Food Friday: Investigating ‘Food Babe’


Apologies for the lack of posting last week everyone. I was spending some time exploring the US again, this time in New Orleans. I might tell you a bit about it sometime because it was an amazing week.

In the meantime though, this is a bit of a different Food Friday, but something I’ve been itching to write about for a few days. You have probably heard in the news recently that Subway have changed their bread recipe after thousands of signatures on an online petition requesting that they remove the ingredient azodicarbonamide. What you’re less likely to know unless you’ve dug a little deeper (which I’ll admit I hadn’t until just this week) is that the entire great-big-thing was sparked by a post by a blogger who calls herself Food Babe.

Far be it from me to detract from someone who is making an effort to improve our food system and working hard on it – but Food Babe drives me more than a little crazy. I admire what she is trying to do in some instances – for example, she recently convinced Chick-Fil-A to start using antibiotic-free chicken – but so many of her efforts seem to be based on pseudoscience and half truths, combined with some plain old avoidance of facts that don’t suit her agenda. (For a really good run down this exact approach to research in the yoga-mats-in-Subway-bread debacle, I’d suggest this post on the NeuroLogica blog). Her focus on unscientifically backed ‘issues’ like this one with Subway detracts from real issues in our supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

This Subway incident isn’t the first time that she’s engaged in scaremongering based on science that is dubious at best. For example, this from her ‘Don’t Poison Santa‘ sugar cookies post:

‘Don’t poison santa (and yourself) with these cookie brands with terrible ingredients… whether you choose Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Nestle or store brands like Great Value – you can almost be guaranteed they have GMOs linked to infertility, allergies, and cancer, trans fats that cause 8,000 deaths per year and 20,000 heart attacks, aluminum linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and/or very controversial artificial ingredients made from petroleum that are contaminated with carcinogens.’

Let’s just look at that first claim, that GMOs have been linked to ‘infertility, allergies and cancer.’ Really? A quick Google search turns up this paper ‘Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: Myths and reality‘ in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Oncology. The authors have this to say about GMO foods and cancer:

Avoiding [genetically modified foods] will neither stop nor prevent carcinogenesis.

and additionally that:

The recent report claiming that [genetically modified foods] are causally associated with cancer development in rats has been debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumour prone rats were used; a spurious construct and research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant.

For a shorter version of the debunking of the spurious study that suggested that GMOs can cause cancer, here’s a concise piece by Bloomberg.

So that’s cancer. What about allergies?

Well, it seems very unlikely (granted, not absolutely impossible).

A piece in the (again, peer-reviewed) Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology states that:

Few products of agricultural biotechnology (and none of the current products) will involve the transfer of genes from known allergenic sources. Applying such criteria provides reasonable assurance that the newly introduced protein has limited capability to become an allergen.

(I’m sorry I can’t provide the direct link to this one, as I connected to it through my university journal database. If you’re interested, look for ‘Will genetically modified foods be allergenic?’ by Steve L. Taylor and Susan L. Hefle, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 107(5): 765-771.)

Here’s another study, this time in Allergy:

to date […] no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions

In terms of peer-reviewed science, the most strident evidence I could find for avoiding GMOs for allergy reasons was in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition which suggests that:

The introduction of novel proteins into foods such as a GM soybean variety expressing methionine from Brazil nut […] and GE corn variety modified to produce a Bt endotoxin […] may elicit potentially harmful immunological responses including allergic hypersensitivity. moreover, according to Prescott et al. (2005), the introduction of a gene expressing nonallergenic protein such as GM field pea, expressing alpha-amylase inhibitor-1, may not always result in a product without allergenicity

(This is from ‘Health risks of genetically modified foods’ by Artemis Dona and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 49(2): 164-175).

Their overall conclusion though? The jury is still out. And to date, there is no proof that GMO foods cause allergies.

But what about GMOs and infertility? Well, Google GMO food and infertility and you’ll receive a barrage of pages claiming a link between the two. Some are relatively well researched sites, others considerably less so (Infowars, anyone?). Run a search through a scientific database though and you’ll get only a handful of results, most of which are not that relevant. I was able to find evidence of a study which found a statistically significant reduction in the size of litters born to mice after being fed GM maize (although I couldn’t find the study itself so I’m relying on a piece in the Daily Mail for that…eek), but that study was subsequently withdrawn by the Austrian government due to poor reporting and incomplete and contradictory data.

Again, I’m going with no conclusive evidence of links between GMOs and infertility. Which leaves, overall, no evidence of any of the health issues that the ‘food babe’ attributes to GMOs.

This is why she makes me mad. Vani Hari (Food Babe’s real name) has an enormous readership and extensive media reach. She’s in the position to make a real change in our food systems. Yet, instead of focusing only on the things that are known, conclusive problems, like transfats, like the use antibiotics in the industrial food system, she spreads herself thin, spouting misinformation about GMOs and azodicarbonamide which makes navigating an already complex and confusing food landscape even more difficult for the layperson. Yes, the best goal is for us to all be able to eat real, fresh, sustainably farmed food, but for those who can’t do that due to time or financial constraints, or lack of education, let’s keep the messages simple and focused on scientifically proven problems.

NB: Please don’t take this post to be an endorsement of GMO foods. I still have huge concerns about them, but these concerns are primarily limited to ones of preservation of genetic diversity, the problems of ‘ownership’ of food (in cases where there are corporate patents) and agricultural sustainability in general. 

Food Friday: Cinnamon Fruit Bread with Seeds


It has been the most stunningly gorgeous day in Central Texas. Inspired by the sunshine, I  reverted to my domestic goddess type – opening all the windows, stewing apples and being chased around the kitchen by an inquisitive bee (or five) that found its way inside. I also decided to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, following an excellent recipe in my favourite Stephanie Alexander cookbook, which, due to weighing in at about 5kg, is safely stowed in a storage unit in Sydney. I managed to find a similar recipe online though, and adapted it today to create a delicious, hearty fruit loaf full of cinnamon, apricots, sultanas and sunflower seeds.

Adapted from this basic bread recipe. IMPORTANT NOTE: Far be it from me to argue with Stephanie Alexander. The woman is a kitchen queen and deservedly so. That said, I found that the amount of flour and water she’d recommended did not work for me and I had to add in around another 150g or so of flour to achieve the recommended consistency. This might have been a problem at my end, but I’d recommend having more flour than you need on hand, just in case. If your mix isn’t thickening as it should, shake in additional flour gradually, mixing very thoroughly until you get the desired “sticky ball” consistency (if you can avoid this though, do – it will weigh down the bread a little).

{Ingredients} 

500g white whole wheat flour

7g sachet of dry yeast

1 tsp salt

500 mL warm water

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp cinnamon

1/2 cup sultanas

1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

The basics

The basics

{Preparation}

Tip all the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the salt and yeast. Stir once or twice with the wooden spoon. In a measuring cup, mix together the honey and warm water. 

Using the wooden spoon, push the flour away from the centre of the large bowl to make a well in the middle. Pour in the warm water and honey mixture. Mix in the flour gradually. Once combined, add the sultanas, apricots, sunflower seeds and cinnamon. Stir the mixture vigorously until you end up with a sticky ball of dough. If your ‘sticky ball’ seems determined to stay more of a ‘runny mess’, add a little more flour, bit by bit and stirring constantly.

Sprinkle your work surface liberally with flour. Sprinkle a little extra flour on your hands and the dough mix too. Tip the dough onto the floured surface and pat all the pieces into a pile. Squash it all into one lump. Knead constantly for about 3 minutes.

Lightly grease a bowl. Place dough ball into bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave in a warm place for at least 30 minutes. The dough should roughly double in size.

After 30 minutes, re-flour your re-cleaned work surface. Take the dough ball and knock out all of the air (trust me, this is the most satisfying part of all). Knead the dough again, this time for 1-2 minutes. Return to the greased bowl, cover with the tea towel and leave for another 20-30 minutes.

While the dough is sitting, preheat the oven to 200°C or about 390-400°F and lightly grease a baking tray. When the 20 minutes has passed, transfer the dough to the baking tray and bake for around 4 minutes, or until bread sounds hollow.

20140214_143154

 

The bread should be fragrant and slightly chewy. It’s even better toasted with a little butter.

Good news!


Image from the GetUp! site

 

This is the best news I’ve seen out of Australia in a long time. After carving off a chunk of World Heritage designated land in Tasmania and allowing the expansion of a coal port in northern Queensland, the Australian population has said enough is enough and is standing up against the dumping of dredging sludge in the Great Barrier Reef. A campaign by GetUp! has seen thousands of donations which will go towards a legal challenge by the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office against the Australian Government. Will they win? I’m not sure. But if nothing else it goes to show that the Australian people will not take the wholesale destruction of their environment lying down.

You can contribute to the GetUp! campaign here.

Why we can’t ignore food in health


374480_10152624885890445_595918477_n

Today in Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan argues that food deserts are not really a problem. She also argues, using data from three studies, that introducing healthful food to low-income  communities makes no difference to health outcomes. I don’t entirely disagree. Parachuting a bunch of bananas into a low-income grocery store isn’t going to change the way people eat, or have a real impact on health outcomes. Making fresh, healthy food more physically accessible is just the first step. She overlooks the other steps involved in de-food-desertification; ensuring that the food is affordable, providing nutrition education and (as she touches on and thereafter ignores) teaching people with little time and little money how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals. As Pearson et al argue, policies need to be developed to change cultural attitudes to food, rather than just food accessibility (1).

The way Gilligan writes about it seems as though she expects to just stick a few bulbs of fennel in a community that’s previously only had access to Doritos and Taco Bell and hope that it makes a difference. Of course it doesn’t! Fixing nutrition is a much more complex issue than I think Gilligan is acknowledging and it’s going to take a lot of time. For example, she notes that ‘Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people’ and that ‘Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.’ It’s hard to argue against that – poorer people definitely do still have poorer health outcomes. But the data that she’s referring to is for only ten years in a nation of 314 million people, where the number of programs and locations where they have been available have been limited. It’s long enough to start getting some idea of outcomes, but I would argue, not long enough for concrete conclusions, especially when the aims of these programs are overwhelmingly long-term – it’s not possible to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. Finally, I would also argue that if you look at what’s happened since 2010 when the Health Food Financing Initiative was introduced, it will give a much clearer idea of the impact of an increased number of programs. The same data problem persists though –  that at this stage, there are only three years of data to work with. It’s really too early to make the call that the Initiative is failing, especially when new and innovative programs are being developed every day.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that just as some food programs are not working so well, others are making a difference in the lives of those who have access to them. And while it’s hard to dispute Gilligan’s claim that the stress of poverty has a likely significant affect on health outcomes, it seems far too soon and very short sighted to disregard the importance of providing the means to improve the diets of low-income communities when aiming to reduce the burden of disease.

(1) Pearson T, Russell J, Campbell M J, Barker M E 2005, Do ‘food deserts’ influence fruit and vegetable consumption?—a cross-sectional study, Appetite 45(2): 195-197.

 

Food Friday: Local restaurants # 1 – Hopdoddy


This Friday, I decided not to share a recipe. Much as I love doing that, I just wasn’t super inspired by the meals I made this week (lentil pasta bake and fried rice). They made enormous quantities though, which meant I only needed to cook twice and then we had acres of leftovers – score!

What I’ve decided to do instead is to intersperse my own recipes with reviews of restaurants and cafes here in Austin that are doing great things while using local produce as much as possible. For the first week, I want to talk about Hopdoddy. Why Hopdoddy? Why not a smaller, single-venue restaurant? Well, I’ve chosen to start with Hopdoddy precisely because it’s big. Bigger organisations by their very nature, can affect more change than smaller ones. They serve more people, they can share their modus operandi with more people and thus can hopefully have a real impact on more people. That’s not at all to say that small operations aren’t doing great things and letting as many people as possible know about it. But when you see the queue winding around the South Congress Hopdoddy every evening and every weekend, it’s hard to dismiss the impact that they’re having on the local food scene.

So, what do they do that makes them in any way better than any other burger bar? Well, for starters I do think that their La Bandita black bean veggie burger is up there as one of my favourites. Their tuna burger is pretty phenomenal too, and I’ve been told by my more carnivorous friends that their meatier burgers are all that and a bag of chips (puns!). But more than that, very little of their produce is from outside Texas, excepting their potatoes (and in fairness, we’re not really in potato country around here), their cheddar (from Tillamook, an Oregon cooperative farm) and their bacon. Much of it comes from very local farmers and producers. So, for example, their beets are from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a fantastic local and organic farm, which helps to keep money in Austin’s vibrant and thriving urban farming community. Similarly, their eggs are from a local egg farmer just half an hour’s drive away in Lockhart and their goat cheese is from just two hours away in Houston.

This is all admirable in and of itself, but Hopdoddy also broadcasts it. Loudly. There is a fairly comprehensive listing of where their food is sourced from on their website. The table dividers in their restaurants are rectangles of information about respecting the environment and eating local. There are signs up around the walls telling you where their ingredients are from.  As I say, at least some of those crazy folks queuing for hours must be getting the message. And that’s why I feel like Hopdoddy is worth getting excited about, even if there are some other restaurants in town that are doing things a little more locally and maybe even a little bit better.

Also, you should really try their veggie burger. It’s something special.

Image from Hopdoddy’s Facebook page.

Strange variations: Ecological Footprints in two countries


Last week I started an online course, An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health which is being run by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. It started out well. A lot of the introductory information was about things that I’m reasonably familiar with, through my studies or just general reading-for-interest, but there were also other elements that I didn’t know about, so it was nice to continue my learning.

One of the things that really fascinated me was taking the Ecological Footprint quiz. The coordinators suggested that we do this and respond to an overall class poll so we could see the wide range of resources that different students are using. They also suggested that we play around with the poll and explore how different living situations might produce different outcomes. Out of curiosity, I decided to compare my life here in the USA and my life in Australia.

This was my result for the USA:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.44.15 PM

This was my result for Australia:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.49.41 PM

 

Whaaaaat?! This seemed completely crazy to me. I really thought the outcomes would be very similar – my diet is very similar in both countries, our energy consumption is similar (although green options seemed more accessible in Sydney – possibly because I knew more about the electricity market at home), I use a car with the same very limited frequency, my purchasing habits and recycling/trash habits are much the same…even more strangely, I would typically fly further in a year in Australia than here!

I’m honestly having a lot of trouble figuring out this discrepancy. I’ve taken the quiz multiple times to make sure there wasn’t a glaring error. I’ve looked at it over and over. One difference I can see is that the Australian quiz is a lot more specific – for example, it asks what type of lightbulbs you use, how much your gas/electricity bills are per month etc. These aren’t options in the US version. Even so, I just can’t see any really compelling reason for the difference.

I’d be interested in what your thoughts are. I’d also be really interested to know what quiz results you get (and because it seems surprisingly relevant, what country you’re based in). You can take the quiz here.

Food Friday: Lemon Cake


I don’t bake often. I do love a good cake, but I find that baking can be frustratingly precise. My style of cooking is much more stream-of-consciousness than how-to manual – I get ideas for colours and flavours and add a dash of this, a pinch of that and voila! It’s like a very tasty kind of abstract art. Baking though, takes a lot more precision. Too much of one thing, too little of another and you suddenly have one giant wonky cookie instead of the twelve neat ones that had gone into the oven (I still don’t know what went wrong. It tasted good, but it was a long way from pretty).

So far though, this cake has been pretty-much failsafe. I was taught it almost 10 years ago now, by a lovely ex-boyfriend who was an absolute kitchen wizard. Luckily, it was a very amicable break-up and we’re still occasionally in touch, so I can still eat this cake without any feelings of resentment.

For this recipe, you will definitely need a set of kitchen scales. You’ll also need a love of lemony, sweet-tart goodness and very rich cake.

20140131_155213

{Ingredients}

3 eggs (room temperature)

The exact same weight of the eggs in:

  • plain flour
  • butter (room temperature)
  • sugar

2 medium sized lemons (zest and juice)

Pinch of baking soda

Icing sugar

{Preparation}

Weigh the eggs and note down their weight. Measure out exactly the same weight of sugar, flour and butter. Gently grate the zest of both lemons, either with one of those lovely lemon zesting tools or a standard grater.

In a bowl, beat together butter, sugar and lemon zest until well combined. Add lightly beaten eggs and mix until combined and slightly fluffy.

In another bowl, mix together the flour and baking soda.

Add the flour and baking soda to the butter/sugar/eggs and beat until the mixture is smooth.

Pour mixture into a well-greased cake tin and bake at 350F for 30 minutes (due to oven problems I had to cook mine for 45 minutes, with the last 15 covered by foil. It really didn’t do the cake any favours and I got a bit of sinkage in the middle). At this point, you can also lick the spoon, if that’s your thing.

Test whether cake is cooked with a knife or fork. Once this comes out clean, the cake is cooked and you can remove it from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

{For the Icing}

Squeeze the juice of 1 1/2 of the lemons into a bowl, saving the remaining half for emergencies. Gradually add icing sugar to the lemon juice, stirring steadily. Once the icing is becoming difficult to stir, but is still slightly runny (depending how juicy your lemons are, probably this will take 1-1 1/2 cups icing sugar), you’re ready to ice!

Spread icing thickly onto the cake, allowing it to run down the sides.

Slice and enjoy!

NB: I only had whole wheat flour on hand and I would not recommend this. I’d really suggest you use the plainest, whitest flour you can find. Your cake should look much more yellow and much less orange as a result.

20140131_173641

A tragedy for the Great Barrier Reef


I will be back with a full Food Friday post later today, but I just wanted to take a moment to share this:

From 1 Million Women. Click through for source.

Overnight, permission was given to the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation to dump three million tonnes of dredging sludge into the Great Barrier Reef. Three million tonnes.

I’d really encourage you all to email the PM Tony Abbott and the Environment Minister Greg Hunt to let them know that this is not ok. There are also petitions being run by GetUp!, the WWF and Greenpeace. You can find all the relevant links here.

It breaks my heart, as it should break everyone’s heart, that our values are in such a mess that we would put profit above protecting one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in the world.

A book review: The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi


I’m a firm believer in the power of fiction and film and their ability to shape the way we see the world around us now, as well as the possibilities for our future. I’ve mentioned before my love of late 80s/ early 90s kids films and TV shows about the environment (Captain Planet! Fern Gully! Widget the World Watcher!) and I do wonder if they have in some way had an impact on the person I’ve become. Plus, I still watch Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at least once a year…

I’ve read some excellent environmental/dystopian fiction over the last few years as well, and I thought that it might be interesting to share some reviews and recommendations with you guys. Some of them have absolutely blown me away with their detail and with their uncanny similarities to the path we seem to be heading down, and one of those is The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The Wind-Up Girl is set in Thailand in the 23rd century. It’s the future, but not the one we’ve hoped for. ‘Calorie companies’, which are clearly representative of Big Ag monoliths such as Monsanto and Du Pont have undertaken a huge range of genetic modifications that have caused the decimation of food supplies and forests. Climate change has led to dramatic sea level rises, with Bangkok protected by huge levees and pumps – the only thing preventing the entire city being flooded. With no more petroleum and limited supplies of other fossil fuels, transport other than walking or cycling is largely reserved for the wealthy, and the energy that powers daily life is largely methane based (from compacted trash), with some input from genetically modified elephants, ‘megodonts’ who tighten large, high-power springs. As I say, it’s not the future we’ve hoped for.

The novel follows five main characters; Anderson Lake, an expat calorie company representative from Des Moines under cover as a manufacturer of the high powered springs, while seeking out a hidden Thai seedbank; Emiko, a wind-up girl from Japan, a genetically modified ‘New Person’ bred to serve, and routinely abused by her masters; Hock Seng, an ageing former merchant and refugee from a Malaysia destroyed by ‘Green Headband’ militants; and two officers of the Environment Ministry, an organisation that ostensibly protects Thailand from the international calorie companies, but which has become hopelessly corrupt. The world that they inhabit is hot, sweaty and fraught with danger. Starvation is a real risk through the production of sterile crops that are susceptible to ‘genehack’ disease. Crop disease can easily spread to humans, and then from person to person, sweeping across entire countries in plagues. Life in the 23rd century, is connected to some very tenuous threads.

I don’t want to tell you the detail of the story because I want you to read it! What I will tell you though is that Bacigalupi does an incredible job of seamlessly weaving a strong and often poignant narrative with concerns for our environmental future, easily avoiding the potential pitfall of proselytising to his readers. As it is, the story, as well as the scene, simply places a mirror to our current world and our current values and it shocks us. As well it should.

I hope you get the chance to read this. In the meantime, does anyone have any other recommendations for good fiction about the environment/ climate change/ food etc? I finished Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy recently and loved it, so this is definitely an area I’d like to read more in.

Food Friday: Sweet Potato Tacos with Chipotles in Adobo


If there’s one thing I can tell you about Austinites and food, it’s that they really like their tacos. Breakfast, lunch or dinner is irrelevant – there’s a taco for every time of day and every occasion. Luckily, I love tacos. They’re filling, super cheap and easy to make and very versatile – you can put just about anything on a fresh tortilla and have it taste delicious. So, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – experimenting in the kitchen with a variety of taco fillings. It’s been a lot of fun.

This is one of our favourites so far. Sweet potatoes are right in season at the moment, so they’re cheap and plentiful and tasty. Their sweetness combines well with the savoury starchiness of the beans and the smokey bite of the chipotle. Which reminds me, there’s a definite kick to the chipotles in adobo, so if you don’t like your food with a bit of heat, I’d recommend halving the quantity in this (or even quartering if you’re just not that into spicy food).

20140123_181722

Sweet Potato Tacos with Chipotles in Adobo

{Ingredients}

1 medium-large sweet potato, chopped into small chunks

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 200g can chipotles in adobo sauce

1 400g can corn kernels

1 400g can beans (black beans, kidney beans etc)

1 800g can diced tomatoes

fresh tortillas

1 medium avocado

feta cheese to taste

salt and pepper to taste

{Preparation}

Lightly coat sweet potatoes with oil. Roast at 400F (about 200 Celsius) for about 30 minutes or until soft (sorry I can’t be more specific here – my oven has a busted door at the moment that lets all the nice warm air out, so it’s hard to judge. The downside of renting? Having to wait for other people to fix things!).

While the sweet potato is roasting, sauté onion in a fry pan with a little olive oil until soft and transparent. Add chipotles in adobo and stir through, breaking up the chillies into smaller pieces with the spoon. Add the can of tomatoes and leave to simmer on low heat. Drain the corn and the beans and then add them to the frypan as well. Leave to simmer until the sweet potato is done, stirring occasionally. The longer it simmers, the less ‘wet’ the tacos will be.

Once the sweet potato is soft and slightly roasted around the edges, add to the frypan. Stir through, adding a little salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the mix on fresh tortillas, sprinkled with feta cheese and sliced avocados. Enjoy!

{Serves 6}

20140123_190243

*NB: Please, please excuse my awful food photography. I’m working on it, I promise, but these skills take time! In the meantime, please be assured that these meals taste much better than they look!