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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Evolutionary Roads to Waking Up

Chai latte, Mercantile, Houston, TX
2015 marks 100 years of the iconic hour glass shaped Coca cola bottle, the contents of which was the progenitor of the "cola" drinks so pervasive the world over. The name cola derives from one of the original bittering agents: the kola nut, the seed of an evergreen tree. Among many African cultures, chewing the kola nut provides a rapid energy burst due to it's high caffeine content. Oddly enough, this practice of energizing plant products spans multiple times in human history, though not getting connected until recent advances in global communication.

In Brazil, the stimulant was guarana, a plant related to the maple. Elsewhere in Spanish-speaking South America, yerba mate is consumed in various incarnations. In Asia, perfusions of the  leaves of shrub Camelia sinensis is what we call tea, and its cultivation and trade has shaped the histories of countries from India to America. But the stimulant in all of these plants, though they are unrelated, is the same: caffeine. And by far, the most popular source of caffeine (in fact, the substance is so named from it) is coffee.

Despite the diversity of these plants, the caffeine the contain are all chemically identical (despite some health nut claims that caffeine derived from one plant has a different effect than from another). In evolutionary terms, this is quite curious. Proteins are usually directly encoded by the genome, and when two organisms make the similar proteins, we can infer relatedness from their ancestry. But caffeine is an alkaloid that is made by several enzymatic steps (believe it or not, the raw material is the same stuff that is used to build DNA). And expecting all these relatively distantly related plants to have the same enzymes would seem to be unlikely. The sequencing of the coffee genome, however, revealed an infrequently discussed but important phenomenon in biology: convergent evolution.

Most commonly, evolution is discussed in terms of speciation, where a common ancestor's progeny adapt to different environments across generations, and start diverging in traits - thus, the same Prunus will give rise to the cherry and the apricot. But in some cases, evolutionary pressure can take different organisms to evolve similar, or, in this case, identical traits. Coffee and tea, for example, do not have the identical enzymes, but they have evolved to produce the same effect on the raw material xanthosine, in an identical chain of events that produces chemically identical caffeine. Which probably first evolved as chemical protection against insects.

So, whether the bottle reads guarana, Red Bull,'s the same stuff acting as the stimulant. And good morning.

Addendum: the chemical stimulant in chocolate, theobromine, turns out to be just one enzymatic step removed from caffeine.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Conch fritters with fried breadfruit
 While in the Honduras, I had the opportunity to sample some conch fritters. Unfortunately, deep frying in batter doesn't seem to be the best way to treat the mollusk, as the conch itself got rubbery, and the sweet flavor was overwhelmed by the heavy batter. However, the accompanying breadfruit fries were quite delicious. 

I'm puzzled by the poor availability of breadfruit in the Texas area. A staple in much of the world, the breadfruit is like a tree borne potato. When unripe, it is starchy, and can be cooked in all the various ways a starchy ingredient is used. On ripening, the fruit becomes sweeter and softer, and can be treated as much most fruits. The seeds are small and edible, the trees are propagated from cuttings, and can produce bountiful fruit for decades. The only issue is the tree grows only in tropical climates, but Texas should be close enough that a variety can probably be evolved to survive here. In a sense, the breadfruit reminds me of plantains - and we have a ready supply of that in the big cities. But, strangely enough, breadfruit remains remarkably rare. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Things go pear shaped

Velveteen pear
One of the virtuous terms being bandied about with it comes to food is "locally sourced", but sticking to this mentality can really hamper the exploration of the world of food. For example, though pears can grow in Texas, pears are definitely not in season in the summer. But in the Southern hemisphere, it would be fall/winter now, and pears are definitely at their peak there. And the varietals than can emerge, be it from genetic drift or controlled selection, need to be sufficiently intriguing to be worth the effort of export.

In my local grocery, I happened upon this New Zealand pear variety called a Velveteen Pear. 

The skin is a little thicker and more textured than the more common Anjou or Comice, which is probably where the velvet monicker is derived. But the flesh is far more intensely sweet than most pears. Unfortunately, I think most consumers fear the unknown, and don't consider this delicious variety. Another one to find if you have the chance is the Abate Fetel pear. A varietal credited to monks in Italy, it is a bit grainier than the usual pear, it is strongly aromatic and flavorful. And quite perishable.

Abate Fetel pear

Monday, July 27, 2015

Labeling is a process

Incidentally, the FDA is being told to define 'natural'

A recent bill passed by the US Congress is shaping up to be a major food fight - officially titled “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”, it’s derided as the “Denying Americans the Right to Know” Act by its opponents. And it doesn’t help that the media continue to parrot the line that it’s a bill designed to block labeling:

These are headlines from the more reputable sources, but there are numerous others. In this modern age of transparency - we can verify the account by reading the actual bill itself, nicely archived at the Library of Congress. And from the summary, it clearly writes out:

The FDA must allow, but not require, GMO food to be labeled as GMO.

The bill not only does not block, it provides specific language permitting labeling of GMO food. In addition, it provides guidelines for requiring specific labeling:

If the FDA determines that there is a material difference between a GMO food and a comparable non-GMO food, the FDA can specify labeling that informs consumers of the difference. 

GMO food labeling advocates should be celebrating - the Federal government has provided them a mechanism to compel the FDA to require GMO labeling. It is a reasonable process that enacts a common standard superseding the patchwork of legislation going through the states. They just have to provide proof of material difference. Ah, but that burden of proof has never been the purview of the antiscience fringe. Take, for example, the recent involvement of Hollywood celebrity Fran Drescher in demanding GMO labeling based on the predictions of her husband, Shiva Ayyadurai that GMO soy has higher levels of formaldehyde. Scientist Kevin Folta has offered an open collaboration, inviting Ayyadurai to be a co investigator in verifying this prediction by actually measuring formaldehyde. Folta has even offered to foot the material costs of the experiments - quite a generous offer - in addition to authorship in the paper. Ayyudarai and Drescher have thus far largely ignored Folta to continue the media flogging.

In the end - I find fault with the media. Our journalists should be held to a higher standard. The bill isn't some kind of obstinate refusal to label - it provides a process, and a standard, to approach the label. And in this case, the government has provided the transparency, but the desire to fabricate a fight is how the actual language gets concealed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mixing phases

Part of the fame of the restaurant Serendipity 3 in New York City is its iconic Frrrrozen hot chocolate. Decadent, over the top, it seems to be a contradiction in terms. Indeed, the idea of serving chocolate at ice cold temperature is intuitively problematic, as the cocoa butter will become waxy chips that lack that unctuous mouthfeel we associate with good chocolate. As I experimented with doing it at home, turns out the key is to use cheap instant hot chocolate - the kind that has emulsifiers to rapidly disperse the chocolate in hot water - and supplementing it with good chocolate for the flavor. I personally prefer using really good bittersweet chocolate bars, but using good cocoa powder also works, albeit with a smoother consistency. Commercial chocolate chips are often adulterated with different fats for good baking, but I have had problems with them in a cold preparation. The rest is just a matter of blending with ice and milk.

So, the basic procedure: melt the chocolate, if using, in a microwave. Mix in some of the hot chocolate mix, and enough hot water to make a thick liquid, like a chocolate syrup. In the blender, put in the crushed ice, and milk (I use full fat milk, but could experiment with coconut or almond milk, too). Pour in the chocolate syrup and blend immediately. Pour into serving glasses right away, and use a draw to drink from the bottom up. Whipped cream gilds the lily.