Tag Archives: food

MondayMap: Food Rhythms

rhythm-of-food-screenshot

OK, I admit it. Today’s article is not strictly about a map, but I couldn’t resist these fascinating data visualizations. The graphic show some of the patterns and trends that can be derived from the vast mountains of data gathered from Google searches. A group of designers and data scientists from Truth & Beauty teamed up with Google News Labs to produce a portfolio of charts that show food and drink related searches over the last 12 years.

The visual above shows a clear spike in cocktail related searches in December (for entertaining during holiday season). Interestingly Searches for a “Tom Collins” have increased since 2004 whereas those for “Martini” have decreased in number. A more recent phenomenon on the cocktail scene seems to be the “Moscow Mule”.

Since most of the searches emanated in the United States the resulting charts show some fascinating changes in the nation’s collective nutritional mood. While some visualizations confirm the obvious — fruit searches peak when in season; pizza is popular year round — some  specific insights are more curious:

  • Orange Jell-O [“jelly” for my British readers] is popular for US Thanksgiving.
  • Tamale searches peak around Christmas.
  • Pumpkin spice latte searches increase in the fall, but searches are peaking earlier each year.
  • Superfood searches are up; fat-free searches are down.
  • Nacho searches peak around Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Cauliflower may be the new Kale.

You can check out much more from this gorgeous data visualization project at The Rhythm of Food.

Image: Screenshot from Rhythm of Food. Courtesy: Rhythm of Food.

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In Search of the Perfect 100-Year-Old Sandwich

up-to-date-sandwich-book

Cultures the world-over have been wrapping edible delicacies in bread for thousands of years. But for some reason English-speaking nations attribute this concoction to John Montagu, the 18th century 4th Earl of Sandwich. Legend has it that he would demand that his serving staff deliver slices of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could eat one-handed and continue playing his favorite card games and gamble without interruption.

In honor of this remarkable invention, and with apologies to the real inventor(s) and the many precursors to the modern sandwich, the Public Domain Review has published, “The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich“, by Eva Green Fuller in 1909.

Check out the yummy egg sandwiches beginning on page 31. While I’m dubious about some of the fishy sandwiches the author is certainly correct on the first prerequisite for a good sandwich, “perfect bread in suitable condition”.

From Public Domain Review:

Although the sandwich became well established in England, the uptake in the US was a little slow (perhaps in opposition to their former rulers), a sandwich recipe not appearing in an American cookbook until 1815. By 1909 it was a different story, as the wonderfully no-nonsense Up-To-Date Sandwich Book featured here can attest to, a popularity no doubt linked to what made the food form soar amongst the working classes of the British industrial revolution — it was fast, portable, and cheap. As the subtitle betrays, no less than four hundred different sandwiches are detailed in the book.

Image: The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich (1909). Courtesy: Public Domain Review.

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Lab-Grown Beef and Zombie Cows

Cow-Dartmoor-England

Writer and student of philosophy Rhys Southan provides some food for thought in his essay over at Aeon on the ethics of eating meat. The question is simple enough: would our world be better if humans ate only lab-grown meat or meat from humanely raised farm animals?

The answer may not be as simple or as black and white as you first thought. For instance, were we to move to 100 percent lab-grown beef, it is likely that there would be a far reduced need, if any, for real cattle. Thus, we’d be depriving an entire species from living and experiencing some degree of sentience and happiness. Or, if we were to retain some cows, but only in the wild, wouldn’t that be tantamount to torture for a domestic animal raised for millennia in domesticity? This might actually be worse than allowing cows to graze on humane farms for a good portion of their lives before being humanely killed — if there is such a thing — and readied for our plates.

From Aeon:

Three years ago, a televised taste test of a lab-grown burger proved it was possible to grow a tiny amount of edible meat in a lab. This flesh was never linked to any central nervous system, and so there was none of the pain, boredom and fear that usually plague animals unlucky enough to be born onto our farms. That particular burger coalesced in a substrate of foetal calf serum, but the goal is to develop an equally effective plant-based solution so that a relatively small amount of animal cells can serve as the initial foundation for glistening mounds of brainless flesh in vats – meat without the slaughter.

For many cultured-meat advocates, a major motive is the reduction of animal suffering. Vat meat avoids both the good and the bad of the mixed blessing that is sentient existence. Since the lives of animals who become our food are mostly a curse, producing mindless, unfeeling flesh to replace factory farming is an ethical (as well as literal) no-brainer.

A trickier question is whether the production of non-sentient flesh should replace what I will call ‘low-suffering animal farming’ – giving animals good lives while still raising them for food. Ideally, farmed animals would be spared the routine practices that cause severe pain: dehorning, castration, artificial insemination, branding, the separation of mothers from calves for early weaning, and long, cramped truck rides to slaughterhouses. But even in its Platonic form, low-suffering animal farming has detractors. If we give farm animals good lives, it presumably means that they like their lives and want to keep living – so how do we justify killing them just to enjoy the tastes and textures of meat? By avoiding all the good aspects of subjective experience, growing faceless flesh in vats also escapes this objection. Since vat meat cannot have any experiences at all, we don’t take a good life away by eating it.

This could avoid what many see as the fatal contradiction of humane animal farming: it commits us to treating animals with love and kindness… before slashing their throats so that we can devour their insides. It’s not the most compassionate end to a mutually respectful cross-species friendship. However, conscientiously objecting to low-suffering animal husbandry can be paradoxical as well. Those who want plants and nerveless animal cells to replace all animal farming because they think it wrong to kill happy creatures seem to believe that life for these farmed animals is such a good thing that it’s a shame for them to lose it – and so we should never create their lives at all. They love sentience so much, they want this to be a less sentient world.

So, which of these awkward positions has more going for it? In order to figure this out, I’m afraid we’ll need a thought experiment involving, well, zombie cows.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Highland cow, in southern Dartmoor, England, 2009. Courtesy: Nilfanion / Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Farm in a Box

Freight-FarmsIf you’ve read my blog for a while you undoubtedly know that I have a rather jaded view of tech startup culture — particularly with Silicon Valley’s myopic obsession for discovering the next multi-billion dollar mobile-consumer-facing-peer-to-peer-gig-economy-service-sharing-buzzword-laden-dating-platform-with-integrated-messaging-and-travel-meta-search app.

So, here’s something refreshing and different. A startup focused on reimagining the production and distribution of fresh food. The company is called Freight Farms, their product: a self-contained farm straight out of a box. Actually the farm is contained inside a box — a standard, repurposed 40 ft long shipping container. Each Leafy Green Machine, as it is called, comes fully equipped with a vertically-oriented growing environment, plant-optimized LED lighting, recirculating hydroponic plumbing and finger-tip climate control.

Freight Farms may not (yet) make a significant impact on the converging and accelerating global crises of population growth, climate change, ecological destruction and natural resource depletion. But the company offers a sound solution to tackling the increasing demand for locally grown and sustainably produced food, especially as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.

Please check out Freight Farms and spread the word.

Image: Freight Farms. Courtesy: Freight Farms.

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Nutella Hacks

nutella-with-icecream

I come from a long line of Nutella lovers; parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids, grandparents all feasted on this wonderful, deliciously gooey (and unhealthy) hazelnut spread. And, like all other Nutella fans I have often pondered how to extricate the last remaining dribs and drabs from the jar — fans will know that the jar’s shape does not make this easy. So, when I found this article listing 5 key strategies for getting every last drop I couldn’t resist reposting a short excerpt for all other Nutella nuts. (You’ll have to read the full article to learn more tips.) Then you’ll wonder why you or your kids never thought of these important life lessons. Duh!

Tip Number 2 From the Telegraph:

Fill the jar with ice cream

A tip from the helpful LifeProTips community over on Reddit: “Put a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream in the jar and mix it around for a bit.” As the ice cream melts, it’ll take some of the Nutella with it and you’ll have a chocolate covered sundae. Just make sure the Nutella is fairly warm to begin with, otherwise it won’t work properly.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nutella with ice cream. Courtesy: Reddit/imgur.

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Forget Broccoli. It’s All About the Blue Zones

You should know how to live to be 100 years old by now. Tip number one: inherit good genes. Tip number two: forget uploading your consciousness to an AI, for now. Tip number three: live and eat in a so-called Blue Zone. Tip number four: walk fast, eat slowly.

From the NYT:

Dan Buettner and I were off to a good start. He approved of coffee.

“It’s one of the biggest sources of antioxidants in the American diet,” he said with chipper confidence, folding up his black Brompton bike.

As we walked through Greenwich Village, looking for a decent shot of joe to fuel an afternoon of shopping and cooking and talking about the enigma of longevity, he pointed out that the men and women of Icaria, a Greek island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, regularly slurp down two or three muddy cups a day.

This came as delightful news to me. Icaria has a key role in Mr. Buettner’s latest book, “The Blue Zones Solution,” which takes a deep dive into five places around the world where people have a beguiling habit of forgetting to die. In Icaria they stand a decent chance of living to see 100. Without coffee, I don’t see much point in making it to 50.

The purpose of our rendezvous was to see whether the insights of a longevity specialist like Mr. Buettner could be applied to the life of a food-obsessed writer in New York, a man whose occupational hazards happen to include chicken wings, cheeseburgers, martinis and marathon tasting menus.

Covering the world of gastronomy and mixology during the era of David Chang (career-defining dish: those Momofuku pork-belly buns) and April Bloomfield (career-defining dish: the lamb burger at the Breslin Bar and Dining Room) does not exactly feel like an enterprise that’s adding extra years to my life — or to my liver.

And the recent deaths (even if accidental) of men in my exact demographic — the food writer Joshua Ozersky, the tech entrepreneur Dave Goldberg — had put me in a mortality-anxious frame of mind.

With my own half-century mark eerily visible on the horizon, could Mr. Buettner, who has spent the last 10 years unlocking the mysteries of longevity, offer me a midcourse correction?

To that end, he had decided to cook me something of a longevity feast. Visiting from his home in Minnesota and camped out at the townhouse of his friends Andrew Solomon and John Habich in the Village, this trim, tanned, 55-year-old guru of the golden years was geared up to show me that living a long time was not about subsisting on a thin gruel of, well, gruel.

After that blast of coffee, which I dutifully diluted with soy milk (as instructed) at O Cafe on Avenue of the Americas, Mr. Buettner and I set forth on our quest at the aptly named LifeThyme market, where signs in the window trumpeted the wonders of wheatgrass. He reassured me, again, by letting me know that penitent hedge clippings had no place in our Blue Zones repast.

“People think, ‘If I eat more of this, then it’s O.K. to eat more burgers or candy,’ ” he said. Instead, as he ambled through the market dropping herbs and vegetables into his basket, he insisted that our life-extending banquet would hinge on normal affordable items that almost anyone can pick up at the grocery store. He grabbed fennel and broccoli, celery and carrots, tofu and coconut milk, a bag of frozen berries and a can of chickpeas and a jar of local honey.

The five communities spotlighted in “The Blue Zones Solution” (published by National Geographic) depend on simple methods of cooking that have evolved over centuries, and Mr. Buettner has developed a matter-of-fact disregard for gastro-trends of all stripes. At LifeThyme, he passed by refrigerated shelves full of vogue-ish juices in hues of green, orange and purple. He shook his head and said, “Bad!”

“The glycemic index on that is as bad as Coke,” he went on, snatching a bottle of carrot juice to scan the label. “For eight ounces, there’s 14 grams of sugar. People get suckered into thinking, ‘Oh, I’m drinking this juice.’ Skip the juicing. Eat the fruit. Or eat the vegetable.” (How about a protein shake? “No,” he said.)

So far, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of making it to 100. I love coffee, I’m not much of a juicer and I’ve never had a protein shake in my life. Bingo. I figured that pretty soon Mr. Buettner would throw me a dietary curveball (I noticed with vague concern that he was not putting any meat or cheese into his basket), but by this point I was already thinking about how fun it would be to meet my great-grandchildren.

I felt even better when he and I started talking about strenuous exercise, which for me falls somewhere between “root canal” and “Justin Bieber concert” on the personal aversion scale.

I like to go for long walks, and … well, that’s about it.

“That’s when I knew you’d be O.K.,” Mr. Buettner told me.

It turns out that walking is a popular mode of transport in the Blue Zones, too — particularly on the sun-splattered slopes of Sardinia, Italy, where many of those who make it to 100 are shepherds who devote the bulk of each day to wandering the hills and treating themselves to sips of red wine.

“A glass of wine is better than a glass of water with a Mediterranean meal,” Mr. Buettner told me.

Red wine and long walks? If that’s all it takes, people, you’re looking at Methuselah.

O.K., yes, Mr. Buettner moves his muscles a lot more than I do. He likes to go everywhere on that fold-up bike, which he hauls along with him on trips, and sometimes he does yoga and goes in-line skating. But he generally believes that the high-impact exercise mania as practiced in the major cities of the United States winds up doing as much harm as good.

“You can’t be pounding your joints with marathons and pumping iron,” he said. “You’ll never see me doing CrossFit.”

For that evening’s meal, Mr. Buettner planned to cook dishes that would make reference to the quintet of places that he focuses on in “The Blue Zones Solution”: along with Icaria and Sardinia, they are Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, Calif., where Seventh-day Adventists have a tendency to outlive their fellow Americans, thanks to a mostly vegetarian diet that is heavy on nuts, beans, oatmeal, 100 percent whole-grain bread and avocados.

We walked from the market to the townhouse. And it was here, as Mr. Buettner laid out his cooking ingredients on a table in Mr. Solomon’s and Mr. Habich’s commodious, state-of-the-art kitchen, that I noticed the first real disconnect between the lives of the Blue Zones sages and the life of a food writer who has enjoyed many a lunch hour scarfing down charcuterie, tapas and pork-belly-topped ramen at the Gotham West Market food court.

Where was the butter? Hadn’t some nice scientists determined that butter’s not so lethal for us, after all? (“My view is that butter, lard and other animal fats are a bit like radiation: a dollop a couple of times a week probably isn’t going to hurt you, but we don’t know the safe level,” Mr. Buettner later wrote in an email. “At any rate, I can send along a paper that largely refutes the whole ‘Butter is Back’ craze.” No, thanks, I’m good.)

Where was the meat? Where was the cheese? (No cheese? And here I thought we’d be friends for another 50 years, Mr. Buettner.)

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Cuisine Cartography

map-US-state-food

Love food? Love maps? You’re in the right place. What could be better than a story that combines both. To peripheral watchers of America and those who believe fast food is America’s national treasure, it may come as a surprise to see that many US states show very different tastes in cuisine, and some quite exotic.

The map shows cuisines that are the most common in each state barring the national average, which is probably pizza. Asian food mostly dominates the west coast, but Oregon does it’s own thing, of course (food stands). Coloradans maintain their health and fitness bent by favoring gluten-free foods, while Texans still love their tex-mex. There are some fascinating surprises: peruvian food tops the list in Virginia and Maryland; Vermont and Idaho prefer gastropubs; and West Virginia craves hot dogs.

Read more here.

Map courtesy of Huffington Post / Yelp.

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Nuts About Nutella

nutella

Connoisseurs of Nutella — that wonderful concoction of hazelnuts and chocolate — are celebrating 50 years of the iconic Italian spread. Here’s to the next 50 bites, sorry years! Say no more.

From the Guardian:

In Piedmont they have been making gianduiotto, a confectionery combining hazelnuts and cocoa sold in a pretty tinfoil wrapper, since the mid-18th century. They realised long ago that the nuts, which are plentiful in the surrounding hills, are a perfect match for chocolate. But no one had any idea that their union would prove so harmonious, lasting and fruitful. Only after the second world war was this historic marriage finally sealed.

Cocoa beans are harder to come by and, consequently, more expensive. Pietro Ferrero, an Alba-based pastry cook, decided to turn the problem upside down. Chocolate should not be allowed to dictate its terms. By using more nuts and less cocoa, one could obtain a product that was just as good and not as costly. What is more, it would be spread.

Nutella, one of the world’s best-known brands, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Alba last month. In telling the story of this chocolate spread, it’s difficult to avoid cliches: a success story emblematic of Italy’s postwar recovery, the tale of a visionary entrepreneur and his perseverance, a business model driven by a single product.

The early years were spectacular. In 1946 the Ferrero brothers produced and sold 300kg of their speciality; nine months later output had reached 10 tonnes. Pietro stayed at home making the spread. Giovanni went to market across Italy in his little Fiat. In 1948 Ferrero, now a limited company, moved into a 5,000 sq metre factory equipped to produce 50 tonnes of gianduiotto a month.

By 1949 the process was nearing perfection, with the launch of the “supercrema” version, which was smoother and stuck more to the bread than the knife. It was also the year Pietro died. He did not live long enough to savour his triumph.

His son Michele was driven by the same obsession with greater spreadability. Under his leadership Ferrero became an empire. But it would take another 15 years of hard work and endless experiments before finally, in 1964, Nutella was born.

The firm now sells 365,000 tonnes of Nutella a year worldwide, the biggest consumers being the Germans, French, Italians and Americans. The anniversary was, of course, the occasion for a big promotional operation. At a gathering in Rome last month, attended by two government ministers, journalists received a 1kg jar marked with the date and a commemorative Italian postage stamp. It is an ideal opportunity for Ferrero – which also owns the Tic Tac, Ferrero Rocher, Kinder and Estathé brands, among others – to affirm its values and rehearse its well-established narrative.

There are no recent pictures of the patriarch Michele, who divides his time between Belgium and Monaco. According to Forbes magazine he was worth $9.5bn in 2009, making him the richest person in Italy. He avoids the media and making public appearances, even eschewing the boards of leading Italian firms.

His son Giovanni, who has managed the company on his own after the early death of his brother Pietro in 2011, only agreed to a short interview on Italy’s main public TV channel. He abides by the same rule as his father: “Only on two occasions should the papers mention one’s name – birth and death.”

In contrast, Ferrero executives have plenty to say about both products and the company, with its 30,000-strong workforce at 14 locations, its €8bn ($10bn) revenue, 72% share of the chocolate-spreads market, 5 million friends on Facebook, 40m Google references, its hazelnut plantations in both hemispheres securing it a round-the-year supply of fresh ingredients and, of course, its knowhow.

“The recipe for Nutella is not a secret like Coca-Cola,” says marketing manager Laurent Cremona. “Everyone can find out the ingredients. We simply know how to combine them better than other people.”

Be that as it may, the factory in Alba is as closely guarded as Fort Knox and visits are not allowed. “It’s not a company, it’s an oasis of happiness,” says Francesco Paolo Fulci, a former ambassador and president of the Ferrero foundation. “In 70 years, we haven’t had a single day of industrial action.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Never enough Nutella. Courtesy of secret Nutella fans the world over / Ferrero, S.P.A

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Printing the Perfect Pasta

Step 1: imagine a new pasta shape and design it in three dimensions on your iPad. Step 2: fill a printer cartridge with pasta dough. Step 3: put the cartridge in a 3D printer and download your print design. Step 4: print your custom-designed pasta. Step 5: cook, eat and enjoy!

In essence that’s what Barilla — the Italian food giant — is up to in its food research labs in conjunction with Dutch tech company TNO.

3D printers aimed at the home market are also on display at this week’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show), including several that print candy and desserts. Yum, but Mamma would certainly not approve.

From the Guardian:

Once, not so very long ago, the pasta of Italian dreams was kneaded, rolled and shaped by hand in the kitchen. Now, though, the world’s leading pasta producer is perfecting a very different kind of technique – using 3D printers.

The Parma-based food giant Barilla, a fourth-generation Italian family business, said on Thursday it was working with TNO, a Dutch organisation specialising in applied scientific research, on a project using the same cutting-edge technology that has already brought startling developments in manufacturing and biotech and may now be poised to make similar waves in the food sector.

Kjeld van Bommel, project leader at TNO, said one of the potential applications of the technology could be to enable customers to present restaurants with their pasta shape desires stored on a USB stick.

“Suppose it’s your 25th wedding anniversary,” Van Bommel was quoted as telling the Dutch newspaper Trouw. “You go out for dinner and surprise your wife with pasta in the shape of a rose.”

He said speed was a big focus of the Barilla project: they want to be able to print 15-20 pieces of pasta in under two minutes. Progress had already been made, he said, and it was already possible to print 10 times as quickly as when the technology first arrived.

According to reports, Barilla aims to offer customers cartridges of dough that they can insert into a 3D printer to create their own pasta designs.

But the company declined to give further details, dismissing the claims as “speculation”. It said that although the project had been going on for around two years, it was still “in a preliminary phase”.

When contacted by the Guardian, TNO said media interest in the project had spiked in recent days, and it declined to make any further comment on the nature of the project.

The technology of 3D printing is advancing in myriad sectors around the world. Last year a California-based company made the world’s first metal 3D-printed handgun, capable of accurately firing 50 rounds without breaking, and scientists at Cornell University produced a prosthetic human ear.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the US company 3D Systems unveiled a new range of food-creating printers specialising in sugar-based confectionary and chocolate edibles. Last year Natural Machines, a Spanish startup, revealed its own prototype, the Foodini, which it said combined “technology, food, art and design” and was capable of making edibles ranging from chocolate to pasta.

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of TNO.

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Your Weekly Groceries

Photographer Peter Menzel traveled to over 20 countries to compile his culinary atlas Hungry Planet. But this is no ordinary cookbook or trove of local delicacies. The book is a visual catalog of a family’s average weekly grocery shopping.

It is both enlightening and sobering to see the nutritional inventory of a Western family juxtaposed with that of a sub-Saharan African family. It puts into perspective the internal debate within the United States of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. Those of us lucky enough to have been born in one of the world’s richer nations, even though we may be part of the 99 percent are still truly in the group of haves, rather than the have-nots.

For more on Menzel’s book jump over to Amazon.

The Melander family from Bargteheide, Germany, who spend around £320 [$480] on a week’s worth of food.

 

The Aboubakar family from Darfur, Sudan, in the Breidjing refugee camp in Chad. Their weekly food, which feeds six people, costs 79p [$1.19].

 

The Revis family from Raleigh in North Carolina. Their weekly shopping costs £219 [$328.50].

 

The Namgay family from Shingkhey, Bhutan, with a week’s worth of food that costs them around £3.20 [$4.80].

Images courtesy of Peter Menzel /Barcroft Media.

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Engineering Your Food Addiction

Fast food, snack foods and all manner of processed foods are a multi-billion dollar global industry. So, it’s no surprise that companies collectively spend $100s of millions each year to perfect the perfect bite. Importantly, part of this perfection (for the businesses) is to ensure that you keep coming back for more.

By all accounts the “cheeto” is as close to processed-food-addiction-heaven as we can get — so far. It has just the right amount of salt (too much) and fat (too much), crunchiness, and something known as vanishing caloric density (melts in the mouth at the optimum rate). Aesthetically sad, but scientifically true.

From the New York Times:

On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America’s largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.’s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it. While the atmosphere was cordial, the men assembled were hardly friends. Their stature was defined by their skill in fighting one another for what they called “stomach share” — the amount of digestive space that any one company’s brand can grab from the competition.

James Behnke, a 55-year-old executive at Pillsbury, greeted the men as they arrived. He was anxious but also hopeful about the plan that he and a few other food-company executives had devised to engage the C.E.O.’s on America’s growing weight problem. “We were very concerned, and rightfully so, that obesity was becoming a major issue,” Behnke recalled. “People were starting to talk about sugar taxes, and there was a lot of pressure on food companies.” Getting the company chiefs in the same room to talk about anything, much less a sensitive issue like this, was a tricky business, so Behnke and his fellow organizers had scripted the meeting carefully, honing the message to its barest essentials. “C.E.O.’s in the food industry are typically not technical guys, and they’re uncomfortable going to meetings where technical people talk in technical terms about technical things,” Behnke said. “They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make commitments. They want to maintain their aloofness and autonomy.”

A chemist by training with a doctoral degree in food science, Behnke became Pillsbury’s chief technical officer in 1979 and was instrumental in creating a long line of hit products, including microwaveable popcorn. He deeply admired Pillsbury but in recent years had grown troubled by pictures of obese children suffering from diabetes and the earliest signs of hypertension and heart disease. In the months leading up to the C.E.O. meeting, he was engaged in conversation with a group of food-science experts who were painting an increasingly grim picture of the public’s ability to cope with the industry’s formulations — from the body’s fragile controls on overeating to the hidden power of some processed foods to make people feel hungrier still. It was time, he and a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns.

 

In This Article:
• ‘In This Field, I’m a Game Changer.’
• ‘Lunchtime Is All Yours’
• ‘It’s Called Vanishing Caloric Density.’
• ‘These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don’t Need a Coke.’

 

The discussion took place in Pillsbury’s auditorium. The first speaker was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. “I very much appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about childhood obesity and the growing challenge it presents for us all,” Mudd began. “Let me say right at the start, this is not an easy subject. There are no easy answers — for what the public health community must do to bring this problem under control or for what the industry should do as others seek to hold it accountable for what has happened. But this much is clear: For those of us who’ve looked hard at this issue, whether they’re public health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing.”

As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides — 114 in all — projected on a large screen behind him. The figures were staggering. More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population — 40 million people — clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (This was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.) Food manufacturers were now being blamed for the problem from all sides — academia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The secretary of agriculture, over whom the industry had long held sway, had recently called obesity a “national epidemic.”

Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”

“If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there,” Mudd said, “I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.”

Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the expertise of scientists — its own and others — to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in overconsumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industrywide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.”

“We are saying that the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution,” Mudd concluded. “And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.”

What happened next was not written down. But according to three participants, when Mudd stopped talking, the one C.E.O. whose recent exploits in the grocery store had awed the rest of the industry stood up to speak. His name was Stephen Sanger, and he was also the person — as head of General Mills — who had the most to lose when it came to dealing with obesity. Under his leadership, General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million. Emboldened by the success, the company’s development wing pushed even harder, inventing a Yoplait variation that came in a squeezable tube — perfect for kids. They called it Go-Gurt and rolled it out nationally in the weeks before the C.E.O. meeting. (By year’s end, it would hit $100 million in sales.)

According to the sources I spoke with, Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.) Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.

“What can I say?” James Behnke told me years later. “It didn’t work. These guys weren’t as receptive as we thought they would be.” Behnke chose his words deliberately. He wanted to be fair. “Sanger was trying to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to screw around with the company jewels here and change the formulations because a bunch of guys in white coats are worried about obesity.’ ”

The meeting was remarkable, first, for the insider admissions of guilt. But I was also struck by how prescient the organizers of the sit-down had been. Today, one in three adults is considered clinically obese, along with one in five kids, and 24 million Americans are afflicted by type 2 diabetes, often caused by poor diet, with another 79 million people having pre-diabetes. Even gout, a painful form of arthritis once known as “the rich man’s disease” for its associations with gluttony, now afflicts eight million Americans.

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Cheeto puffs. Courtesy of tumblr.

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The Science (and Benefit) of Fasting

For thousands of years people have fasted to cleanse the body and the spirit. And, of course, many fast to lose (some) weight. Recently, a growing body of scientific research seems to suggest that fasting may slow the aging process.

From the New Scientist:

THERE’S a fuzz in my brain and an ache in my gut. My legs are leaden and my eyesight is blurry. But I have only myself to blame. Besides, I have been assured that these symptoms will pass. Between 10 days and three weeks from now, my body will adjust to the new regime, which entails fasting for two days each week. In the meantime, I just need to keep my eyes on the prize. Forget breakfast and second breakfast, ignore the call of multiple afternoon snacks, because the pay offs of doing without could be enormous.

Fasting is most commonly associated with religious observation. It is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam. Buddhists consider it a means to practise self-control and advocate abstaining from food after the noon meal. For some Christians, temporary fasts are seen as a way of getting closer to God. But the benefits I am hoping for are more corporeal.

The idea that fasting might be good for your health has a long, if questionable, history. Back in 1908, “Dr” Linda Hazzard, an American with some training as a nurse, published a book called Fasting for the Cure of Disease, which claimed that minimal food was the route to recovery from a variety of illnesses including cancer. Hazzard was jailed after one of her patients died of starvation. But what if she was, at least partly, right?

A new surge of interest in fasting suggests that it might indeed help people with cancer. It could also reduce the risk of developing cancer, guard against diabetes and heart disease, help control asthma and even stave off Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Many of the scientists who study fasting practise what they research, and they tell me that at my age (39) it could be vital that I start now. “We know from animal models,” says Mark Mattson at the US National Institute on Aging, “that if we start an intermittent fasting diet at what would be the equivalent of middle age in people, we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” Surely it’s worth a try?

Until recently, most studies linking diet with health and longevity focused on calorie restriction. They have had some impressive results, with the lifespan of various lab animals lengthened by up to 50 per cent after their daily calorie intake was cut in half. But these effects do not seem to extend to primates. A 23-year-long study of macaques found that although calorie restriction delayed the onset of age-related diseases, it had no impact on lifespan. So other factors such as genetics may be more important for human longevity too (Nature, vol 489, p 318).

That’s bad news for anyone who has gone hungry for decades in the hope of living longer, but the finding has not deterred fasting researchers. They point out that although fasting obviously involves cutting calories – at least on the fast days – it brings about biochemical and physiological changes that daily dieting does not. Besides, calorie restriction may leave people susceptible to infections and biological stress, whereas fasting, done properly, should not. Some even argue that we are evolutionarily adapted to going without food intermittently. “The evidence is pretty strong that our ancestors did not eat three meals a day plus snacks,” says Mattson. “Our genes are geared to being able to cope with periods of no food.”

What’s in a fast?

As I sit here, hungry, it certainly doesn’t feel like that. But researchers do agree that fasting will leave you feeling crummy in the short term because it takes time for your body to break psychological and biological habits. Less reassuring is their lack of agreement on what fasting entails. I have opted for the “5:2” diet, which allows me 600 calories in a single meal on each of two weekly “fast” days. The normal recommended intake is about 2000 calories for a woman and 2500 for a man, and I am allowed to eat whatever I want on the five non-fast days, underlining the fact that fasting is not necessarily about losing weight. A more draconian regimen has similar restricted-calorie “fasts” every other day. Then there’s total fasting, in which participants go without food for anything from one to five days – longer than about a week is considered potentially dangerous. Fasting might be a one-off, or repeated weekly or monthly.

Different regimens have different effects on the body. A fast is considered to start about 10 to 12 hours after a meal, when you have used up all the available glucose in your blood and start converting glycogen stored in liver and muscle cells into glucose to use for energy. If the fast continues, there is a gradual move towards breaking down stored body fat, and the liver produces “ketone bodies” – short molecules that are by-products of the breakdown of fatty acids. These can be used by the brain as fuel. This process is in full swing three to four days into a fast. Various hormones are also affected. For example, production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), drops early and reaches very low levels by day three or four. It is similar in structure to insulin, which also becomes scarcer with fasting, and high levels of both have been linked to cancer.

Read the entire article following the jump.

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The Slow Food – Fast Food Debate

For watchers of the human condition, dissecting and analyzing our food culture is both fascinating and troubling. The global agricultural-industrial complex with its enormous efficiencies and finely engineered end-products, churns out mountains of food stuffs that help feed a significant proportion of the world. And yet, many argue that the same over-refined, highly-processed, preservative-doped, high-fructose enriched, sugar and salt laden, color saturated foods are to blame for many of our modern ills. The catalog of dangers from that box of “fish” sticks, orange “cheese” and twinkies goes something likes this: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

To counterbalance the fast/processed food juggernaut the grassroots International Slow Food movement established its manifesto in 1989. Its stated vision is:

We envision a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.

They go on to say:

We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to the pleasure of good food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our association believes in the concept of neo-gastronomy – recognition of the strong connections between plate, planet, people and culture.

These are lofty ideals. Many would argue that the goals of the Slow Food movement, while worthy, are somewhat elitist and totally impractical in current times on our over-crowded, resource constrained little blue planet.

Krystal D’Costa over at Anthropology in Practice has a fascinating analysis and takes a more pragmatic view.

From Krystal D’Costa over at Anthropology in Practice:

There’s a sign hanging in my local deli that offers customers some tips on what to expect in terms of quality and service. It reads:

Your order:

Can be fast and good, but it won’t be cheap.
Can be fast and cheap, but it won’t be good.
Can be good and cheap, but it won’t be fast.
Pick two—because you aren’t going to get it good, cheap, and fast.

The Good/Fast/Cheap Model is certainly not new. It’s been a longstanding principle in design, and has been applied to many other things. The idea is a simple one: we can’t have our cake and eat it too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t try—and no where does this battle rage more fiercely than when it comes to fast food.

In a landscape dominated by golden arches, dollar menus, and value meals serving up to 2,150 calories, fast food has been much maligned. It’s fast, it’s cheap, but we know it’s generally not good for us. And yet, well-touted statistics report that Americans are spending more than ever on fast food:

In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music—combined.[i]

With waistlines growing at an alarming rate, fast food has become an easy target. Concern has spurned the emergence of healthier chains (where it’s good and fast, but not cheap), half servings, and posted calorie counts. We talk about awareness and “food prints” enthusiastically, aspire to incorporate more organic produce in our diets, and struggle to encourage others to do the same even while we acknowledge that differing economic means may be a limiting factor.

In short, we long to return to a simpler food time—when local harvests were common and more than adequately provided the sustenance we needed, and we relied less on processed, industrialized foods. We long for a time when home-cooked meals, from scratch, were the norm—and any number of cooking shows on the American airways today work to convince us that it’s easy to do. We’re told to shun fast food, and while it’s true that modern, fast, processed foods represent an extreme in portion size and nutrition, it is also true that our nostalgia is misguided: raw, unprocessed foods—the “natural” that we yearn for—were a challenge for our ancestors. In fact, these foods were downright dangerous.

Step back in time to when fresh meat rotted before it could be consumed and you still consumed it, to when fresh fruits were sour, vegetables were bitter, and when roots and tubers were poisonous. Nature, ever fickle, could withhold her bounty as easily as she could share it: droughts wreaked havoc on produce, storms hampered fishing, cows stopped giving milk, and hens stopped laying.[ii] What would you do then?

More from theSource here.

Images courtesy of International Slow Food Movement / Fred Meyer store by lyzadanger.

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