Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Getting over incidental coprophagy

Some common coprophagic organisms. One even named in an inadvertent pun. 
Christian Seger of Blue Heron Farms opened his TEDxHouston talk by summarizing Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, in one sentence: "There's shit in the meat". The section, in context, actually reads like this:

The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.” 

While succeeding in terrifying Christian Seger, Schlosser demonstrates a remarkable disdain for science, not bothering to connect or understand the words. These aren't just dry unscientific terms - they are completely peripheral to his own disgust response.

Coliforms are bacteria that are short rods in shape. Their levels are used monitoring system to detect bacterial contamination. The coliform we are often interested in is E. coli, which both a human pathogen, friend, and neighbor - depending on the situation. It's also a facultative anaerobe - meaning it can grow with or without oxygen. Aerobic plate counts are way of finding out how many bacteria require oxygen to grow. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol which is often used in many sugar-free candies and gums - but in the lab, the ability to ferment sorbitol is a key test in classifying the kind of bacteria is present. MacConkey agar is yet another test for classifying bacteria. If you notice - none of these build up logically to his thesis. All it is is the contamination properties of  the disgust response is evoked to imply that there's something dangerous about the food. In truth, there was probably at best a tiny bit of poo in the meat, detectible with the highly sensitive methods of modern microbiology - but in the big picture, insignificant. 

And it turns out that eating shit isn't necessarily so bad. For every human cell in a human body, there are 10 bacterial cells: the health and diversity of this microbial community is every bit central to the health of the human. In certain circumstances, a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (Cdiff in shorthand) can overwhelm the gut system, resulting in diarrhea, even death. Though Cdiff infections can be difficult to treat, one of the most effective is something euphemistically called "fecal transplantation". But that's mostly the ick factor talking - basically, it's just eating shit from a healthy individual to restore the balance in the sick patient's gut. There's a bit more to the preparation than that, but it's remarkably effective, and if you can get over the taboo, cheap as shit. 

It should really come as no surprise: coprophagy is fairly common in the animal kingdom. Heck, in all likelihood, children inherit the founding microbial populations from a bit of the poop from the mother. And it's all right. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Giving In to False Balance

In a speech at the Food Integrity Summit in Chicago, on Oct 15, Mark Lynas, former antiGMO activist now pro-science crusader, lays out his case for labeling of "GMOs (genetically modified organisms"in food. With eloquent certainty, he admits that there is no scientific basis for labeling, and that the ultimate intent of pro-labelling activists is the outright ban of genetic engineering. And that if such a ban could be enacted worldwide, it would literally hobble biotech scientists.

What is his point? Like Ramez Naam before him, he's convinced that arguing from science is a politically unwinnable position. The "Right to Know" campaign, he concedes, is too powerful a political demand to be countered by the facts. He subtly buys into the argument that indeed, food manufacturers are fighting against labeling (not distinguishing this from voluntary labeling), so they can

 "smuggle [their] core products into peoples’ shopping baskets so that they can only buy them either unknowingly or by mistake". 

Unlike Naam, who couched his argument in favor of pressuring manufacturers to adopt voluntary labeling, Lynas outlines a plan for federally mandated and controlled labels, designed explicitly as not a warning (how this is to be done is up for speculation), and ubiquitous to the point of labeling cheese made from animals fed with some proportion of GMO plants. This is supposed to head off the patchwork of state by state initiatives in "GMO" labeling. Out loud and proud for the GMOs - we can can out shout the protesters.

Lynas casually concedes that the food industry is somehow not being transparent (even though this is a straw man argument), and says - let's just move on. He doesn't consider who is actually going to bear the burden of this policy he is advocating. The design of the label, its content, testing and enforcement will be a significant cost given the desired ubiquity - and the implication is that this will be the standard cost of food production from here on out (unless, of course, one opts out of using "GMOs" - however that legal definition shifts going forward). This may seem trivial for big producers, but what of smaller food producers? Regulations already place a significant barrier to entry for aspiring food makers, the addition of passing labeling inspection - purely on a political whim - makes the process onerous.

In the face of a political fight where he sees the truth about to be lynched by the mob, Lynas opts to throw the first stone. To earn trust? It's hypocrisy.

Though he has clarified that he is against the I-522 mandating GMO labeling in Washington state, this move emboldens the antiscience fringe fueling the debate. Like many in the mainstream media, he's given fear mongering fabrication equal footing to established science. This is not a negotiation. This is not acceding to a public's "Right to Know". It's a witch hunt, and someone is being used as a sacrifice to placate a terrorized population.

I'll append an extension to Lynas' proposal. Assuming his mandated labeling law comes to pass, complying with it should come at no cost to food producers. The cost of monitoring, categorization, physical labeling, and independent enforcement must come from a new tax on food products that do not use GMO items (can be tied to the Organic Certification program), since those producers stand the most to gain from the system. Of course, that is ultimately the linchpin of this bogus argument about mandated labeling.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chemical with corn

Tamale from Radical Eats, Houston, TX
The US has a federal holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus, the alleged "discoverer" of the new word (although I think the ever sharp Oatmeal skewers this historical figure quite effectively). For what it's worth, a consequence of the contact is the transfer of crops from the New World to the Old, spreading them far, and change cuisines worldwide. The tomato transformed Italian cooking, for example, but another effect is that nutrient dense crops quickly became the main source of nutrition in poorer parts of Europe. Modern readers with computers may find it hard to believe, but there was a time that people literally had nothing more than corn to eat. The quick growing and human adapted corn (maize) gave rise to dishes like polenta, solving potential starvation issues.

But along with the rise of this monophagous (single sourced) diet came the spread of a disease: pellagra. Patients stricken had skin lesions, dementia, and, given the medical care at the time, died soon after. Primitive epidemiology tracked the problem to primarily corn eating populations. Perhaps it was contamination or some kind of pathogen in the corn. Pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the heavily corn consuming poor people of the southern USA.

Roasted sweet corn in a cup (elotes) at Max's Wine Dive, Houston, TX
We now know that pellagra wasn't caused by pathogen, it's a micronutrient deficiency in the vitamin niacin. What was confounding at the time, however, was that mesoamerican people also lived on a primarily corn-based diet, and yet had practically no incidence of pellagra. The key, as it turns out, was nixtamalization. The process of soaking maize in slaked lime - calcium hydroxide - well, basically most any alkali will work - made the naicin bioavailable, and also released the amino acid precursor tryptophan. The resulting maize is the basis for hominy and masa -- and all derivative dishes thereof, from antojitos to tortilla chips.

So, if you find yourself worried that your food "contains chemicals", "chemically processed", or involved things that cannot be pronounced easily - consider the history of maize in the Western diet. While one of the most genetically modified crops in human history, the link to pellagra, as it turns out, was insufficient technology.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A touch of acid

Kilawin (a vinegar based ceviche) and grilled pork with calamansi. An excellent combination. 
You hear it quite often nowadays on those cooking competition shows. A judge eats a bit of a contestant's food, and pronounces "It could use more acid". Well, what exactly do they mean by that? In general, I think the judge just wants an additional sour note to the food - after all, that's what we taste as sour are acidic substances. But not all acids are equal.

Industrially, mineral acids are the norm - examples of these are sulfuric acid, or muriatic (hydrochloric) acid or nitric acids. These are strong acids, which is to say just a little bit of mineral acids can wreak havoc on naked metal (and yes, just about all metals are susceptible to acid attack - take note about your fancy knives), and scar exposed skin. But these are rarely (if ever) used in culinary applications.

What are found in foods, the endogenous acids that make them sour, are weaker organic acids. Used in a scientific context, organic has nothing to do with being pesticide-free or other scaremongering imagery, rather, organic compounds have carbon backbones, and almost all chemicals emanating or involved with life are organic in nature. Ironically, that means that most pesticides are organic in nature.

Maybe the simplest culinary acid is carbonic acid, formed by combining a molecule of carbon dioxide with a molecule of water. Carbonated water is already acidic by this reaction, although it tends to be unstable, and breaks down easily. Nonetheless, formation of carbonic acid is an important step in buffering of blood chemistry, and given how easily it is formed, is the key compound in making limestone caves.

A bit more stable is acetic acid, the key souring component of vinegar. It's formed by bacteria eating the alcohol formed by yeast in fermented juices like wine. Although more stable than carbonic acid, it is volatile, meaning that it will evaporate. So, how does a salt and vinegar chip taste sour without being soggy? More than likely, the manufacturer used a crystallizable acid: citric acid. As you can tell from the name, citric acids is the key souring compound in citrus fruits, although it can be found in other foods as well. Powdered citric acid crystals are readily available, and are a food safe method of cleaning off the white crust from hard water that accumulates in kettles and faucets. What balances out citric acid is tartaric acid, the souring notes in fruits like grapes and apples. In fact, the ingredient cream of tartar is basically solid tartaric acid. It also has a certain astringency that is characteristic of the fruity flavors.