Food & drink

You are what you eat

When did we become so obsessed with food? While the rest of the world starves, the wealthy West can’t survive without cooking shows, recipe books, celebrity chefs, delicatessens, and gluten-free or other diets. In our last issue, we explored the role of cookbooks in The Recipe Culture, but this story explores the way our self-identity is tightly wound up with food.

The simple pleasures of cooking, eating and drinking have turned into a nightmare and cause us more anxiety than pleasure. Many people have a love-hate relationship with food; most women, even children, are on diets. The problem seems to be that we now use food to express ourselves and define who we are. This is a long way from the 1930s and 40s when our relatives bought very few items from a shop, and existed on seasonal produce from their gardens or farms, and preserved what they had during times of abundance, for later. It’s ironic that trends, such as preserving jam or Italian peasant food, have emerged from poverty into over-priced urban luxury.

For the first time in history, people can eat out of conscious choice rather than necessity. This means they have more ability to choose who they want to be via their choices of food. If they choose slow food, farm-to-table or country ham, for example, this means they support local farmers and the way food used to be produced: they stand for local, seasonal and fresh, as opposed to industrial or mass-produced. This food costs more, but spending more emphasises their commitment to this identity.

But something is amiss in our food culture. Perhaps we have reached Peak Food: there is just too much hype, page space and programming about food and cooking. There are too many opinions expressed by people who are not even chefs. Everyone is a critic; everyone is an expert on diets.

Second, food has gone beyond being food and become ethics and politics as well as identity. Eating is a political act. You can’t eat beans on toast without asking whether the bread is wholegrain or gluten-free, or whether the beans are sustainably grown, or whether your choice of Fairtrade coffee saves the world. In this society, the right choice saves the world, not just your stomach. Who can deal with such a choice?

The problem with food as politics is that it makes it deceptively easy to think you are doing something huge, when perhaps you are not. You just use recycled hemp shopping bags, and you’ve saved a rainforest. The author smilingly challenges us: could you stand right in front of Martin Luther King and say proudly: I was all about fresh, local and seasonal! Everywhere you look, there is so much absurd anxiety about food. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves whether we have forgotten how to eat, let alone cook.

Ref: New Yorker (US), 17 November 2014, ‘Shut up and eat’ by J Lanchester.
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Search words: recipe, anxiety, relationship, seasonal, self-expression, craze, identity, judgments, Peak Food, commentary, criticism, ethics, politics, shopping, cooking, fresh, local.
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Cow’s milk without the cow

We have been drinking cow’s milk for 8,000 years but, if the number of people we know is anything to go by, the industry is going sour. Soy milk, almond and cashew milks, rice and even oat milk, is appealing to today’s refined tastes. One enterprising biochemist thinks it is better to keep on making cow’s milk – but without the cow. His new start-up, Muufri, is using seed funding and a lab in Ireland to develop a proof of concept to do just that.

Milk production today is highly industrial and can come at an environmental and ethical price. Yet it is possible to create milk using real milk proteins and plant-based oils, without such a cost. Milk contains four proteins from the casein family, which are relatively simple to produce, and two non-casein or whey proteins, which are a little more complex. The remaining 10% of whey provides blood serum proteins and antibodies, which provide little flavour or culinary use.

How do you make milk? Each milk protein has a known amino acid sequence, which can be converted into a DNA sequence and ordered from a research company. Mixing these genes with yeast creates new proteins, in the same way as brewing beer. Then you add plant-based oils for full flavour, clean water, sugar and minerals for taste.

On the other hand, this milk will not contain everything found in cow’s milk, such as lactose, cholesterol or bacteria. Muufri says 75% of people cannot digest lactose and most people don’t need any more cholesterol. This is only one example of lab-created food. See our story, Note-by-note cooking on the menu, about the potential for flavours and combinations, without needing animals or plants.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 28 June 2014, ‘Milk without the moo’ by R Pandya.
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Search words: milk, industrial, ethics, vegan, protein, Muufri, casein, amino acid, DNA, beer, New Harvest, factory farming, SynBio Axlr8r, lactose, cholesterol, bacteria.
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Note-by-note cooking on the menu

Note-by-note cooking got its name from Herve, the Parisian chef who coined the term, ‘molecular gastronomy’. His idea is that you create a meal like a piece of music, note by note. In this case, the notes are chemical ingredients and no animals or plants are used in the process.

For example, potato meringue is made using water, sucrose, methional oil and albumin powder. Or lemon potato mash is made of dried citric acid, methional oil, maltodextrin and food colouring. The idea may sound unappetizing, but scientists are looking for ways to feed our growing world population in a more sustainable way, without the ethical, environmental and economic problems created using farm animals or intensive agriculture.

Scientists can identify the constituents of food using mass spectrometry and then extract them from animal or plant tissues or create them artificially. For example, allylisothiocyanate tastes like Dijon mustard. Creating dishes from scratch like this means you can create unlikely flavours and shapes, such as pork meringue or meat pancake.

Silicon Valley software engineers have already developed a superfood called Soylent, which has 30 ingredients and is designed to meet all the body’s nutritional needs. Others are working on the development of a perfect egg – without a chicken – or creating foods from plants that will end up tasting like beef or chicken.

The idea is to create the same look, texture or taste, but without the potential allergens or drawbacks of the original. To improve on Nature, so to speak. It’s difficult territory, because there are hidden costs with all forms of “farming” and who is to say that artificial food will not create its own unseen implications? The Sustainable Food Trust (UK) says all food production has hidden costs and if there were policies to work out these true costs, the price of all foods would change and people would make different choices. As one Swedish professor said, we can’t be “screwing with our climate and then ignoring it by creating high tech food sources – we have to work with the system we’ve got”.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 7 June 2014, ‘Chemical cuisine.’ by H Thomson.
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Search words: molecular gastronomy, note-by-note cooking, sustainability, Herve This, spectrometry, Soylent, proteins, Beyond Meat, Sustainable Food Trust, synthetic food.
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Robot bees – the hive of the future?

The disappearance of honeybees is known as ‘colony collapse disorder’ and more than 10 million of them have died since 2007. Since about 35% of crops worldwide rely on pollination by animals, such as bees, it’s a serious environmental threat. Bees pollinate plants that produce a quarter of the food – including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, eaten by Americans. There are two general approaches available – find out what is causing the deaths and work to prevent them, or create artificial bees to do the pollination.

Harvard University’s RoboBees project is an example of artificial pollination. Bees are very clever at finding precisely what they want, taking the pollen, and finding the right kind of flower for it. While their brains have the same number of neurons as a cockroach, they are brilliant at what they do considering their small size. It’s a challenge for scientists to build something that small with batteries, motors and sensors, with an external power supply. They also had to create “flight muscles” that contract when a voltage goes through them. These robobees have a wingspan of only 3 cms and weigh less than a gram, while hovering and flitting about – just like a real bee.

These bees not only pollinate crops, they could have military applications, such as search and surveillance missions. For example, BAE Systems signed in 2008 a $US38 million agreement with the US Army Research Lab to “build insect-sized robots for government spying operations”.

So what happened to the real bees? This is a controversial question and depends who you ask and where you ask the question. One answer is the abundance of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids made by Monsanto. These are legal in the US but are now banned in Europe until December 2015 to study their impact on honeybees. Monsanto claims it’s primarily the varroa mite that kills bees; viruses, other parasites and nutrition problems have also been blamed. Our habit of creating massive monocultures has many devastating effects but Monsanto still profits from maintaining them. Moreover, the bees are fine in some regions and not in others.

Scientists remain fascinated by the idea of bee robots and are finding all kinds of valid uses for them, such as hive-minders that read bee behaviour and prevent them swarming too early or even a weather forecasting beebot that knows it’s time to gather food because bad weather is coming. Both these ideas don’t do much to solve the massive loss of bees worldwide.

Ref: Al Jazeera (Qatar) 2 June 2014, ‘Taking off from Harvard Yard: Flight of the RoboBees‘ by K Forde.
New Scientist, 16 November 2003, ‘I, bee bot’ by C Williams.
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Search words: honeybee, pollination, robot, Harvard, RoboBee, hiveminder, colony collapse disorder, pesticides, neonicotinoids, farmers.
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The future of fish

The oceans belong to us all, or at least, we say they do. But wherever a resource is held jointly, said Gerrett Hardin in 1968, it is in the individual’s self-interest to deplete it. That is exactly what we have done. Two thirds of fish stocks in the high seas (the oceans beyond national borders) are over-exploited, yet 3 billion people rely on fish for a fifth of their protein. Predatory species like tuna, swordfish and marlin may have reduced by 90% since the 1950s. When human population growth is taken into account, wild fish availability per person has been in decline since 1970. So why are the health authorities recommending we eat more fish?

UK and US food standards agencies recommend we eat two portions of fish each week, Australia and New Zealand recommend two or three servings and Greece, five or six. If everyone did eat this amount of fish, we would have an even worse problem.

Fishing practices are already unsustainable. Not only that, the ocean itself is transforming under the pressure of climate change and economic necessity. Fishing is only one activity – mining is another, with 19 exploratory licences already issued. Another is pharma – genetic material from the ocean may be more effective against cancer than terrestrial life so patent numbers are rising each year by 12%.

While forests are often called the lungs of the earth, in fact it is the ocean that supplies half the world’s oxygen. Concentrations of chlorophyll have fallen 9-12% between 1998 and 2010, thanks to changes in ocean temperatures. The ocean is also the world’s biggest carbon sink.

What can governments do about it? One possibility is to stop fishing subsidies - $US35 billion a year goes on cheap fuel and insurance for the fishing industry. There should be a global record of fishing vessels because illegal and unreported fishing is worth $US10-24 billion every year. Third, there should be more marine reserves, but only 1% of the ocean is protected, compared to an eighth of land mass. Finally, we need much better governance for the high seas, as there are currently so many different bodies, all with different agendas.

If they want us to eat fish, the authorities had better find a way of cleaning up and taking care of the ocean. Meanwhile, consumers can vote with their wallets for companies that genuinely use sustainable practices and against those who continue to exploit the ocean as if it were theirs only.

Ref: The Conversation (Aus), 9 October 2014, ‘Will there be enough fish to go around? Not if we follow healthy eating�guidelines’ by R Thurstan and C Roberts.
The Economist (UK), 22 February 2014, ‘The tragedy of the high seas’. Anon.
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Search words: high seas, ocean, oxygen, chlorophyll, register, marine reserve, mining, patents, carbon, overfishing, Global Ocean Commission, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, healthy, guidelines, fish, imports, supply, aquaculture.
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