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Posts Tagged ‘diet

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”*…

Tim Flannery considers George Monbiot‘s (@GeorgeMonbiot) new book, Regenesis, in which Monbiot argues that neither the industrial farming that become our norm nor the most rapidly spreading alternative farming methods can help save our food system from impending crisis…

What will we be eating in the future? Will it be wholesome, locally grown organic produce or some Soylent Green–like nightmare food? The only certainty, George Monbiot argues in Regenesis, is that we cannot continue to eat what we eat today. Climate disruption will see to that. And even if climate impacts are less severe than some project, industrial agriculture and the so-called global standard diet it creates are environmentally unsustainable and are destroying the planet’s soils so rapidly that we already stand on the brink of a worldwide catastrophe. We have, Monbiot warns, a very brief period in which to reshape our food systems…

[There follows a fascinating (and chilling) diagnosis of the challenge, and a consideration of possible answers…]

Humans have been farmers for only around 10,000 years. Before that we were hunter-gatherers, and the planet could sustain just a few million of us. Then we moved down the food chain by harvesting the seeds of the grasses that fed the great herds. With that innovation, many millions could be nourished. But the agricultural system that produced the grain was damaging to the environment. We now face the prospect of one further leap down the food chain to bacteria. The benefits could be enormous. Yet we have fetishized our food so thoroughly that it’s difficult to think of a yellow powder made of dried bacteria as being healthy, fresh, and good for the planet. Perhaps the first person to hand out baked cakes of crushed grains at a barbecue serving mammoth and bison steaks to Paleolithic big-game hunters faced the same problem…

It’s Not Easy Being Green,” in @nybooks.

A pair of shorter-term views that raise some of the same issues (and conflicts): “The U.S. diet is deadly. Here are 7 ideas to get Americans eating healthier” and “The next threat to global food supplies.”

* Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

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As we contemplate comestibles, we might note that National Procrastination Day was yesterday.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Most things are never meant”*…

A coastal engineer collects a concentrated sample of algae and bacteria on Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

Protein-packed diets add excess nitrogen to the environment through urine, rivaling pollution from agricultural fertilizers…

In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.

When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage… the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume…

Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain. Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another: “Eating Too Much Protein Makes Pee a Problem Pollutant in the U.S.,” from Sasha Warren (@space_for_sasha) in @sciam.

* Philip Larkin, “Going, Going” (in High Windows)

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As we deliberate on our diets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Theophilus Van Kannel received a patent for the revolving door, a design that came to characterize the entrances of (then-proliferating) skyscrapers and that earned him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But lest we think him “all work,” his other notable invention was the popular (at least in the early 20th century) amusement park ride “Witching Waves.”

Theophilus Van Kannel’s patent drawing for a revolving door, 1888 [source]
Theophilus Van Kannel [source]

“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”*…

Mosaic of a boar hunt from the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, fourth century. Photograph by Laur Phil. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the early medieval West, from North Africa to the British Isles, pigs were a crucial part of both agriculture and culture…

Pigs were the consummate meat of the early Middle Ages. Horses and oxen have pulling power, cows and goats and sheep make milk and manure (and skin for parchment and packaging), sheep grow wool, and poultry lay eggs. But domesticated pigs were only destined to be butchered. It took them less than two years to reach their maximum weight, so efficient were they in converting whatever they found or were fed into meat. The osteoarchaeological record shows that farmers slaughtered almost all their pigs before they reached their third birthday, and many of them much earlier, with the exception of breeding sows and stud boars.

But pork was not the meat that everyone ate most. That distinction generally went either to beef or to mutton. Some people did not keep pigs at all: Greenlanders, for instance, and Jews and Muslims, as far as we can tell. There were also some Christians who did not own pigs—or at least, there were Christians who drew up wills that listed their livestock but did not mention any pigs. But because pigs were only ever raised for their flesh, they were a kind of metonym for meat more generally. Pork inspired rhapsodies, and even miracles; in Saint Brigit’s Ireland, tree bark was turned not into fishes and loaves but bacon in order to feed a crowd. And when the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ wrote a massive collection about animals at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, he had plenty of faults to find with pigs, both as a Muslim and as a naturalist. But he had also heard so many paeans to pork that he was fascinated by what it might taste like…

On the singular beasts of the Middle Ages: “Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs,” adapted by Jamie Kreiner from her new Yale University Press book Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West, in @laphamsquart.

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we ponder the porcine, we might recall that today is National Canadian Bacon Day.

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“I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day”*…

The social centrality of sweets…

Each country finds its own way to get its sugar fix. The crackly burnished sugar on top of a pot of crème brûlée in France. The grainy buttery sugar of a slab of Scottish tablet. The caramelised, milky sugar of dulce de leche, slathered on toast or pancakes. The intensely processed sugar of the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the chocolate drizzle, ice cream and brownie chunks of an American sundae.

A taste for sweetness makes sense in evolutionary terms: sugary foods are a quick and easy source of energy. But despite its universal appeal, says Anissa Helou, a Lebanese-Syrian author and chef (whose surname means “sweet”), Middle Easterners seem to be particularly enamoured by sugar. Five of the top 20 countries that consume the most sugar per person are in the Middle East.

Why is the region so enchanted by sweet stuff? Sugar was widely available in the Middle East long before that was true in the West. Helou also points to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, which in other countries is used as a celebratory treat, luxury or distraction (though the ban on drinking is observed to varying degrees across the Muslim world). If you can’t do shots in Dubai, you can belly up to the milkshake bar and get a high from guzzling a chocolatey ice cream concoction. After dinner, sweetened tea takes the place of an aperitif. Juice and sugar-cane stalls replace pubs and bars on street corners.

Across the Middle East and Turkey, bakery shelves heave with a variety of syrup-soaked pastries. You can find diamonds of basbousa (which in Arabic sweetly translates as “just a kiss”), a cake made from semolina and drenched with syrup scented with rose or orange blossom. Coils of m’hanncha, an almond-packed roll of pastry, curled to look like a sleeping snake. Kunafa, shredded pastry filled with a creamy cheese or nuts and doused in yet more floral syrup. Znoud el-sit, which literally means “women’s upper arms”, crunchy, plump little cigars of filo pastry, stuffed with cream, fried and steeped in syrup or honey. But the best known by far, at least in the rest of the world, are sheets of fine filo pastry filled with nuts and bathed in syrup and butter: baklava.

Versions of layered, nutty pastries may have been made as early as the eighth century BC by the Assyrians, but it was the Ottomans who perfected the sticky glory of baklava. The imperial kitchens of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul were said to have turned out trays of the stuff in the 15th century. Most notably, on the 15th day of Ramadan, when the sultan would visit the hirka-i-serif (a relic believed to be part of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad), baklava was given to his janissaries, an elite group of soldiers. It was a food of occasion, so much so that even today there’s a common saying in Turkey: “I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day.” (Boxes of baklava regularly feature as carry-on luggage at airports in Turkey, especially around the holidays, both religious and secular.)

In 2013 the European Commission bestowed a “protected designation-of-origin” status on baklava from Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city – the first Turkish product to be recognised in this way. Bakers across Greece, the Middle East and beyond may challenge the Turks’ claims on baklava, but whether their versions pre-date the reach of the Ottomans or are the result of their expansion, baklava pops up everywhere from Morocco to Iran. The shapes differ, the nuts vary and the spices change but the syrupy richness does not.

Even without the sultans and their acolytes, baklava still evokes a sense of ceremony. Feast days, religious or otherwise, to celebrate both the living and the dead, are occasions for baklava. So, too, are visits by friends. Claudia Roden, a grandee of Middle Eastern cooking born to an Egyptian-Jewish family, writes that baklava (along with other sweets) is associated, for her, with “feelings of well-being, warmth and welcome, of giving and receiving, of crowds of people smiling, kissing, hugging and showering hospitality”. Whereas Christians often forgo foodstuffs such as sugar during the 40 days of Lent, Ramadan brings a nightly feast in which sweets play an important role. In Turkey, Eid al-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, is known as Seker Bayrami, the feast of sweets…

In the absence of alcohol, sweet treats unite the Middle East: “Go nuts: the multilayered history of baklava,” from Josie Delap (@josiedelap) in @1843mag— with a recipe!

* traditional Turkish saying

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As we lick our lips (and our fingers), we might spare a thought for Chapin Aaron Harris; he died on this date in 1860. Trained as a physician, he specialized in matters of the mouth. He helped found the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), the first national dental organization in the U.S., and founded the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (now the University of Maryland School of Dentistry), the first dental college in the U.S. (and, it’s believed, the world).

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“Food is an important part of a balanced diet”*…

In your quest to eat right, are you an a nutritionist or an essentialist?

Nutrition science began with the chemical description of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the 19th century. The field didn’t seem to hold much medical import; the research was mostly aimed at cheaply feeding poor and institutionalised people well enough to keep them from rioting. Germ theory, on the other hand, was new and revolutionary medical science, and microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur were demonstrating that one disease after another, from cholera to malaria to leprosy, was caused by microbes. But at the turn of the 20th century, nutrition science suddenly arrived as a major part of our understanding of human health…

In 1911, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk announced that he’d isolated the beriberi-preventing chemical, which he thought to be a molecule containing an amine group, and named it ‘vitamine’ – a vital amine. The next year, Funk published an ambitious paper and book arguing that not only beriberi but three other human diseases – scurvy, pellagra and rickets – were each caused by a lack of a particular vitamin. Within a few months, the English researcher Frederick Hopkins published the results of a series of experiments in which he fed animals diets based on pure proteins, carbohydrates and fats, after which they developed various ailments. He posited that the simplified diets lacked some ‘accessory food factors’ important for health. Those factors and many others were discovered over the next three decades, and researchers showed how these vitamins were critical to the function of practically every part of the body. Ten of those scientists, including Eijkman and Hopkins, won Nobel prizes. At the same time that physicists laid out the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, describing fundamental laws that governed the Universe on its smallest and largest scales, chemists discovered the laws that seemed to govern the science of nutrition.

[… which, over the last 100 years, has exploded…]

[Gyorgy Scrinis, a professor of food politics and policy at the University of Melbourne] argues that the field of nutrition science is under the sway of an ideology he dubbed ‘nutritionism’, a mode of thinking about food that makes a number of erroneous assumptions: it reduces foods to quantified collections of nutrients, pulls foods out of the context of diets and lifestyles, presumes that biomarkers such as body-mass index are accurate indicators of health, overestimates scientists’ understanding of the relationship between nutrients and health, and falls for corporations’ claims that the nutrients they sprinkle into heavily processed junk foods make them healthful. These errors lead us toward food that is processed to optimise its palatability, convenience and nutrient profile, drawing us away from the whole foods that Scrinis says we should be eating. He says the history of margarine provides a tour of the perils of nutritionism: it was first adopted as a cheaper alternative to butter, then promoted as a health food when saturated fat became a nutritional bugbear, later castigated as a nutritional villain riddled with trans fats, and recently reformulated without trans fats, using new processes such as interesterification. That has succeeded in making margarine look better, according to nutritionism’s current trends, but is another kind of ultra-processing that’s likely to diminish the quality of food….

While Scrinis cites the growing body of scientific research implicating modern food processing, he also supports his critique of nutritionism with appeals to intuition. ‘This idea that ultra-processed foods are degraded – we’ve always known this,’ he says. ‘Our senses tell us whole foods are wholesome. People know this intuitively. The best foods in terms of cuisine are made from whole foods, not McDonald’s. It’s common sense.’

Even as nutritionism pushes us to believe that the latest nutrition research reveals something important about food, we also hold on to a conflicting concept: the idea that natural foods are better for us in ways that don’t always show up in scientific studies – that whole foods contain an inherent essence that is despoiled by our harsh modern processing techniques. ‘It’s a general attitude that you can break foods down that is the problem,’ says Scrinis. ‘It’s showing no respect for the food itself.’ This idea of respecting food reveals an underlying perspective that is essentialist, which, in philosophy, is the Platonic view that certain eternal and universal characteristics are essential to identity. Science is usually thought of as the antithesis of our atavistic intuitions, yet nutrition science has contained an essentialist view of nutrition for almost a century.

Most of us carry both ideologies, essentialism and nutritionism, in our minds, pulling us in different directions, complicating how we make decisions about what to eat. This tension is also visible in nutrition. Many government public health agencies give precise recommendations, based on a century of hard research, for the amounts of every nutrient we need to keep us healthy. They also insist that whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the best ways to get those nutrients. But if you accept the nutrient recommendations, why assume that whole foods are a better way of getting those nutrients than, say, a powdered mix that is objectively superior in terms of cost, convenience and greenhouse emissions? What’s more, powdered mixes make it far easier for people to know exactly what they’re eating, which addresses one problem that constantly vexes nutritionists.

This kind of reflexive preference for natural foods can sometimes blind us to the implications of science. Even as research piles up implicating, for instance, excessive sugar as a particular problem in modern diets, most nutrition authorities refuse to endorse artificial sweeteners as a way to decrease our sugar consumption. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time with artificial sweeteners, and I cannot find any solid evidence there’s anything wrong with including them in your diet,’ says Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist who has been writing about nutrition for more than 20 years. She says there’s some evidence that low-calorie sweeteners help some people lose weight, but you won’t hear that from nutrition authorities, who consistently minimise the positives while focusing on potential downsides that have not been well-established by research, such as worries that they cause cancer or scramble the gut microbiome. Why the determined opposition? ‘Because artificial sweeteners check lots of the boxes of the things that wholesome eaters avoid. It’s a chemical that’s manufactured in a plant. It’s created by the big companies that are selling the rest of the food in our diet, a lot of which is junk.’ Haspel says that nutritionists’ attitude to low-calorie sweeteners is ‘puritanical, it’s holier-than-thou, and it’s breathtakingly condescending’. The puritanical response reflects the purity of essentialism: foods that are not ‘natural’ are not welcome in the diets of right-thinking, healthy-eating people…

Our arguments over food are so polarised because they are not only about evidence: they are about values. Our choice of what we put inside us physically represents what we want inside ourselves spiritually, and that varies so much from person to person. Hearn uses food, much of it from a blender, to hack his body and keep him well-fuelled between business meetings. Scrinis looks forward to spending time in his kitchen, tinkering with new varieties of sourdough packed with sprouted grains and seeds. Haspel lives in Cape Cod, where she grows oysters, raises chickens, and hunts deer for venison – and also drinks diet soda and uses sucralose in her smoothies and oatmeal, to help keep her weight down.

Nutritionism and essentialism provide comfortingly clear perspectives about what makes food healthful. But an open-minded look at the evidence suggests that many of the most hotly debated questions about nutrition are impossible to answer with the information we have, maybe with the information we will ever have in the foreseeable future. If we isolate nutrients and eat them in different forms than they naturally come in, how will they affect us? Can processed foods be made in ways to approach or even surpass the healthfulness of natural whole foods?…

Human bodies are so fascinating in part because they are so variable and malleable. Beyond some important universals, such as the vitamins discovered a century ago, different people’s bodies work differently, because of their genes, behaviours and environments. The food we eat today changes the way our bodies work tomorrow, making yesterday’s guidance out of date. There are too many variables and too few ways to control them…

Maybe the reason that diet is so difficult to optimise is that there is no optimal diet. We are enormously flexible omnivores who can live healthily on varied diets, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors or modern people filling shopping carts at globally sourced supermarkets, yet we can also live on specialised diets, like traditional Inuits who mostly ate a small range of Arctic animals or subsistence farmers who ate little besides a few grains they grew. Aaron Carroll, a physician in Indiana and a columnist at The New York Times, argues that people spend far too much time worrying about eating the wrong things. ‘The “dangers” from these things are so very small that, if they bring you enough happiness, that likely outweighs the downsides,’ he said in 2018. ‘So much of our food discussions are moralising and fear-inducing. Food isn’t poison, and this is pretty much the healthiest people have even been in the history of mankind. Food isn’t killing us.’

Food is a vehicle for ideologies such as nutritionism and essentialism, for deeply held desires such as connecting with nature and engineering a better future. We argue so passionately about food because we are not just looking for health – we’re looking for meaning. Maybe, if meals help provide a sense of meaning for your life, that is the healthiest thing you can hope for.

Vitamins or whole foods? high-fat or low-fat? sugar or sweetener?… Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat? “The Food Wars,” from Amos Zeeberg (@settostun)

[image above: source]

* Fran Lebowitz

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As we scale the food pyramid, we might send birthday greetings in oyster sauce to Joyce Chen; she was born on this date in 1917.  A chef, restauranteur, author, television personality, and entrepreneur, she parlayed a successful Cambridge, MA restaurant (where she’s credited with creating the “all you can eat Chinese buffet” to perk up slow Tuesdays and Wednesdays) into a collection of restaurants, a cooking school, a series of cookbooks, and a PBS series (shot on the same set as Julia Child’s show).  She is credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in America.  Chen was honored in 2014 (along with Julia Child) as one of the five chefs featured on a series of U.S. postage stamps.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2021 at 1:00 am

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