Standard Pages (they don't change often)

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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Wonder Technology Bread

In a recent trip to the market, I encountered perhaps the most outrageous bread product I've ever seen. It's crustless industrial bread. I realized that this thing is a wonder of technology. For one thing, given the vapid sponginess of this type of supermarket bread, the crust is the only textural contrast it has. While I'd like to rail against the act of cutting off the crust, I have to admit that this isn't exactly good bread crust. Maybe that is the source of why so many Americans regard crust retention on sandwich bread as distasteful. 

Reading the label though reveals how far along our technology has come when it comes to industrial bread. Note that there are no preservatives used, yet the bagged bread, naked and soft, is rated to last five months. Simply incredible. I can only guess that it must be due to the technique of packaging. 

And that is indeed the case, as spoilage apparently commences when the bag is opened. But here we find another impressive fact: this is imported Italian bread. Unlike any other Italian bread I've ever encountered. The combination of good preservation has made it feasible to actually manufacture crustless bread in Italy to sell in Texas. For all the quasi-Luddite homage to tradition food culture engenders, this is quite a feat of technological advancement. 

PS: I got it because it came with a free jar of speculoos cookie butter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seeking chepiche

The Mexican dish menudo is a stew of organ meats (usually stomach and tendons) with chiles, and sometimes hominy, often eaten as curative for hangovers. Eating Mexican stews demonstrates convergent evolution with Vietnamese soups: the hot bowl is presented with uncooked vegetables and herbs to doctor up as one eats.

But a distinct flavor comes from the herb chepiche. It is ubiquitous in the Oaxacan market areas, and is intensely aromatic. So, is there a substitute? Sadly, according to Gourmet Sleuth - there isn't. So, it's a novel ingredient worth looking for - the aromatic profile is pretty unique.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Travelogue 1: Quick notes on Oaxacan cuisine

Grasshoppers (chapulines) can be tasty. Don't eat the old bottled ones, the freshly cooked ones in the market are better, and can come spicy or not. And in three different sizes. 

Chocolate prepared with water as a drink delves more deeply into the flavors. And I have to think that the newfangled trendiness of foams arose from the traditional foaming of the chocolate drinks in Oaxaca.

A favorite snack in Oaxaca is a combination of an ice cream (more like an ice milk) of leche quemada (burnt milk) and a sorbet of prickly pear. I used to think that leche quemada is a kind of milk caramel, but it's quite different. The ice milk has a distinct smokiness of food that was burned, and it does pair well with the sorbet. The nieves (sorbets and ice milks) aren't very sugary, and thus will not keep in the freezer long before ice crystal growth degrades the mouthfeel. But if you sacrifice long term storage, very nice flavors not clouded by too much sugar can emerge.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Drug contamination in milk?

Or how to read statistics.

Goat milk ice dessert, Dosi Restaurant, Houston, TX
On NPR’s The Salt blog, Dan Charles painted an ominous tone about antibiotics in milk

“…a new report from the Food and Drug Administration reveals that a few farmers are slipping through a hole in this enforcement net.”
Appropriately and responsibly, he provides a link to the FDA report, “MILK DRUG RESIDUE SAMPLING SURVEY”. Reading the report itself, however, one comes away with a more optimistic tone:

“ the small number of positives in both the targeted and non-targeted groups is encouraging and the FDA continues to be confident in the safety of the U.S. milk supply”
So, what is going on? 

Let's dissect what's in the report.  What is the difference between “targeted” and “non-targeted”? The targeted group are farms known to have already violated drug residue tests in tissues from culled dairy cows at slaughter. The non-targeted group are controls - farms that don’t have violations against them. Milk from each group are tested for the presence of any one of 31 antibiotics - but even these tests aren’t all equal. For the ones with agreed safety levels, the test registers a violation if it exceeds that level - which is measured in parts per billion (ppb). For example, bacitracin has a tolerance limit of 500 ppb, while ampicillin has a tolerance limit of 10 ppb: these tests are highly sensitive. For antibiotics with insufficient information about their tolerance limits, just being able to identify them is sufficient to trigger a violation: that is, the tolerance limit is set at 0 ppb. Potential false positives should be expected for tests this sensitive. 

But the survey was good about population sizes - 953 farms were in the targeted group, 959 farms in the controls. And even among the targeted groups, only 1 sample had more than about 30 ppm in gentamicin. The 1% figure used by Charles is likely  by computing the 12 positive results/953 samples in the target group. 

This is a misleading use of the data, because it is really a matrix of 953 x 31 tests - or actually, 12/29543 = 0.04%. And most of those were in those 0 ppb tolerance drugs, the majority of which are are single positives for drugs set at 0 bpp acceptable limits. The main one was for the drug forfenicol, which turned out 6 positives. Guess what, 4 samples in the control groups also turned up positive for florfenicol. For numbers this small, they are really insignificant in a statistical sense. These could very well be just noise in the system. 

But the rest of the story tries to imply intentional use of banned antibiotics in the dairy industry - a desperate (IMHO) attempt at drumming up drama over data that could just be noise, experimental error that is normal in the course of large sampling surveys.