the earth, ripped away topsoil, and turned many areas into dustbowls.

Meanwhile, one UK researcher, Graham Brookes, found GM crops may actually have reduced herbicide and insecticide use by 9.1% worldwide, compared with non-GM crops. He had biotech funding for that one. No GM crops are commercially grown in the UK and it is claimed that, the UK and EU are increasingly “out of sync in a genetically modified world”. Out of sync with America perhaps, which hosts 43% of GM crops worldwide.

The arguments are breathtaking but, in the end, the public will make up its own mind by choosing or not choosing GM foods. Without honest labeling, how can they make their choice?

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 13 October 2012, 'GM food: the case for the defence'. Also, Farms for the future. M Marshall., The Week (UK), 6 October 2012, Learning to love GM. Anon.
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Search words: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Proposition 37, rats, cancer, glyphosate, European Food Safety Authority, US National Research Council, transgenics, herbicide, natural, cotton, marketing, tilling, greenhouse, labeling, biotech, soybeans, Flavr Savr, Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont, Roundup Ready, superweeds, sterile, Golden Rice.
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Spooning at dinner

Scientists do come up with some odd subjects for their experiments. Two co-directors at the Institute of Making, University College London, wondered if spoons coated in different metals would change the taste of the food. That wasn’t such an odd idea – doesn’t everybody have a favourite spoon or one they avoid because it makes food taste funny? These researchers went further and gathered materials scientists, psychologists and US chefs to a seven-course Indian dinner, served with spoons of seven metals.

Surprisingly, the silver spoon made food taste dull in comparison with other metals. Copper and zinc were “bold and assertive”, but baked black cod and zinc was like a “fingernail scraped down a blackboard” (?) and copper was very unkind to grapefruit. However, copper and zinc go beautifully with mango relish, tin matches pistachio curry and gold is perfect for sweet things because it is smooth and “almost creamy”.

This experiment was not the first to explore perceptions of food. Playing crunchy sounds while eating crisps makes them – surprise - crunchier, and increasing the weight of spoons makes food taste sweeter and more filling. Heston Blumenthal has already thought of edible cutlery, made of chocolate and a dusting of silver. But look out in the shops for spoons of different metals for different purposes. Maybe we ought to change that old saying to “born with a golden spoon in your mouth” – it’s sweeter.

Ref: Financial Times Magazine (UK), 5-6 May 2012, 'Spoonfed: how cutlery affects your food'.
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Search words: experiment, spoon, metals, chef, Indian food, copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome, stainless steel, bitter, sweet, crisps, weight.
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Shapely drinking

Following the story above, Spooning at dinner, researchers at University of Bristol have discovered that people drink at different speeds according to the shape of their glass. This is good news for health campaigners, but not so good for brewers.

If you want people to drink more slowly, you serve in a full, straight glass, rather than a full flute glass (its sides curve out towards the rim). People in the experiment with a full, straight glass of beer finished it in 11 minutes, compared to those with a full flute, who took only seven minutes. This was the same time it took to drink a full glass of lemonade in either shape glass. If a glass started half-full, neither shape nor type of drink mattered and it took five minutes to empty.

What was the importance of whether the glass was full or not? A beer drinker who wants to pace himself, will look and see how much beer is left. In a straight glass, this is easier to see than in a flute. When volunteers were called back later after the experiment, they were less able to tell how much beer was left in a flute than in a straight glass. So when a glass was half-full, drinkers quickly lost their reference point. We wonder how much resistance there would be to putting a halfway mark on both types of glass?

Ref: The Economist, (UK) 1 September 2012, Shape up! Anon.
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Search words: straight, jug, beer, flute, lemonade, volume, health campaign, brewer.
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Flexitarians unite

We always love a new word: ‘flexitarian’ describes someone who is mainly vegetarian but deviates from their usual habits when required. The Vegetarian Society says there are 2 million vegetarians in Britain and that number has not changed much in a decade. But there are many more who have started to eat less meat and fish, while not rejecting it entirely.

Supermarkets found from 2006-2010, there was a 20% growth in the meat-free market and the average amount of meat consumed per head, per year, fell from 81.4kg to 76.2kg. Part of this could be because fresh meat became less affordable. It was also because of continuing interest in trying cuisines from other countries, which are not always focused on meat. Vegetarians can choose between risotto and pasta, dal, sag aloo, or baba ganoush. People who manage to move seamlessly between cuisines are known as ‘culinary hybridists’.

The worldwide passion for cookery programs and cookbooks has also fuelled a growing interest in classy things you can do with vegetables. Certain high profile figures pushed this along: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (a mouthful alright) turned from carnivore to vegetarian and instigated a book and a TV series. Yotam Ottolenghi has a ‘new vegetarian’ column in the Guardian and her cookbook, Plenty, has revitalised middle class cooking.

People who are not vegetarian tend to think of vegetables as boring, but that is because they do boring things with vegetables. As Skidelsky notes, “When they’re all you’ve got, you’re forced to be more creative”. We think flexitarianism is a trend, at least, among the educated who can afford it. You pay extra for being different.

Prospect (UK) May 2012, A moveable feast. William Skidelsky.
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Search words: meat, vegetarian, Vegetarian Society, meat-free market, risotto, pasta, hummus, dal, carnivore, cookery writers, Nigel Slater, Yotam Ottolenghi, culinary hybridist.
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Let the TV do the cooking

There used to be a time when people ate their dinner in front of the TV. Now it’s a lot more likely that only the fancy chefs on TV are doing the cooking. People now spend more time watching Masterchef (one hour) than they do cooking dinner (34 minutes). This has implications for what they are actually swallowing.

First, they are rejecting cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and rhubarb as well as fresh fruit. Second, they are buying fewer primary proteins – slabs of meat and fish, which demand other ingredients. Third, they are buying more pizza and meat-based ready meals. Marks & Spencer sells ‘Dine in for 10 pounds’ deals, which suit the richer customers, and benefit better-off families who are eating out less. As expected, the Brits have also turned away from organic food, with sales down 21% since 2008 (compared to an increase in retail food prices of 25%).

Another shift in attitudes, perhaps, is towards waste. WRAP is a tracker of rubbish and says households threw away 8.3 million tonnes of food in 2006-7 compared to 7.2 tonnes in 2010. Then again, they may have just bought less fresh food to throw away. Impulse buying is down and 67% of Britons are now more likely to make lists, compared to 47% in 2008. (Do they really keep to them?)

We wonder if it is possible that celebrity chefs have set impossibly high benchmarks for ordinary cooks and we have just given up. One hour of Masterchef is probably equivalent to women comparing themselves with the impossibly ageless looks of female Hollywood megastars.

The Economist (UK) 23 June 2012, 'The basket case'. .
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Search words: cooking shows, celebrity chefs, green vegetables, fish, organic, food prices, restaurants, Soil Association, primary proteins, Sainsbury’s, impulse buying, rubbish, Masterchef, prepared food, pizza, calories, Marks & Spencer, sauces.
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