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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bite Highlights of 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, I look back at some of the more memorable food experiences of the past year. With travel, I got to expand my culinary horizons a bit, as well as revisit some old favorites. So, let's reminisce. 

Mary Macs is an institution of Southern cooking in Atlanta, and a tourist attraction. But most notable for first timers is a bowl of pot likker with the excellent corn bread. The salt pork suffused liquid from cooking greens was quite welcome on a rainy day. 

I finally got to try Pig Wings at the Old German Beer Hall in Milwaukee. I'm surprised we don't do this in Houston. 

What we do do in Houston are these creative fish chicharrones at Tampico on Airline. Basically tilapia cooked to crispy chip consistency, the spicy picked onions was a genius accompaniment. 

At Rangoon Ruby's (with branches around Northern California, this one was at the Palo Alto location), I got to try the fermented tea leaf salad (thoke on Burmese). Excellent and unique flavors, with a large dynamic range of textures and flavors. 

Here in Houston, however, getting to eat an egg custard tart from ECK bakery fresh out of the oven is in itself a pretty unique treat. 

Al-Aseel is probably best known for fried chicken, but the restaurant serves up dishes designed to encourage people to linger. Pillow lined corner tables beckon, and this beautifully plated and delicious hummus denotes meals of sharing and community. 

The loco moco is an iconic dish of Hawaiin adaptability, and at Ma'Ono in Seattle, it's elevated to high art. 

Bambu opened a new branch in the Greenway Plaza area, and the icy che preparations are refreshing in the Houston heat.  I returned often to try the different combinations, but settled on the basil seed rich "black and grey" as a memorable combination. 

The venerable Mala Sichuan collaborated with Blacksmith Coffee on a one time  popup brunch this year. On a packed menu of old Sichuan comfort breakfast items, the beautiful and crispy gold coin omelet stood out in my mind. 

Steve Marquez opened my year with a bang by crafting this complex and complete dessert - a spicy chocolate cake  topped with fish sauce caramel. 

I believe the restaurant Spicy Sichuan has closed, but I did get to try this unique dish there: a roulade of sticky rice "pasta" filled with spiced meat and vegetables. 

By way of introduction from Javier Fadul (@inspired12 on Twitter) of Culture Pilot, I went to try the very rich and flavorful uni carbonara at Tea Bar Organics (normally, I'd stay away from any place that primarily hawks the organic food fallacy). But this dish was indeed quite memorable.

The bakery/cafe Tout Suite opened in downtown Houston this year, and in addition to have an overall strong coffee and tea program, the pastries were on point. This Paris brest illustrated to me the mastery of choux in that kitchen. 

On deficiency in Houston is in the area of hot chocolate, more notably, the sipping chocolate variety. I had to travel to Durham, NC, to find Bean Traders, and their nicely done sipping chocolates drinks. 

And finally, a bit of international flair. In Vancouver, the very busy JapaDog establishment serves up these Japanese hot dogs. But unlike the usual trend of topping the same hot dog with different things just to create variety, each type had the careful consideration of a sushi chef. Down to the obsessive manner the bread is heated, to the pairing of sausage with (in this case, grated radish or shaved bonito), a Japadog stood out in the competitive Vancouver dining scene. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


"Lato" - seaweed salad
"Sea grapes"
Despite the productive abundance of the Gulf Coast near Houston, we don't have a particularly strong seaweed cuisine in the area - I was told that regulations forbid harvesting seaweed. But I've always held a soft spot for the seaweed salads in Asia made from lato or sea grapes. These are not available dried, and so can only be eaten in the countries there (I've even had them on sushi, although they're more commonly eaten as common vegetable fare). The little "grapes" pop with a briny sliminess that's fun and delicious paired with vinegar or lime juice.

What I only recently learned is that they belong to the genus Caulerpa, where the entire plant is just one giant cell with multiple nuclei. So, in the pictures above, those fronds aren't even a whole cell, but the harvested bits - these are recorded as the largest cells known to science. Doesn't that just make it sound even more delicious?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Food and Fighting Cancer

Beautiful fall produce of North Carolina
An event was held here in Houston recently called Food Fight Against Cancer, which aims to raise money and the awareness of "cancer-fighting foods". The page describing the specific ingredients is an excerpt from the cookbook by Katz and Edelson, and uses some pretty fancy words like glucosinolates (that's a chemical - where's the panic?), but remarkably little primary research sourcing. I am left to wonder - what does it mean for food to "fight cancer" or be of "anticancer" nature?

"cancer fighting" smoothies? And I am pretty certain there's no way they have no sodium.
This concept is difficult to parse because cancer itself is actually more than 100 different diseases. And when we talk about "fighting cancer", it can be interpreted as a therapeutic measure prescribed to someone who is already afflicted with cancer, or it can be thought of as an active portion of an cancer prevention regime. Those sold into the "herbalist" or "naturopathic" modes latch onto this nebulous promise, but seldom provide concrete biological reasons. Some may cite minor compounds present in certain fruits or vegetables that have inhibitory effects on cultured cancer cell lines, but this is far from how it would work when eaten. Is the compound present in high enough concentrations to matter? Will it survive digestion? Does it cross the blood brain barrier? Would it work on all types of cancer, either as a preventative or a therapeutic agent? What is the relevant dosage? Are there other confounding compounds?

This is the precarious limbo between being classified as a drug or a food. Legally speaking, foods can make such imprecise promises, and get away with it, while drugs are held to exacting standards. Population based studies do not indicate any positive correlation between most cancer types and diets of fruits and vegetables, and there's weak evidence linking meats cooked under high heat with increased cancer risk. Otherwise, much of the promises of "fighting cancer" seems to be conflated with avoidance of certain behaviors, i.e., vegetarians are less likely to smoke. So, despite the bogeyman of "toxins" in processed foods, "anticancer" foods, unless better defined, seems more ghostly than plausible.

Addendum:  Despite the imprecision of the term, the popularity of exhorting "anticancer" foods is undeniable, from athletes to nutritionists - and even the occasional "advocate" hack. I am quite puzzled by this. Where does this come from? How does it become so pervasive?
Kavin Senapathy dissected a tweet from Vani Hari (the fear mongering "Food Babe") that exhorted poor food choices as the underlying risk factor even if someone inherited the BRCA allele that is highly linked to breast cancer, that the final condition can even be somehow overcome by "avoiding toxins" (she's not the only one who's bought into this toxins mythos). The author correctly calls out that this is victim shaming - the someone who is diagnosed with cancer can somehow be held responsible for their predicament.
Cancer is a set of complex diseases that stem from poor regulation of cell division, something that often arises from mutations that affect the evolved series of checks and balances regulating proper cell division and differentiation. If you do the math, the number of cell divisions that happen going from a single celled embryo through the lifetime as complex organisms consisting of trillions of cells descended from this one cell, even with an error rate of 0.01 in a million, the probability of mutational error leading to cancer is quite good. The fact that observed deleterious mutation rates are as low as speaks volumes to the error correcting rates that happen in animal physiology. It's a matter of chance that we avoid cancer - the longer we live, the greater the chance that this kind of misregulation can happen at the inopportune moment. We can increase these odds by smoking, or being subjected to unnecessary radiation, or things that can damage DNA like carcinogens (incidentally, alcohol is classified as a class 1 carcinogen - but I seldom see people picketing the booze aisle). But to have a food that either mechanistically protects against DNA damage, or promotes repair, or extirpates tumors? That is a difficult to imagine scenario.

Update (1/2/2015): Parsing the data points out that sheer bad luck is the bigger factor in getting cancer.

No, this is about selling a false promise of certainty in a situation of uncertainty. And I find this practice reprehensible precisely because these profiteers, under the guise of health, are fanning the fear and fighting the facts. And the end may not be too different physically - getting people to eat more fresh vegetables over bagged potato chips may not be a bad thing - but the reasoning behind it is suggestible brainwashing over critical scientific reasoning. And that may be a greater harm than the physical gains.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Turkey Virtue

Our Friendsgiving Spread this year included turkey cooked sous vide and skin cooked ala plancha.

This week is the American Thanksgiving celebration, a time of traditional foods, centered around eating turkey. It isn't some simple obsession, the American tradition requires serving a roasted bird whole to be carved at the table as a highlight. Cooking this unwieldy beast in this manner is a biophysical challenge that drives people to ornate lengths, but perhaps the shared adversity serves to bond families and tribes together, albeit in ritual.

Noting the unusually high demand for this meat in this season, Maryn McKenna penned an article on Wired urging people to buy "antibiotic-free turkey" to "slow down drug resistance in health care" (a more accurate phrase than stopping drug resistance). Basically, it highlights the Sharing Antimicrobial Reports for Pediatric Stewardship (SHARPS) pledge to encourage purchasing "turkey raised without routine use of antibiotics"). Notice, however, how the two phrases are so readily interchanged. I've written before how there really is no such thing as "antibiotic-free" meat. That phrase is based on the conceit that antibiotics are only synthetic products added by humans, when in fact wherever microbes interact with each other, they produce antibiotics - some of which we may exploit one day for human use. That's not even considering the fact that the antibiotic classes used in farms overlap in a very minor manner with the clinically relevant types.

What puzzles me, though: why target turkeys? Are turkeys a notable reservoir for incubating clinical antibiotic resistance? McKenna's article links out to a 2013 Consumer Reports article that points to conventionally grown turkey as a "persistent source of antibiotic resistant bacteria". For its claims of testing, this article did not adhere to good scientific reporting: it did not completely document the methodology for the sample collection and testing, and lacked controls and proper replication. Most any microbiologist will note in the sloppy nomenclature that the testing design was amateurish. Put into context - finding antibiotic resistant bacteria is actually quite easy, as it predates the development of modern antibiotics. From what I can tell, the writers conflated detection of bacteria post culture with the emergence of antibiotic resistance, and that just serves to confuse the reader. In fact, even birds "raised without antibiotics" yielded significantly antibiotic resistant bacteria — unsurprising, given the survey design.

The SHARPS Tumblr post linked from the article writes: "It has been shown in study after study that use of low-level antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant bacteria." Both of these studies were done in cattle, and in the second study, the type of diet fed to the animals correlated more strongly to the emergence of antibiotic resistance traits than the use of antibiotics.

An investigation last year (about the same time this sloppy Consumer Report article was published) by NPR's The Salt couldn't find specific data on antibiotic use in raising turkey as the industry doesn't track this information.

So, I remain unconvinced how pledging to buy birds that are specifically labelled "antibiotic-free" or "raised without routine antibiotic use" is going to help impede the evolution of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance traits. But what this will do is create a virtuous halo around producers that label their turkeys in this manner - but how do you know what was turkey labeled as "raised without routine antibiotic use" was indeed raised so? Is there an enforcing body? Not to start a conspiracy theory but where there's a profit motive, fraud becomes tempting. And instead of raising awareness of this complicated topic (which requires a good understanding of evolutionary theory), people will compartmentalize it into virtuous fads.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tastes like oysters

The other night, over a bowl of menudo, we had a discussion about "shocking" foods. While some immediately drew the line at even trying tripe, at least one person boasted about trying lutefisk, balut, and century eggs. These exotica aren't really all that wild - certainly balut and century eggs are readily available in the Asian megamalls here in Houston. What intrigues me to get is the elusive tamilok or edible shipworm.

Wood ravaged by shipworms, from Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes referred to as the "termites of the sea" - shipworms burrow their way into wood, and are seen as a pest to the shipping industry. Numerous species abound in the oceans, but the edible shipworm, the tamilok, is found in mangrove trees in Palawan, the Philippines (I've seen unsubstantiated references that the name comes from the English "Tommy, look!", but i can't confirm the etymology), and is often served in kilawin ("cooked" in vinegar). It's often described as tasting vaguely of oysters - although the addition of so many strong flavors may mask it. That's not so unusual because, well, the shipworm isn't a worm at all. It's actually a bivalve mollusc, like an oyster or a clam.

Now, how a shipworm lives on wood as its diet actually depends on the microorganisms it harbors in its gills - much like a termite relies upon symbiotic bacteria in its gut to digest the wood it consumes. Wood, believe it or not, is mostly a carbohydrate called cellulose, and unlike starch, isn't so easily digested into sugars. Various types of cellulose, from paper to switch grass, represent stores of locked up energy, and the biofuel industry seeks out cellulases for industrial production of ethanol from cellulose rather than starch. And shipworms carry a different set of bacteria for it's cellulosic diet, representing a potentially valuable trove of tools to fuel the ship, even if the mollusc itself dines on the hull.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Finding a sugar conspiracy

In a recent piece on HBO, humorist John Oliver painted a scare tactic about how the "sugar industry" is ducking their responsibility for injecting so much sugar into the (unwilling?) American public. Though I usually chuckle along with John Oliver's rants, this one fails on the fact scale by sheer poor understanding of what sugar actually is.

So, let's start there - what is sugar? For most people, that term refers to the sweet crystalline stuff that comes from sugar cane or beets, used to cooking applications. But chemically, sugars are a catchall phrase for simple carbohydrates. You can hook sugars up into larger molecules, and when they get big enough, we start referring to them as starches (if digestible), or fiber (if indigestible). But break down this big molecules - and we get sugars again. The sugar most people are accustomed to dealing with directly is chemically called sucrose - we use such terms in science to be precise, and to avoid the confusion that happens when the same word is used to refer to different things.

And that is exactly the kind of confusion that John Oliver falls into when discussing Clamato. The label he points out (around 2:50) indicates Sugars 11g which he gleefully interprets to mean that the makers add 11 g of sucrose per serving. Notice the difference in reference? That plural form means a measurement of simple carbohydrates in the product, which does not necessarily mean it was sugar added to it. Let's look at one of those labels more closely.

This is a label from a popular apple juice brand known to have no added sugar. Notice that the sugars line is under Total Carbohydrates. That's because collectively, sugars are a type of carbohydrate - this section breaks down that out of the 34 g of measurable carbohydrates, 31g are classifiable as simple enough to be sugars. That could of fructose, glucose, maltose - and yes, even sucrose, but does not mean that 31 g of sucrose were mixed in. The underlying assumption with a lot of these politically charged food issues is a naturalistic fallacy that unless one adds sucrose to an item, it's free of sugars. And metabolically speaking, there's no good reason to go further than this - these simple carbohydrates are digested similarly, and this is the most useful measure. It is actually far more accurate - since it reports the total sugars content via direct analysis. Note, complex carbohydrates can break down into sugars during processing. 

The actual boondoggle here is the FDA proposal to require a further breakdown for "added sugar". The only basis for doing this is the naturalistic fallacy again - as if the intrinsic sugars content of the other ingredients (like apples, tomatoes, and yes, even clams) is chemically different from the added sucrose. The number currently reported for sugars already includes any added sugar (sucrose or otherwise). One cannot separate out the added sugar component via chemical analysis of the product - to get this number, the producer has to track the pipeline and account for this. The FDA then has to implement an audit system to ensure that this accounting is accurate and adds up. This does not replace the chemical analysis in the end - which still has to report the total sugars and other components in the food item. Of course the industry is going to fight this; it is a costly requirement that has dubious benefits for either consumer or producer. 

Instead of understanding the science, Oliver simply plays the easy card of big business taking advantage of the hapless American consumer. With a soundbite from Eric Stice, boom - sugar is cocaine. His example of a scientist is one James Rippe - a doctor heavily vested in "lifestyle medicine". At least understand what a scientist does. His staff casually interleaves sugary drinks consumption into the argument - a Gish galloping bouncing of topics to build  an entertaining, but ultimately fallacious case for this labeling initiative. If there is indeed some kind of sugar conspiracy - I see more evidence of an entertainer trying to spin a tale than an investigator uncovering facts. 

So, please stop forwarding this video on as if it validates anything. It simply preys on a basic lack of understanding of chemistry. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Will Vegan Cheese Work?

A recently funded Indiegogo campaign to make "Real Vegan Cheese" has been brought to my attention recently. It's quite an impressive project for "biohackers" - a promise to make "real" (we'll come back to that) cheese without involving cows. And the speculation about it is feeding the narrative for the reporters on the science beat.

But this really isn't a science question. It isn't teaching us something about the natural universe - it pokes at our cultural definitions of cheese, veganism, and food in general.

To start with, the campaign makes some scientifically dubious promises and allusions - for example, they prominently claim that the "real vegan cheese" will not contain GMO even though they'll be using genetically modified yeast because they are purifying the casein protein. This shouldn't matter to those who worry about GMO contamination (otherwise, there wouldn't be objections to sugar produced from GMO sugar beets). Or the claim that this method of cheese production will be more sustainable than the status quo - there's no data for this. After all, one should consider the inputs to fabricating all the components. And even more dubious is the promise of lowered allergenicity in the product by modifying the casein produced - hypothetically possible, the process is far more complex than they imply, and could affect the product itself.

The challenges are huge. The prerequisite that isn't discussed is they plan to make a "vegan milk", which is thought to be a simple mixture of protein, fat and sugar - but milk is far more complex than that. Milk is chock full of a structure known as micelles which are serve to hold on high concentrations of calcium for delivery to offspring. In fact, caseins (there are more than one kind) are thought to have evolved as a calcium retention mechanism, and building the milk micelle isn't a matter of mixing things together in a blender - and this type of macromolecular assembly is key to how curds form, and cheese to be made. And leaving out lactose means that the microbes that can be supported would be quite different from the conventional cheese production.

So, will it work? Can they make it?

Does this question matter at all?

They will make a product - but will it be cheese? What is cheese anyway? There is a legal definition of cheese, which is tied to a definition of milk (and there is a biological definition of that - and it's tied to animal production). By this alone, they probably cannot call whatever is made cheese (similar to how a product can be called an ice cream or a mellorine).

Moreover, the quest serves the point of veganism - which is itself not a scientifically defined practice. Evolutionarily speaking, yeast are pretty closely related to mammals relative to flowering plants, but to the vegan demarcation - they're vegetables. This is an arbitrary classification that serves a cultural whim, seeking a food product that is itself a luxury. In short, it's very much a first world problem. While not as much of a publicity stunt as the "cultured meat" project, this project is just as devoid of science all the while dressed up in the robes of scientific practice. But it has carried the imagination of the public enough to get funded. Good luck to them, and to everyone who has invested in it.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Not all white bread are equal

I respect Scientific American as an science communication institution - over they decades, they've evolved from the classic magazine to the myriad online avenues, from blogs to Twitter and podcasts. But I fear that in the zest to embrace the age of the soundbite, some of the care may be slipping. A recent 60-second podcast by Karen Hopkin reports on the potential "health benefits" of white bread. Most of these snappy one-offs are really a populist summarization of the results of a recent academic publication - in general, I approve of this, as the culture of scientific publication still favors dense writing that requires specialization just to read. However, simplification should not happen at the expense of accuracy.

Yes, this is white bread.
The report is about the unexpected association of Lactobacillus (a "healthy" marker in the microbiome) with the consumption of white bread, so it prominently begins with the mention of Wonder Bread. This, of course, is a byproduct of the America-centric nature of the target audience, to whom white bread is synonymous with Wonder Bread. But the study was conducted in Spain, and white bread in Europe is markedly different from the ubiquitous "glutenous slab".

So, how was the study conducted? The authors selected 27 female and 11 male volunteers, aged 56-67 years old, and asked them about what they recalled eating from a selection of 160 items within the past year. After the interview, they collected one stool sample, and analyzed it for DNA. It isn't just any 38 healthy individuals - the data is based on the recollection of middle-aged to older volunteers (heavily skewed to women) from their diets a full year prior, and the stool sample came from one time point.

Though not explicitly stated, the misled hordes of the internet now parrot the line about how white bread (somehow equivocating to Wonder Bread) can be a healthy item. But it is a correlation, and at best a promising line of research. But I am dismayed that science journalism tends to lean towards this need to sell a particular story frame, toying with the very edges of veracity, often misleading lay readers to the wrong conclusion, by selectively glossing over details, or (as in this case) introducing "facts" that weren't in the original paper to begin with. I cannot call this outright lying, but its effects can be more insidious. In the name of "spicing up" a story, a writer can pretty invert the conclusions of a study or report, manipulating the expectations and emotions of the reader. This is a powerful skill, and should be used judiciously.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Environmental Impact of "Cultured Meat"

Frog Legs, A Ly, Houston, TX. I'll bet we'll have better luck mass producing tissue cultured frog meat. 
I have previously described my problems with the mainstream media fascination with the "cultured meat" project. But recently, I've been contacted by journalist asking what my opinion is about the published dramatically lower environmental impact from culturing meat as opposed to conventional animal husbandry.The paper cited was published in 2011 by the American Chemical Society's Environmental Science and Technology, authored by Tuomisto and Mattos, claiming a dramatic 45% lower energy use, 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and an amazing 96% lower water use. Indeed, this is the paper cited by among its FAQs as a key advantage for tissue cultured meat.

So, let's see what the paper reports. Since a cultured meat production industry doesn't really exist, the paper is basically a fairly complex thought experiment. It presumes the existence of such an industry, and compares it to current beef, sheep, pork and poultry production. This is a vaporware comparison - the authors could assign all sorts of properties to the hypothetical cultured meat production, and we cannot contest it. But if we assign time to when such a pipeline would exist, the evolution of conventional meat production would have also improved in efficiency. In the end, though, this paper does not such prove anything, nor does it actually lead to testable hypotheses. In a sense, it isn't really falsifiable, and makes for poor science.

But such a thought experiment begins with a number of assumptions - and did the authors make reasonable assumptions? Aside from the laughable comparison of value since a number of products come from whole animals other than mincemeat, while culture vats will only make meat, there's the near magical creation of new technology. From the abstract:

Cyanobacteria hydrolysate was assumed to be used as the nutrient and energy source for muscle cell growth.
This is already a problem. Under no circumstance have we proven that conventional animal meat tissue can be grown using cyanobacteria hydrolysate, that raw proteins can be pumped onto cultured muscle cells and they'll metabolize it. Either the authors are ignorant of basic biology of isolated animal cells, interchanging them with yeast cells, or have conveniently cherry picked past this fundamental point. Moreover, the authors write:

The production of growth factors and vitamins are not included in the study as the quantities needed are small (under 0.1% of the DM weight of the media), and therefore the environmental impacts are negligible.
This is a grossly incorrect assumption to make. Despite the lower per weight composition of these micronutrients and growth factors, they are essential and difficult to isolate and synthesize. We have no substitute at the moment for using fetal bovine serum at the moment specifically because this fact. The cells will not grow without these growth factors, one cannot gloss over the environmental impact of harvesting and isolating this material. It's like ignoring the environmental impact of diamonds because they are so small - when in fact mountains can be destroyed to get them.

So, let's do a little background research. This press release from Oxford University (Hanna Tuomisto, the lead author, was a PhD student there at the time) hides a small note at the end: the research was funded by New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to cultured meat production. On the border, I would think of this as a conflict of interest. After all, it's a vaporware review that has been used in the last 3 years to claim advantages with regards to environmental impact, but it stands on fantastical unproven promises.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fructose alarm?

I came across an article on the science blogging site Science 2.0 stating that soda and juice companies are lying about fructose levels (that's pretty much the headline). It is a parsed summary of an accepted manuscript for the journal Nutrition which analyzes the fructose content of popular packaged beverages made with and without high fructose corn syrup. The article is critical enough to note that the fructose to metabolic syndrome connection is at best tenuous (and a poor approximation of real diets), but the charge that manufacturers are intentionally misleading customers with regards to fructose is bothersome.

To make the charge that someone is lying (or in this case, whole cadres of manufacturers - which only eggs on conspiracy theorists) is a fairly serious interpretation of the case. Does the evidence support this? The authors of the paper purchased samples of the different drinks, and analyzed them with various methods to measure the sugar composition of each sample. A bit of introductory chemistry here: glucose and fructose are simple sugars - when combined, the form sucrose, what we all call table sugar. More importantly, glucose and fructose are isomers - basically, they use the same atoms, but are just arranged differently. In fact, one can convert glucose to fructose and vice versa through a process called isomerization.

Corn syrup is mostly glucose. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made by isomerizing part of that glucose into fructose - in fact, what makes HFCS "high fructose" is usually just 55% fructose to 45% glucose, rather than the 50-50 mix in regular table sugar. There are different grades of HFCS, depending on the amount of fructose therein.

So, the authors claimed that a significant portion of the sodas supposedly made with sucrose still contained free fructose, and that for a good portion of the sodas made with HFCS, the fructose was proportionally higher than the 55% that should be in the food grade HFCS. Does the data bear this out? Fortunately, the paper included the raw data, and I replotted it (after discovering a minor summation mistake in it).

Red circles denote drinks made with sucrose, blue are drinks made with HFCS. 
First of all, they only sample 4 drinks with sucrose. The drink types vary widely in flavor and formulation, but most cluster around the 55% mark - even those made with sucrose. But we also know that sucrose degrades into the simple sugars simply by heating it into syrup - so the fructose content could easily be a byproduct of the processing. The paper actually takes this possibility into consideration - but quickly discards it as unlikely, without reference and any further explanation. Reviewers should have picked up on this contention.

This does lend credence to the idea that by the time it gets to market, HFCS and sucrose are functionally identical. There is the one outlier - the Sierra Mist Natural which seems to retain much undegraded sucrose. It could be something peculiar with that manufacturer: seems to me that there is reasonable doubt here contend that the manufacturers that claim to use sucrose are actually secretly substituting HFCS just based on this evidence alone.

The other is that the drinks are higher than 55% proportion of fructose - a reasonable number of them are also below this magic 55% mark. This is within statistical deviation, and could be explained by simple manufacturing variation or even storage isomerization. But even if they are consistently higher than 55% - I don't think the drinks are labeled to disclose that they are at most 55% fructose. Only that they are made with HFCS - which they do disclose. After all, even at 75% fructose - it would still be called HFCS.

How does this support the contention that there is "lying" going on? This is a potentially libelous situation, as none of this supports evidence of the intent to mislead, or failure to disclose. At best, there is a hint that a manufacturer may be taking shortcuts, but it won't be from this kind of analysis.

Words such as "lying" carry weight. I should hope that science reporting will be more analytical, rather than parroting the frame that the authors of the study wish inject, to bring some kind of ominous implication of conspiracy based on flimsy evidence.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bonding with the Bedrock

"What did you think of the tres leches flavor?"

My companion and I looked at each other as we discarded the sampling spoons, thanked the gelato vendor, and walked away from the colorful freezer case. We had intended to get some gelato from an inviting display, and after tasting five different flavors, came to the same conclusion: the actual gelato cream base had too much overrun. The flavors themselves didn't matter, the resulting product was an insipid castle built on quicksand.

Sadly, in many situations, food providers try to use accouterments overshadow the fundamentals, and this seems to be the case in popular discussion. For example, with pizza, the discussion is often about what the topping is, be it fontina cheese or "Thai" chicken or 25 different options. The crust itself is lost in the equation, mentioned by pizza aficionados but a discarded nuisance on paper plates for most of the public. Sushi judgements are almost always discussions about the quality of the fish used, but in its essence, sushi rice preparation is the foundation to the custom and cuisine.

And then, there's bread. In most cases, bread seems to be treated as a humble carrier for something else - the forgettable supporting character in an overstuffed sandwich, or sometimes to be discarded as the purveyor of "carbs". But good bread - there's nothing quite like it.

At its most basic, bread is a showcase of technique. From very few ingredients, one can produce anything from a baguette to focaccia, but we don't have many bakeries of distinction in Houston, bakers that take pride in the art of bread. So, with great interest, I've been sampling the wares at the newly opened Common Bond bakery.

Without a doubt, Common Bond portrays itself as a premium purveyor, with pricing to match. The packaging alone is reminiscent of a department store rather than a country baker. And most of the customers seem to be  agog with the pastries (special mention to the kugelhopf), and prepared dishes, but my focus has been on the bread products. I did sample an eclair, and found it rather disappointing, the choux texturally unpleasant.
Of the laminated breads, the croissant is a triumph of texture. Simply picking it up felt unreal, as nothing so large could be so light. The layer puff out, and is like eating baked air. At the same time, I found the flavor strangely bland (with a bitter undertone - not unpleasant). Maybe this was designed to be complimented with a jam, on its own, it was rather unremarkable. 
Given the opportunity, I'd recommend going for the Kougn Amman instead. Laminated in butter and sugar, the bread sits on a thin layer of caramelized sugar - the Common Bond staff wisely stack these upside down given the Houston humidity. I know of no other bakery in town making these treats, which make terrific desserts.
Among the regular loaves of bread, Common Bond keeps a fairly small repertoire of types: a baguette (and a couple of variants), a sourdough country loaf, an olive walnut loaf, and a pecan pear loaf. I see this as a kind of focus on the bread baking execution, and it shows. Though a little costly at around $7, the bread loaves are enormous and substantial. Moreover, I am impressed at how long they keep (don't refrigerate bread - it accelerates staling). In the case of the bread, I find the cost differential justifiable.

The country sourdough loaf is the most "general purpose" bread they carry.  It's a fairly mild tang, though I am curious as to the sourdough starter they use. Is it something that reflects the terroir of Houston? 
The olive walnut loaf took a little getting used to. The strong olive flavor meant that this is a bread for savory applications. Even butter didn't really go well with it, but a soft camembert complemented it well, particularly given the beautifully hearty mouthfeel to the crumb, and the robustness of the crust. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the pecan pear loaf is decidedly on the sweeter side of things, though not overly so. I did find it easier to pair this bread since the pear wasn't as assertive as the olives. Some meats go fairly well with this bread. 
The baguette is about $3 - which compares to the $1 or so the Vietnamese bakeries around town charge for a baguette. But these are very different breads. The Common Bond baguette hews more strongly to the European tradition, producing chewy, crusty loaves that hold up well to a tomato and some cheese. And like any baguette, they stale rapidly, becoming rock hard within two days. I wouldn't waste stale baguettes, but consume these quickly. 
I'm no stranger to baking, and I still think that having hot bread coming out of one's oven is likely to be the best experience - nonetheless, I am quite impressed with the Common Bond bread offerings. It'll come in handy as the Texas summer heats up.

Friday, April 25, 2014

More normal than you think

Guess this vegetable
I posted this question up on Twitter a while back. I posted this photograph, and asked people to name the vegetable. This was obviously a trick question - most named green beans or something similar, but it's obviously not. It's not even a legume.

While the concept of eating "nose to tail" on an animal is pretty trendy among restaurants, fewer consider eating root to fruit on plants. Or in this case, this is a vegetable that many Americans treat as common, when in fact, they eat only the most rarified part of the plant.

It's broccoli.

Although just about the whole plant is edible (the leaves make delicious braised greens), most people are restricted to considering at the florets, the unopened flowers of the plant. I've seen people trim off the florets, and discard the rest of the stem — all the while bemoaning how expensive vegetables are.

In time, the florets open up into pretty yellow flowers. The flowers, of course, are just as edible. But also, like any flowers, they are the reproductive parts of the plants, and can be visited by pollinators.

And after pollination, voila! The broccoli fruit:

The bowl above, of course, is the product of harvesting the pods (which are usually reserved primarily for the seeds), but it makes for an interesting vegetable, if it a little stringy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014



When it comes to food, you see that word thrown around in so many different contexts. Recent news talk about too much protein being as bad as smoking. Menus and TV shows casually reference the "protein" to be used as an ingredient for a dish or a meal. Then there are the now ubiquitous shaker bottles and a whole industry of "healthy" protein supplements for body builders. Even snack bars worry about their protein content.

So, do you know what protein is? If you want to, you can go back to the post where I explained what carbohydrates are. Spoiler alert: proteins are also chemicals.

Now that that is out of the way, if we think of  chemistry of life as a band, proteins are sort of the front man. Although the other compounds — carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids — all have their roles to play, proteins tend get a lot of the limelight. In raw chemical composition, proteins are pretty similar to carbohydrates - made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen (plus some nitrogen — that last bit isn't present in carbohydrates).  But in biochemistry, composition isn't all - the arrangement of the atoms can make dramatically different molecules.

Proteins are made from smaller units called amino acids. You'll hear this mentioned in various food products and supplements, but few people actually explain what they are. The name tells you a bit about them - it's a molecule with an amino (this is where the nitrogen goes) end and an organic acid end. What matters is that an amino end can connect to the organic acid end of another amino acid, a brief reaction happens, and the two can be linked up to form a new, bigger molecule. The linkage formed is called a peptide bond, thus, short proteins are often called peptides. Note that the new peptide still has an amino end and an organic acid end - the chain can be extended almost indefinitely as long as those two ends can form new peptide bonds.

Glutamic acid (aka glutamate) from Wikimedia Commons

Well, that's just the ends. In the middle, that's where the variation happens. Different atoms can hang off the middle part of an amino acid, resulting in a wide array of different compounds. For biological purposes, most proteins are made from just 20 kinds of amino acids strung together in various combinations. Some of these amino acids by themselves are well known - perhaps the best known is glutamate, the active component of MSG.

But you'll also often hear the term "essential amino acids". Human physiology can actually build amino acids from even smaller components, or convert them from other molecules, but there is a subset of these amino acids that can't be formed this way. We have to procure them from diet, making them "essential" to include for nutrition.

So, what do proteins do? Just like using a small set of letters, one can write a poem, a novel, a computer program, a recipe or gibberish, the set of amino acids can be linked together to form proteins that catalyze chemical reactions (enzymes), build structures like skin or hair, keep cells transparent to focus light, hook up together to move bones or heart (and consequently cars and airplanes), fold and fabricate other proteins, and all the wondrous activities of life itself. What we seek when we eat are to break down the proteins in other organisms (and yes, plants have protein, too), to salvage the pieces that our bodies can't make. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Disease, Cartels, and A Cultural Crop

For all the hullabaloo about "gourmet" food trucks and park devoted to them, rolling taquerias have been a mainstay in Houston dining - in these loncheras,  tacos come fast, flavorful and cheap, unceremoniously plopped onto the cheapest disposable plates, to be eaten while standing under the sun.

But on a recent trip to an Airline taco truck, I noticed a disturbing trend.
Note the yellowish tinge to the obligatory slice of lime. 

The tell tale seeds confirmed my suspicion: they are distributing lemons.
Surely, the Texas dining scene will not be unscathed by the sudden quadrupling of lime prices in recent weeks. Multiple factors are at play from politics to plant disease, but since Mexico provides 95% of the lime supplies in North America, this ubiquitous fruit, previously so plentiful as to be given away (and optionally discarded) is now becoming a pretty precious commodity. Hoard your lime juice, or be prepared to explore other citrus flavors. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Food blog stereotypes

I'm straying from the science a bit to post an observational piece. Here are the top 5 food blog post stereotypes:

5. Food porn articles. You know, those things that highlight pictures and videos of food as intimately as hard core porn can be. They are there to titillate your imagination. The stock in trade here is jealousy - so dining in fancy restaurants slides in there.

4. Recipe articles. Often tired rehashing of old ideas, maybe given a "healthy" twist. Not that the latter is really scientifically provable.

3. Disgust response articles. These are closely related to chemophobia articles, which basically fan ignorance to promote nonsensical memes. They can be made to sound outrageous, but if you look a little deeper, with the lens of science, it's much ado about nothing.

2. "Science-y" articles. These ones pop up every so often, written with little more than a casual reference to Wikipedia, or maybe some stray sensationalized article in the back section of a larger news site. They'll use the science-y buzzwords, but are the truthiness of the online food world. And are often so wrong, but vigorously defended.

And the No 1 stereotype....

1. Listicles.

Just don't.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The benefit of enzymes

Peeling fruit can be a laborious and painstaking task, specially if the fruit is particularly small. Fortunately, in the case of citrus, this can be accomplished by a technique called enzymatic peeling. Basically, pectin is a complex carbohydrate that is the major component of the white part of the citrus — the albedo or "pith" —and by introducing an enzyme called pectinase (various commercial food grade versions of this exist) through little holes in the rind, the pectin is digested away, leaving beautifully peeled citrus fruit. You'll have to see the pictures, which, incidentally, also leave the rind largely intact.

Then again, the act of peeling small animals, particularly vertebrates like birds or rodents, can also be laborious. Can we bring the benefits of enzymatic peeling to animal butchery? To do this, we need to understand a little bit about animal anatomy and tissue structure. Between bundles of muscle, and attaching it to the skin are the tough connective tissue collectively called the fascia. Sometimes, bacteria or other microbes can infect the fascia, resulting in its degradation - a condition called necrotizing fasciitis. More commonly, it's called the "flesh eating bacteria syndrome", because the flesh falls apart as the fascia is degraded. One of the enzymes thought be responsible is called hyaluronidase, which degrades the carbohydrate hyaluronic acid, a major component of the extracellular matrix of the fascia. Hypothetically, one can inject an animal corpse with commercial food grade hyalorunidase, and given enough time, the fascia will break down, and you can simply slip the skin off.

As a side note, hyalorunic acid serves diverse roles in a vertebrate body, from providing suppleness in skin (hence its popularity as an ingredient in many cosmetic products) to the resiliency of joints. But it also serves an important role in cancer development and prevention. The naked mole rat is the only mammal known to be immune to cancer, and it turns out that this is linked to their ability to produce a lot of hyaluronic acid. But that is also why they look the way they do - very wrinkly.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Do you even science?

The cheeseburger/salad low carb thing at The Counter in San Diego. It isn't particularly a well designed experiment. It was pretty bad. 
It doesn't take much to search out the term "I am not a science experiment" to bring up numerous images of fear mongering rallies against genetically modified organisms in food. This insinuation of nefarious experimentation is a common bromide meant to stir up conspiracy, suspicion and fear, but in reality is of course completely unfounded. But it works, in part, due to the casual way people use the word "experiment".

Often, for example, as people try things out in the kitchen, when they deviate from recipes and convention, they call that "experimenting" with the food. In fact, just bringing in anything unfamiliar, such as trying to cook the cuisine of a different culture, can be called experimentation. But in science,  "experiment" is a precise and vital function in the process.

The experiment is the process in which one tests a hypothesis. In short, one should begin with a question, and the experiment should be designed to answer that question. A well designed experiment will take as many variables as possible into consideration, and will minimize ambiguity in the result. It has a definite beginning and an ending, and at the conclusion will arrive at an explanation for the question it begins with. To do this, at least two requirements are employed: controls and replication. Controls are set isolate the question being tested from other variables. For example, if you are testing that adding extra eggs to a recipe to see if it increases tenderness, then you must also perform the same recipe without the additional eggs to compare. Ideally, a control should be performed in the same time frame.

In addition, replication is needed to ensure that against the potential for error. After all, if we have learned something, it should have predictive value, and can be repeated. This is why when someone reports testing out a new diet as "feeling better", it isn't scientifically valid. This is testimonial anecdote, and is poorly repeatable - and thus, the lowest form of scientific evidence. Even though this seems to be the form people instinctively trust - and marketers exploit it with gusto.

So, the next time someone talks about being a science experiment - or experimenting with their food - ask about the hypothesis, controls and replication. Because without those, well, it really isn't an experiment.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Until Doubled

I had a friend inquire about how I bake bread (I've documented some of the bread I bake at I explained that what is essential to good bread, in my opinion, is a long ferment time, easily 10-24 hours, as the yeast provides both the leavening and flavor. He reasoned, though, that he could cut that time in half by doubling the amount of yeast.

This, of course, will not work. And it stems from lack of understanding about using a living microbe as an ingredient.

A single celled fungus, baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) grows by budding off little daughter cells. In general, though, we measure the growth of yeast by the doubling time - that is, the average amount of time for the growing population to double, and this is about 1.5-2 hours for yeast. But this is dependent on the temperature, the type of food available, and the availability of oxygen. So, even at the simplest and most ideal case, doubling the amount of input yeast at the beginning of the ferment will only shave 2 hours off the bread making schedule.

But as in most things in science, it's more complicated than that. If you are using dried yeast powder (that stuff most people get in the stores in little packets), most of that is actually dead. The ratio of live cells in that mix goes down as time goes by (and it's worse if the powder is stored at a warm place - cold storage extends viability), so it can be pretty variable. And though the measured doubling time of yeast is 2 hours, that's usually measured at the logarithmic phase of growth, when the cells are already happily chugging along.
The growth curve of yeast. From

But as we begin from inoculation, there's a lag phase when the cells come out of sleep and need to get metabolically active. Some bread baking techniques try to make the process more predictable by doing a pre-ferment (sometimes called a sponge or a biga), where a loose batter is prepared with the yeast and allowed to ferment overnight. The actual bread baking then uses the sponge as the inoculum and part of the liquid to get a big charge of live cells, shortening the ferment time for the baking phase. But it doesn't really do away with the preferment period, it just takes it out of the equation.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bute and Meat

The 2014 Winter Olympics are underway in Sochi, Russia, rife with controversy around the proximity to the Chechen insurgency and recently anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia. But food for Olympic level athletes is itself a weird mix of science, superstition, and sacrifice. 

For a competitive athlete, the diet can be complicated to deal with. In contrast to the average person, the rigors of training puts enormous demands on the athlete's body. Coupled with the competitive nature of sport that seeks to find any advantage not explicitly outlawed by the rules, and it creates an atmosphere ripe for exploitation.

Not commenting on the superstitious nature of dietary supplements (that's fodder for another day), but one of the challenges for professional athletes is being able to feed themselves while traveling. It's difficult enough to find prescribed dishes in places like airports, but meat is a particular problem when going to another country. The culprit is contamination by clenbuterol (street name "bute"), which is a hormone-like drug that can be used to boost aerobic capacity (albeit with side effects). Athletes aiming for Olympic qualification are routinely tested for clenbuterol use, and the FDA has banned the use of clenbuterol in animals destined for human consumption. However, it doesn't mean that other countries comply with this rule.

In fact, clenbuterol is most often used as an anti-asthmatic in horses, and can be used to produce leaner pork. But eating meat from such animals can result in athletes testing positive for clenbuterol, and contesting such a finding is most charitably described as "complicated". So, to avoid this, very often US athletes traveling in countries like China may opt to not eat the local fare, a sad irony given that one of the great pleasures of travel is sharing food with the locals.