Standard Pages (they don't change often)

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.

Monday, May 4, 2015

What we can learn from a burrito-maker

If you hadn't heard the news, Chipotle, the burrito chain, has declared that it'll be "GMO-free". While some are celebrating at this bold marketing move, others have accurately pointed out that this company capitalizing on anti-science hysteria. It's not really a surprise: Chipotle's demonization of industrial agriculture as a marketing stance is old news. GMOs just happen to be the convenient scapegoat.

And to be fair - Chipotle is perfectly within its rights to change their ingredient sourcing. They can certainly adopt these arbitrary production practices - efficient or otherwise - to cater to the whims of their customer base (while simultaneously creating a cultural divide). Despite what some entitled folks may think: Chipotle burritos are not an essential food group.

But what we can learn here is the tricky burden of carrying a label. One of more commonly used bromides used by the "Just Label It" campaign to get legally mandated labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients is that it's cheap. Just a label. Why fight it?

Well, had that law been passed, could Chipotle declare itself "GMO-free"? As many point out, the chain is keeping high fructose corn syrup sweetened sodas and standard cheese - which are products of the transgenic technology. The hypocrisy can exist because we aren't invested in an infrastructure to inspect for this - that'd be a waste of taxpayer money. As the question isn't something that is chemically detectible at the end - glucose is glucose whether is degraded from sugar cane or Bt corn - then it's the process that is in question. And monitoring that isn't easy. Try earning a kosher label. Moreover, as with any law, we should consider what penalties are in store for violators.

Arguably, Chipotle is violating truth in advertising laws, but we have bigger problems to deal with. And if you don't understand why sensible people are fighting against mandatory labeling laws (note, not "against labeling" per se, as it is often shortened to), then this is an example that illustrates the bureaucratic madness such laws portend. And "Certified Organic" is a big enough waste of money and time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Drinking chocolate another way

Chocolate chip cookie
When we say chocolate, the common thought is that it is a sweet of some sort, like those ubiquitous chocolate chips or bars. Those are fairly recent, though - initially, chocolate was a drink. Well, a better drink than what most places in America think of as hot chocolate. That milky, overly sweet concoction that is provided as a patronizing nod to children while the "adults" have (bad) coffee is a tragic waste of the potential of chocolate.
Drinking Chocolate, Bean Traders, North Carolina
That delicious chocolate bar is a complex emulsion of fat and crystals - some of that unctuousness can be conveyed by making sipping chocolates (rather than hot cocoa). The key is to use whole milk, or even half and half, and not to heat it too much as to cause the emulsion to break. And great restraint on the sugar - the complexity of flavors in chocolate can be overpowered easily. Sip slowly in the company of friends. 

The source of chocolate is the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao. The name literally translates to "food of the gods", and in its mesoamerican origins, chocolate was very much a drink for the gods. In Oaxaca, Mexico, hot drinking chocolate is prized even above coffee. Traditionally, it's made with water, not milk, and without the cloying milk fat, this style reveals more of the nuance on chocolate flavor. A foam atop the hot chocolate is great prized, as it has to manually beaten into a drink with relatively few foaming components. 

Chocolate de agua, Oaxaca, Mexicp
But there's a lesser known sibling to chocolate, a different product of the cacao bean: tejate.
Perhaps the ancestral energy drink, it is purchased as a pick me up the middle of the day, drunk out of  colorful gourd cups. The white layer atop the giant bowl is pretty much cocoa butter, released by the slow massaging of the ground cacao with masa and various ingredients. A tejatera (tejate is almost exclusively made by women) will scoop out the liquid and separately top it with the fluffy white mass.
Lime treated cacao beans for tejate
Sweetening the drink is optional. The flavor is floral, chocolatey, light. Tejate is refreshing respite on a hot day, but preparing it is a laborious and manual process (with a surprisingly large number of ingredients.
Key ingredient to tejate - the seed of the mamey fruit

Friday, April 10, 2015

Misinterpreting facts to promote fear

Did you know that turkeys are actually native to Mexico and the Americas? 
At least five people forwarded me an article on Gawker, penned by Yvette d'Entremont (aka ScienceBabe), dressing down the profiteering fear mongering by Vani Hari (self promoted "Food Babe" - no, I will not send her any additional traffic). At least two have plainly asked me if I helped write it. I assure you, I had nothing to do with it, though I sympathize with the sentiment. Hari has since posted a response chock full of ad hominem and evasion, and the media blogosphere as taken to reporting this as a type of blogger vs blogger fight. Just portraying it as any sort of "debate" lends false equivalence to to both authors, when in fact science is squarely represented by d'Entremont.

In Orac's blog, Respectful Insolence, he alludes to the entertaining nature of the virtual dressing down Vani Hari is getting straight in the title. Aside from recapping Hari's numerous historical demonstrations of scientific ignorance, and accompanying arrogance against being educated, he did point out a small tactic she uses: citing a scientific study based on peripheral relevance, and overinterpreting this proof of validity. In this case, she pulls out some preliminary cell culture papers to imbue kale with exaggerated cancer protective properties. This underhanded tactic cloaks an outlandish claim with unearned veracity, but Hari isn't alone in doing so.

Over interpreting science articles are common stock in "scienciness" articles in mainstream media.  Extrapolating from a few observations, one can paint up speculations of miracle cures or doomsday scenarios, even as the actual scientists publishing responsibly note restraint in interpretation. Last November, I noted that respected science journalist Maryn McKenna used such tenuous justification in linking "antibiotic-free" turkeys (if they even exist) to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Hari is certainly a relatively easy fraud to spot given her loud and obvious trumpeting, but we should hold our other popular communicators responsible, particularly if they potentially profit from creating fear.