Printing a menu May 22, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
Here is an instance of two separate threads of technology coming together. First, I have blogged here before on the prospects for including insects in western food. This measure makes quite a bit of sense: Insects are a good source of protein and can be raised much more efficiently than our conventional food animals. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has recent argued that insects will become essential to food security in future.
One of the main difficulties facing such plans is the “yuck factor”. That is, consumers in many countries find (deliberate) consumption of insects to be disgusting. So far, the most obvious plan to address this issue is to design high-end foods that disguise the insects or make it chic to consume them, e.g., the Ento box.
Another approach would be to reduce them to an invisible component of food manufacturing. This possibility is raised by the advent of 3D food printers. Quartz reports on a grant from NASA received by Anjan Contractor to develop 3D food printers for use in space vehicles. Providing astronauts with food that is light, non-perishable, nourishing and interesting is a challenge (think “Tang“). Having a machine that could use a small set of basic ingredients and turn out a variety of food types would certainly help to address this need. For example, a pizza would lend itself to this treatment:
Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building it within two weeks. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.
Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.
In fact—and here is the connection—the basic ingredients for the printer could be almost anything, including: algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leafs, and insects!
All sorts of worthy food stocks that are efficient to produce but are held in low regard might be suitable for food printing. The implication, as Contractor realizes, is that food printing could be used to help address the nutrition needs of an ever-increasing world population. Of course, this plan would require some substantial changes in how food is made and distributed. For example, the plan would not work if everyone had to have their own 3D printer. Instead, this technique would have to be adapted to the needs of industrial food production. In that case, we would have to avoid the tendency of industrial food to lean so heavily on the salt, sugar, and fat. Also, many consumers would have to adjust their cultural expectations about cuisine, that is, what things are fit or unfit to eat.
Perhaps such a transition would be made easier if the ingredient in question were simply a non-distinct protein layer in a pizza.
Antibiotics and food April 18, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent NPR posting discusses a study of some effects of antibiotic use in farms. Modern meat production makes extensive use of feedlots or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, as they are known in the US). The concentration of animals in these facilities creates a challenge to the animals’ health: Being so crowded together for extended periods can lead to epidemic infections and thus loss of product. To mitigate this challenge to the animals’ immune systems, farmers often administer antibiotics to their stock.
(Socially Responsible Agricultural Project/Flickr.com)
One result is that the cost of meat is kept lower than it would be otherwise. As we already know from the pink slime situation, Americans love cheap meat, “and when they don’t get it, there’s hell to pay.”
Another result, already known, is that the use of antibiotics on farms breeds bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics. These bacteria then become concentrated in the vicinity of the feedlots. This most recent study suggests that, in addition, the bacteria find their way into Americans’ food:
EWG researchers found that 53 percent of raw chicken samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Resistant salmonella was also common on the meat samples: Of all the salmonella found on the chicken samples, some 74 percent were antibiotic-resistant. And 26 percent of the chicken tested positive for resistant Campylobacter.
The study does not assess the health impact of this transmission, but there is a clear possibility that people will be exposed to potentially harmful bacteria in this way.
A recent posting pointed out an unintended consequence of self-parking cars. It seems we have here an unintended consequence of augmenting the immune systems of food animals, namely that their meat could act as a vector of infection by antibiotic-resistant germs.
High-tech soup bowl February 7, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, Uncategorized , comments closed
From FastCompany comes this piece on the Anti Loneliness Ramen Bowl (ALRB). As a look at the picture suggests, the ostensible purpose of the bowl is to allow people to eat their miso soup without missing a Tweet.
Taken at face value, this design would seem to qualify as a gimmick, that is, a design that is more clever than it is useful. Of course, the design may not be intended seriously. The article suggests that the bowl is, in fact, “a wry commentary on the complex relationship between food and phone.” Perhaps, then, it should be compared to Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif. The JS is ostensibly a lemon squeezer but not a particularly good one (by most accounts).
Instead, the JS was deliberately made as a conversation piece and even a invitation to ponder your decisions as a consumer. (Do you want a useful implement to squeeze lemons or an artwork to show off to visitors? Why?)
So, is the purpose of the ALRBs really to facilitate (or even give you permission) to watch your iPhone while eating, or is it to invite you to ponder the secondary role that food occupies during wired meals? Let me put the question another way: Would you buy them? Why, or why not?
Authentic olive oil December 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I discussed earlier an NPR report on controversy over the authenticity of Greek yogurts. Recently, NPR has posted an interesting article discussing similar concerns about extra-virgin olive oil. If you are like me, when you think of olive oil, you think of Italy or Greece. Those countries are where “real” or “authentic” olive oil originates. Of course, many other countries produce olive oil, including the US. However, consumers will pay a hefty premium for olive oils that they consider authentic, especially Italian oil.
As you probably suspect by now, the claims that you may see on containers of olive oil may be misleading, according to Tom Mueller, author of Extra virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. He claims that many imported products labelled as extra-virgin fail to meet the definition of that quality. In fact, products may not even be actual olive oil:
[Tom Mueller] showed how the world’s most ubiquitous luxury food didn’t only fail to meet the “extra virgin” standard, but in many cases wasn’t made from olives at all. Rogue chemists had learned to disguise tanker ships full of low-grade soybean oil and even lamp fuel so that it could pass for the highest grade of olive oil, Mr. Mueller revealed. Even such multinationals as Unilever, Nestlé and Bertolli sold “extra virgin” olive oil that was anything but.
Mueller adds that olive oils that are labelled as Italian may actually originate from other countries and have merely passed through an Italian port on their way to world markets.
US producers are complaining to the U.S. International Trade Commission about these practices, which put them at an unfair disadvantage in competition against Italian producers. Those producers, represented here by the North American Olive Oil Association argue that evidence supporting these complaints is biased.
Canadians, it turns out, are not in such a vulnerable position. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is fairly serious about enforcing standards for imported oils according to Mueller. Even so, we are not immune to being mislead, he adds:
The good news about Canada is, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is very serious about olive oil. They do an excellent job of policing the market, and they’ve been doing it for over a decade. Despite the fact that everyone in the industry knows that the Canadian market is very well policed, they still turn up substantial percentages of fraudulent oil.
Mueller advises consumers to find stores that specialize in good olive oils, and to check the oils for recent harvest dates. The fresher the oil, the better the quality.
Like sincerity, authenticity is great especially if you can fake it.
Faux foods news December 4, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
There has been mixed news in the faux food file. The first item concerns the news that Hostess is going out of business. The maker of the iconic Twinkie snack can no longer make it in the marketplace. Opinion is divided as to the cause: The Economist blames unions, Salon blames vulture capitalists, whereas The Atlantic opts for a complex story. All seem to agree, however, that the Twinkie will be back after some other producer buys up the bakeries and the rights.
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia commons)
I will spare you my opinion of Twinkies. I have never eaten one, to my recollection. They do, however, seem to epitomize what Michael Pollan calls edible foodlike substances, that is, highly processed and synthetic foods that could be made only in a factory and not a regular kitchen. That distinction is a technological one but telling nevertheless.
My favorite Twinkie moment comes in an episode of The Simpsons where an angry Kwikie Mart customer crushes a Twinkie before walking out. Apu calls out, “Silly customer! You cannot hurt a Twinkie!” as the confection spontaneously pops back into its uncrushed state.
In any event, there is a yin to every yang in the universe. And so it is with faux foods. Huffington Post reports that Smuckers has introduced “maple bacon syrup”. The official name of the confection is “Smucker’s maple bacon artificially flavored syrup”, “artificial” because the ingredients include neither maple nor bacon. Indeed, the ingredients list is:
Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, natural and artificial flavor, salt, caramel color.
What is natural about the natural flavors remains mysterious.
I had thought that the bacon-flavored faux food idea had already reached its apogee (or nadir) with Baconnaise, a marriage of mayonnaise and artificial bacon flavor that Jon Stewart ridiculed by using it as a dip for a pancake-wrapped sausage-on-a-stick. The result was a gag in both senses of the term.
However, sales of Baconnaise apparently took off after Stewart’s jape:
“Phenomenal press! The exposure we got on ‘The Daily Show’ trumped all of that combined. Online sales went up by a factor of five or six right after the show,” [co-inventor Dave] Lefkow said.
I wonder if Smuckers hopes that Stewart will take a similar dislike to their new offering.
If there is a point to all this, then perhaps it concerns the debate over whether or not “Big Food” can wean itself off its dependency on foodlike substances, given how they tend to negatively affect the health of their customers. Speaking for the world’s purveyors of diabetes-inducing drinks, Derek Yach of PepsiCo argued that the food industry is turning its ship around, slowly:
Just as energy companies once were focused just on selling more oil, “the multinational food and beverage business model have favored quantity over quality,” he admitted. And just as energy companies are now investing in green energy, the food industry is starting to realize “that this must change if if is to survive and prosper. I witnessed the intensity of change while at PepsiCo for the last five years.”
That would be news indeed! However, I am not sure that even Big Food itself can hurt a Twinkie.
Natural foods November 23, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
There is a nice article by Daniel Engber at Slate on the topic of what makes a food “natural” or not. The issue arises in the context of a lawsuit by a Colorado woman against Pepperidge Farms alleging that the description on the package describing Cheddar Goldfish Crackers as “natural” is misleading. More specifically, her complaint is that the soy in the product is genetically modified. Thus, it contains genes that would not “normally” be present.
Engber does a good job of analyzing the problems with the term “natural” when applied to food. If “natural” means the opposite of “artificial”, then any processed food would not be natural. That would include Goldfish Crackers for sure but also Annie’s organic Cheddar Bunnies. These foods would be considered artificial because they are made through a mechanized process, so anything not hand-made would not be considered natural.
Of course, you could go further if you insist that “artificial” excludes anything that is hand-made also. Thus, the hand-made sushi, pasta, and salsa that you might find in the gourmet section of the grocery store would have to be considered unnatural on this definition. Only unprocessed fruits, nuts, and vegetables would qualify. If this is your standard of “natural” (and why not?), then you should shop at a farmers’ market.
As Engber points out, “artificial” could be pushed even further to denote all the products of domestication. Thus, apples, wheat, and chicken, among other items, would not be considered natural. All of these are the fruits, if you like, of artificial selection, thus making them artificial as well. On this view, the only natural foods are those that are “wild”, that is, picked or shot in the open (unless shooting and skinning count as processing, which they might).
The US FDA has consistently declined to define “natural”, as Engber notes. About 20 years ago, the agency issued “an advisory opinion—as opposed to a binding regulation—saying only that natural foods are those that lack ‘artificial or synthetic’ additives.” Of course, this approach is of no use. It says that a product is natural so long as none of its parts are artificial, a circular definition. However, this definition speaks to the main concern of the FDA, which has been with the authenticity of foods. A hamburger is not a “true” hamburger, I would say, if it contains chicken as well as beef. Calling a chicken-burger a hamburger would indeed be misleading. Since authenticity has nothing to do with naturalness, the FDA sees little point in regulating the latter term.
In this case, it seems useless to define “natural” in opposition to “artificial”. I imagine that the notion of “natural” in play here is in opposition to “technology”, where “technology” means “whatever was invented after I grew up.” Since GE crops for agriculture have been around for only a decade or two (at a large scale), they are not “natural” for many folks. Clearly, this definition is not useful for labeling purposes, since what would be natural for one person would not be natural for another. Instead, this definition reveals not luddism but a cautious attitude towards new things.
Where do these considerations leave us? Given all of its senses, the term “natural” is a confusing one. Perhaps it should be banned from food descriptions universally for that reason. After all, we do have more accurate alternatives such as “authentic”, “hand-made”, or “wild” that are somewhat clearer. It might also be an idea to come up with a system that describes, in broad terms, the technologies used to process a given food. That could be educational, as people are often surprised to find out how their food is made.
Plagues of locusts…soon at a store near you September 21, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have blogged previously about the case for eating insects. This practice, which is common in some places in the world, is not widespread in the West. However, it may be a solution to rising problems of increasing demand for food mass in general and meat in particular.
It turns out that there is a group of designers, Ento, from the Innovation Design Engineering group at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, who have a plan to introduce insects into the Western diet. A central part of the plan is the design of foods that present insect meal in the form of cubes, giving them the form of Bento, which is a kind of Japanese cuisine now popular in Western countries. (So, “Ento” is a kind of portmanteau of “Bento” and “Entomology”.)
Once the disguised insect meal has been accepted in the form of Bento, then insect cuisine can enter the marketplace in its honest form.
It appears, then, that Ento means to apply the MAYA principle described by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy. That is, Ento means to introduce people to a new technology, that is, insect food, in a form that they currently find acceptable, that is, Bento. In future, when the new technology is accepted, designers can explore novel forms that are truer to the new ingredients. Besides packages of raw bugs in the refrigerated section, I wonder what those forms will be?
McDonalds now counting calories September 13, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From NPR comes the news that McDonalds will post calorie counts with its menus in all its US locations. The move comes in advance of government regulations that may well require McDonalds and other restaurants to do so anyway. Spokespeople for the chain restaurant say that their pre-emptive move is meant to respond to customer demand, and to help educate their customers as well.
If the change is intended to help people reduce their caloric intake, then it may be doomed to failure. Studies of meal orders in restaurants that already post calorie counts reveal that customer choices do not change significantly. The same is true for McDonalds itself, in cities where the restaurant has already made this move:
In U.S. cities such as New York and Philadelphia where posting calorie information is already required, however, Fields [president of McDonald's USA] notes that the information has not changed what customers choose to order.
“When it’s all said and done, the menu mix doesn’t change,” she said. “But I do think people feel better knowing this information.”
It seems that most people understand that they might be healthier if they did reduce their caloric intake. However, merely counting calories is evidently not sufficient to change the way people eat. There are at least a couple of reasons why this might be:
- Eating patterns are habits that may be hard to break. (Just ask Pavlov’s dog.) The environment within a McDonalds restaurant is well designed to sell food, and repeat customers become used to eating there in a certain way, perhaps re-ordering their favorite items. Merely posting calorie counts does not change the situation profoundly.
- Customers can always re-contextualize the calorie counts. Instead of taking them as diet advice, people can reconstrue calorie counts as a reminder of the reason they came to McDonalds in the first place: To gratify a craving for junk food. As one man remarked in the report, “I don’t come to McDonalds to eat healthy.” As a result, the counts could simply reinforce the behavior they are meant to inhibit.
So, as an exercise in education, meaning a mere transfer of information, the calorie postings will work. As a means of changing people’s behavior for the better, they probably will not.
(Find more postings about McDonalds!)
Vegan meat June 15, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From the Huffington Post comes news of “Beyond meat”, a vegan meat startup funded by Evan Williams and Biz Stone, co-founders of Twitter. The aim of the company is to mass-produce meat substitutes based on plant tissues.
Why? For starters, Stone is a vegan and this venture will help to promote a vegan lifestyle for those who cannot live without their chicken tacos. Also, although the article does not pursue this matter, the meat-based diet popular in the Western world is not sustainable. Basically, turning edible plant matter into meat prior to human consumption is inefficient and creates associated externalities of waste and greenhouse gases. So, the hope is that producing “meat” directly from plant matter will address these issues that arise with the genuine article.
Does it taste like chicken? Reports suggest the new product is neither tasty nor offensive which, one would think, makes it perfect for processed food production.
Only one issue remains. What to call the fake meat? If it is going to sell, it needs some better branding and that starts with a good handle.
- The most obvious name would be “fake meat”. However, drawing attention to its fakeness seems like a bad idea. Who would eat margarine if it were called “imitation butter” (as Michael Pollan notes)? The same goes for mock meat, faux meat, and meat analogue!
- In some cases, I would suggest the term “mismeat”. This name conveys the happy thought, for meat eaters, that one might easily mistake the product for real meat. Of course, few fake meats rise to that standard, so the name might instead be construed as an admission that eating it instead of meat is a mistake.
- Another tactic is to call the fake meat “veggie-meat”, so that fake chicken would be called “veggie chicken”, for example. This nomenclature seems to work, and “veggie dogs” and “veggie burgers” have become common coinage in our household on those occasions when we eat the stuff.
- Stone seems to favor “vegan meat”. However, that name sounds too much like an oxymoron, like the proverbial “business ethics” or “airline food”.
The basic problem with all these names is that they concede the second-rate status of the material. A meat substitute remains an imitation of the real thing, not something to be sought out for its own sake. Instead, we need to Think different. Therefore, I suggest “iFood”!
Chew your food! May 25, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An interesting article in this week’s Science discusses the interaction between diet and teeth in human history (registration required). The article summarizes some work presented at a conference on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws: Implications for Dentistry and Orthodontics,” National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, 28–30 March, Durham, North Carolina.
Some of the results presented do not surprise. For example, a comparative study of dental hygiene in two Maya villages in the northern Yucatan shows that a modern diet is bad for your teeth:
Young adults in the town of Dzilam González had three times as many cavities as those who live in a poorer, more isolated village nearby where people can’t afford soft drinks every day, according to a new study. In the poorer village, people eat a traditional diet of maize tortillas at every meal. The richer village has a pizzeria in its central square, shops with ads for soft drinks, dentists’ offices—and significantly more tooth decay in people aged 20 to 30….
Clearly, the refined sugars present in quantity in modern foods increase the risk of cavities.
The history of these refined sugars is less well known. It seems that they were introduced to the West from the Middle East as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their use increased steadily, to the detriment of the teeth of Europeans:
But the biggest spike was from 1800 to 1850, when Britain took control of the West Indies and imported far more sugar than previously. Sugar helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, which was a transition from an agriculture-based economy to a machine-based economy. In 1874, the British reduced the tax on sugar, and it became available to all social classes. “In London, mostly 1800 onwards, they have absolutely dreadful teeth,” Hillson says.
More surprising is the relation of diet to occlusion, the way in which the upper and lower teeth interface. Youth eating an industrial diet are known not merely for cavities but also for overbite, where the upper teeth overlap the lower ones. It seems that this condition may also be related to the Western diet. Our preference for processed foods means that we do not need to chew as hard as our ancestors did. However, chewing seems to stimulate the growth of the lower jaw:
Chewing stresses stimulate growth of alveolar bone, the thin layer of bone surrounding the roots of teeth, which causes children’s lower jaws to grow more robust and longer, with little overbite or malocclusion. As a result, when the ancient Egyptians closed their jaws, their upper and lower incisors (the four front teeth) met in an edge-to-edge bite, with good spacing between the teeth in their robust faces. People today, who eat softer foods, have a “scissors configuration” bite, in which the upper incisors protrude over the lower incisors, because the lower jaw is smaller than the upper one.
From this story, I infer that the common requirement for braces in Western children also stems from the design of our foods, our preference for soft foods especially.
On the whole, it appears that our teeth are designed for a diet of coarse, non-sweet foods but that we have developed a preference for soft, sugary foods. The result is an elevated risk of cavities and misaligned teeth, and the subsequent technological response of dentistry.
Naturally, the deployment of this technology is influenced by culture. Consider the stereotype of bad British teeth referenced by The Simpsons. The Guardian explains that the crookedness of British teeth relative to American teeth may be the result of different cosmetic sensitivities. In short, Americans set more stock in having a model smile, whereas the British consider it vain. Thus, braces are deployed more in North America, so that children there can have the smartest smiles.
So, our teeth tell quite an interesting story about our culture, in which our technologies of food and dentistry play a central role.