Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nutritionism Anecdote

Aside from it's obvious function as a means of delivering nutrition, food has a greater role in society as a means of communication and building bonds. This duality shapes many different social mores, and colors an often unspoken judgement: is a substance medicine, food, or poison?

Of course, almost anything is all three depending on the dosage and circumstance. In a sense, how much a particular food item or practice is prized or despised sits in how they blur the lines of these categories. When transferred into the category of poison (or at least, a disgust object), people go through unusual lengths to avoid it - take for example the explosion of BPA-free or gluten-free items. The latter category is almost laughably comical; the issue of gluten sensitivity affects a small fraction of the general population, but the fad to avoid it as a modern scourge results in bizarre dietary contortions. Most of it, of course, because these folks require eating the same wheat enriched diet only without the gluten - eating one's (gluten-free) cake and having it, too, so to speak.

But then, there is the nebulous world of dietary supplements. Not considered a drug, dietary supplements are governed by a different set of rules from conventional food (as per the US Food and Drug Administration). As worded, the manufacturer is responsible for the safety of a supplement, and the FDA can only act after it has reached the market. Culturally, the general populace embrace supplementation as a kind of nutritional talisman to head off dietary misbehavior - parent make their kids take multivitamins, students voluntarily quaff high caffeine products to stay awake, and athletes consume expensive products with dubious scientific reproducibility, and backed only by anecdotal testimony. Supplements are taken voluntarily as food, to treat a potential illness - and is a multi billion dollar business the world over.

The objectionable thing with supplementation is how rife the practice is with pseudoscience (cherry picking of evidence, scientific obfuscation, dubious credibility), but the subject of predictive nutrition is a complex one. Take, for example, the common body building supplement L-carnitine. It's a non-essential amino acid already found in meat, and as such, is thought to be generally safe to megadose with. But that doesn't take into account what our gut bacteria does to it. Bacteria convert L-carnitine to a compound known as TMAO, which is biochemically linked to the progression of artherosclerosis. You can buy pills of the stuff as health food, pop them without medical supervision, maybe get bigger (?) - but we have reproducible scientific evidence that you are actually feeding your gut bacteria with L-carnitine - and they're pooping out stuff that can promote heart disease.

In general, in the modern world of food, choice is abundant, and using supplements as a crutch is a bad idea, and not a substitute for smart selection of a range of food sources to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Manipulating disgust

Breakfast on the run. 

A much hyped concern about biotech crops is that the effector proteins engineered in the plants could have unintended effects when consumed by people. For example, corn that is engineered to make the Bt protein requires much less pesticide since the Bt kills the larvae of certain insects, while remaining harmless to humans. This is so effective that the strategy is being explored to incorporate it in plants like eggplant (Bt Brinjal).

Putting aside this objection for the moment, this fallacious concern that the bioengineered proteins can be toxic to humans, the strenuous objection to processed items from biotech crops like sugar beets is far more difficult to sympathize with. That's because in this case, the consumer product in the end, sugar or crystalline sucrose, has been purified away from any direct gene product. Sugar beets are never consumed in their vegetal state, and after extraction, chemically speaking, sucrose is indistinguishable whether it comes from biotech or heritage sugar beets - or sugar cane, for that matter. In this case, the technology only serves to improve the efficiency of production. The same logic applies to canola oil, or corn oil - the protein products of bioengineering do not make their way to the consumer product.

Protests are even more specious when it involves genetically modified cotton, since that isn't even eaten!

All this illustrates is that the anti-biotech fervor is really not based on logic, but on emotion, and most effectively, on the manipulation of disgust. Disgust is a powerful response in human cultural perception, most notably because it has contamination properties. That is, if one can tie an object to a disgust response, then anything that object come in contact with inherits the same disgust response. I believe the technical term is "cooties". Marketing folks are adept at leveraging disgust responses, and the power of propaganda for manipulating disgust can change whole industries (the history of lard and hydrogenated vegetable fats, or that of lean finely textured protein should be textbook case studies for this). In this case, anti-biotech objectors are trying to tie the disgust response to the crops, but perhaps one would be better able to resist if one is aware of the manipulation.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Evolution in agriculture

Parsnip and short rib dish, Uchi Houston
The popular press has a strange relationship with modern agriculture. Although undisputedly the product of evolution, modern crops are often discussed like they are fragile unchanging clones - well, that is sort of true for some varieties of bananas. The way evolution works is, as conditions change, genetic lineages that are less adapted to the new conditions die off, and more adapted ones increase in frequency. Suitability to human tastes could be one of those conditions - that is why modern sweet corn looks nothing like the ancestral teosinte. Or that modern turkeys have such proportionally huge breasts (and inability to breed without human intervention).

This is an important point to consider as panic seems to be spreading around the mysterious spread of colony collapse disorder (CCD) among domesticated honeybees. Often portrayed as a sudden onset of events (actually, hints of this condition has been around for decades), the hysteria has led to the actual ban of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides, in Europe. Truth is, CCD as a diagnosis is pretty vague - numerous reasons could be behind the death of a colony, yet everyone is on the hunt for the cause, leading to mob-like indictments of various suspects, from genetically modified organisms to cell phone towers.

Calm down. Let's look at this objectively.

Loss of domestic bees will not lead to global famine. Many of our major staple crops (rice, corn, wheat) don't need bee pollination, and even the crops that require bee pollinators can be pollinated by alternative pollinators. All that means is that the supply of these crops, things like almonds, strawberries, peaches, will become constrained - but not extinct. Prices may rise a bit temporarily, but we will adjust. After all, this is just a different set of selective conditions. We can start breeding (or genetically modifying) crops to require less bee-based pollination, or choose parthenogenetic counterparts (fruits that don't need pollination). We can start domesticating (or expand the availability of) new crops that fulfill the void left behind by these traditional crops (cheaper figs, perhaps). And the crops aching to be pollinated will be an ecological bonanza for new pollinators. Perhaps this will seed the return of wild solitary bee populations pushed aside by the domestication of honeybees.

Seen from the perspective of evolutionary transition, CCD can be an exciting turn of biological history. Those that see it in apocalyptic doom and gloom are invested in the status quo, and are, perhaps the financial elites who can afford the luxury of demanding that this restricted set of crops remain eternally unchanging and available.

All the while forgetting that crops always been changing, and haven't always been this widely available.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Labeling Justice

Ridiculous labeling. 
In a guest posting on Keith Kloor's Collide-o-Scape blog on Discover, Ramez Naam presents his case that (genetically modified organismsGMO supporters should embrace labeling. I was rather puzzled by this piece. He starts the article by being careful to state that he himself is a GMO supporter - pretty much in those terms. And then he expands on his thesis:

"by fighting labeling, we’re feeding energy to the opponents of GMOs"

He uses the term "fighting labeling" quite frequently in the piece, as if there's an active force preventing labeling. This buys into the straw man fallacy, as the fight is against mandatory labeling. Labels do not appear spontaneously on foods, and supporters of GMOs are not somehow marshalling forces to remove them. Enforced labeling, under penalty of law, is the serious debate at hand.

But then, over on Twitter, I confirmed that he was already referring to voluntary labeling, although it sounds like it's coerced voluntary labeling. Basically, Ramez has a hard time countering the contention

“If you’re so proud of your GMOs, why don’t you label them?”

Because he is proud of the technology. I pointed out to him that voluntary labeling already exists - it's branding. I think, though, that Ramez is stuck with the idea that the battle is already lost - he bemoans the fact that multiple states have mandatory GMO labeling laws in the works, all of which are, of course, not based on science and merely fanned by propaganda and hysteria. So, he's playing the same game - never mind the science, let's take away this one talking point by actually labeling the products, albeit with labels that GMO supporters find less objectionable than those being proposed. He doesn't address how these consistent labels will be funded or enforced. He thinks that if we concede this one point, to win the greater war, we blunt the impact of the coming labeling laws.

This is where I find the stance insidiously repugnant. The imposition of such labeling laws are an injustice, plain and simple. Those that cry "lack of consumer choice" in the current climate are flat out wrong - there are plenty of consumer choices, and that choice is not guaranteed by the market. It's an entitlement mindset that demands enslavement of our farmers and food producers, that a select group of consumers should be able to shackle their means of production beyond reasonable scientific precaution. In order to provide the desired "consumer choice" - they take away choice from the farmers. If not the point of scientific validity, then we stand in support of farmers.

The logic of Ramez's piece is that a heinous crime is about to be committed - so let's do it sooner, at least we'll be gentler. If a girl is about to be brutally raped, let's choose to be the kinder rapist. All the while blurring the fact that horror need not happen at all. No, it's cowardice that rationalizes aligning with, rather than opposing, injustice. AntiGMO propaganda paints a false dichotomy, that somehow labeling is being suppressed - it isn't. Preposterous labels are all over our food products right now ("all natural"), some even with ridiculous health claims. We don't foster better science understanding by giving succor to unjust labeling demands by carrying it out for them.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Interesting small plates

Beef leg carpaccio, Oxheart, Houston, TX
Salt roasted turnip, Oxheart, Houston, TX
A few months ago, I finally had the pleasure of dining at Oxheart, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Houston. At Oxheart, you order set tasting menus, small dishes of composed items (really, some of them are no more than 2-3 bites) , with delicately balanced flavors meant to offset carefully selected wine list. There really is no ala carte ordering, other than the wine, and this simplification is in part to execute the vision of the talented chefs as a complete dining experience, and also to keep costs down. Indeed, the intricate dishes command the attention of a small platoon of cooks,  and given the small size of the restaurant, profit margins must be carefully monitored.

I had a pleasant enough experience with a couple of standout moments and a couple not so stellar items. However, I am in no hurry to return. Despite the homey comfortable image presented on the website, dining at Oxheart is a fairly formal affair. Given the popularity of the restaurant, arranging a reservation was enough trouble that I am willing to wait for that special social event to go back.

On a recent visit to San Diego, though, I encountered Okan and couldn't help comparing the dining experience there. The tiny restaurant, a barely labeled door in a strip mall, is actually similar in seating capacity to Oxheart, right down to a central bar area surrounded by small table tops. Okan also attempts a homey feel, a casual gathering around a large sake selection, and small plates of intriguing food. In fact, that drew me in was the promise of Japanase tapas - it is even called that on the menu (printed by laser printer and tacked casually on the door). The difference: the place is all ala carte. No set menus, and it was an impressively diverse and intricate menu (hamo eel tempura and kamameshi were specials that day). Sadly, I could only try a few dishes that day before filling up. 

Rice burger, Okan, San Diego. Two sushi rice patties are grilled, and used to sandwich teriyaki beef and Kewpie mayo. It's remarkably good. 

Ankimo (monkfish liver). A standout dish, the unctuous foie gras of the ocean was dressed in a perky melange of sauce, salad and seaweed that balanced beautifully with flavor and texture. 

Tempura brussells sprouts. The crispy coating was a delicious foil to the vegetal flavors of the sprouts, without being bitter. 
The service pace was unhurried, and diners did indeed treat the place as a casual gathering spot, progressively ordering more food or drink as the evening progressed. And they could - the prices were impressively modest (specially considering the cost of real estate in San Diego) - my entire meal hovered around $20. I find myself wanting to return to Okan on a regular basis, to sample the expanse of the menu, and perhaps that is the measure of the success.