What’s Healthy and What’s Not?

As many fellow health buffs will no doubt attest to, it is often very difficult to get a consistent idea of what is healthy and what isn’t. Not only do laymen often disagree vehemently with one another — everyone has their own anecdote or folk remedy to swear by, science be damned — but it seems that not a month goes by without some study finding contradictory evidence about the healthiness of a particular food or beverage, often turning back years or even decades of nutrition science (e.g., the recent revelation that fat may not be so bad after all, that eggs and coffee are good for you, and that salt and sugar are far worse than previously believed).

The New York Times drives home this point with an article about a study that polled both nutritionists and a sample of the American public to compare their thoughts regarding some common nutrition battlegrounds. Unsurprisingly, the results showed a big gap between experts and everyone else, as well as revealing divisive views within each community, too.  Continue reading

Coffee or Tea — What is the World’s Drink of Choice?

The two beverages have ancient roots, but only over the last couple of centuries have they become truly global commodities. The following map from The Economist shows which countries and regions favor which drink. (You can find the interactive version here.)

Coffee vs. Tea

There is a clear East-West divide: among nearly all Western countries — with the notable exception of the United Kingdom — coffee trounces tea, despite the latter beverage’s increasing popularity. Meanwhile, across most of Africa and Asia, tea is the drink of choice, with the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand being clear outliers.

Other countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia remain divided. Guatemala stands out as being the most overwhelmingly favorable towards coffee (99.6 percent) while Kenyans are the most enthusiastic for tea (99.2 percent). Overall, most countries prefer coffee, though tea probably has the most total drinkers, given its popularity in big nations like China, India, and Nigeria.

Bugs May Be The Latest Culinary Trend

Over 2 billion people across 100 countries eat insects as part of their regular or traditional diet. But in the Western world, where meat consumption — and indeed the consumption of food in general — is disproportionately high, making bugs an accepted part of the menu would be beneficial — if not difficult, given the obvious taboos (there is a reason insects are almost always only eaten in the context of reality shows, or as part of gross-out humor).

NPR’s excellent food and health column, The Salt, has more on this growing trend in the West, and how bugs can be made more palatable to societies where eating is them unthinkable.  Continue reading

Chart: How The American Diet Has Changed Over Forty Years

Utilizing USDA data, Vox.com has produced acolorful graph that charts the vast changes in the average American’s diet since 1972. (Note that it shows the total supply of these items divided by the number of Americans, rather than exact consumption levels. However, this nonetheless gives a good sense of how eating patterns are changing over time, especially insofar as supply both reflects and often influences demand.)

Here is some analysis from the article:

[Y]ou might notice there are a lot of olive-green bars toward the bottom. We’re all eating a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. That’s in part a story about changing tastes, but it’s also about economics — globalization and trade deals like NAFTA have given Americans more access to a wealth of fruits such as limes and avocados. And it appears those foods have replaced preserved or processed produce — many of the foods whose availability has shrunk are those maroon bars that represent canned, frozen, or dried produce.

While we’re eating a lot more fresh fruits and veggies than before, we’re not getting healthier all around. High-fructose corn syrup consumption has skyrocketed. Back in 1972 — right around the time that it was first introduced — we had 1.2 pounds per capita of the syrup available to us. Today, it’s 46.2 pounds … and that’s in fact down substantially from a high of 63 pounds in 1999.

Of course, don’t let the numbers fool you on a few of these — some of the massive growth came because of very small numbers. For example, it’s not that we’re eating piles and piles of lima beans today; rather, it’s that we were eating only 0.0005 pounds in 1989 versus 0.007 pounds in 2012 — a huge percentage gain in growth from an initially very small number.

What are your thoughts and reactions?

Lab Grown Meat Gets A Lot Cheaper

Given the vast ethical and environmental problems involved in the raising and slaughtering of livestock, alternatives to meat consumption are sorely needed. Since most people still have a hard time getting on board with vegetarianism, much less veganism, alternatives like like lab-grown meat provide an ideal solution: something as close to the real stuff as possible without all the suffering, pollution, and waste required by factory farms (moreover, the amount of water and grain saved would now go to the millions of humans who need it).

Given the considerable amount of technology involved in cultivating flesh from scratch, early versions of artificial meat were prohibitively expensive, as more $250,000 dollars per pound. But a recent report in Popular Mechanics finds that this idea has gone from proof-of-concept to commercial viability:

There are still serious roadblocks that will keep lab-grown meat from coming to supermarkets anytime soon, but according to experts, the cost of producing it is dropping drastically. According to CNET, the not-quite-vegetarian lab-grown hamburger could now be made for about $27 per pound if production were scaled up to the industrial level.

Still, the taste is … not quite there, and the burgers (built by stem cells) are slow to grow without the use of growth hormones. But as the technology improves, the meat will become closer and closer to market-ready. And unlike a veggie burger, it’s real beef. It just happened to be grown in a petri dish instead of a cow.

While nearly $30 a pound is too steep for most of us, it’s not far off from a point at which a lot of people could seriously consider whether they could, or should, buy lab-grown beef for their next BBQ rather than the old-fashioned grown-on-a-cow stuff.

Again, this is hardly a catch-all solution to all the problems associated with meat production, especially as there will always be purists who distrust or reject the very idea of synthetic meat. But given the strain on our resources and environment — which is likely to grow exponentially as more people add meat to their diets — we may not have a choice but to continue building upon this solution.

What are your thoughts?

Video: How Cinnamon is Harvested

Like so many other staple foodstuffs, cinnamon (also known as cassia) is taken for granted. Most people have no idea that two-thirds of the world supply comes from Indonesia, specifically the Kerinci Valley on the island of Sumatra.

This short two-minute video shows how this sustainable crop is harvested, in traditional means unchanged for centuries.

There is a lot of artistry involved in the whole process, not to mention a tremendous amount of time and hard work. In addition to making me crave cinnamon (which may have several positive health benefits to boot), the video made me appreciate how much human labor goes into all the food, spices, and other commodities we see as plentiful and widely accessible.

Hat tip to Gizmodo for sharing the video.

Skyscraper Farms

Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Netherlands manages to have one of the most efficient and productive agricultural sectors, second only to the United States (a far bigger country) in value of exports.

In light of that, perhaps it is fitting that a Dutch company should lead the way in the new concept of “high-rise farming”. As Mic.com reports:

PlantLab, a Dutch agriculture firm, wants to construct “plant production units,” spaces made for growing plants and vegetables. Each unit is customizable, able to adjust and control anything from to the amount and kind of light received, a major value for photosynthesis, to how large the space needs to be — anything from a garden the size of a microwave to a skyscraper.

By either constructing buildings, or, potentially more sustainably, retrofitting existing, unused buildings, PlantLab believes they can construct spaces where plants will grow faster and more efficiently.

This means the entirety of California’s almond-growing operation could be put into something the size of a Best Western hotel, while also cutting out pesticides, producing three to five times more almonds and using 90% less water thanks to smarter hydration — all without tweaking the almond’s genetics.

Here is a proof of concept of sorts from the company’s official YouTube:

The implications of this idea are vast. Suddenly, regions of the world lacking resources or appropriate climate can grow any number of crops to suit local needs. So much space can be freed, and environments spared, while giving immediate access to food. It is also a great way to make use of otherwise derelict building — imagine how many decaying cities and suburbs could be turned into thriving agricultural centers?

PlantLab claims that with this approach, it will only need space equal to about one third of the U.S. state of Hawaii to feed the world’s population. A part of me is skeptical of this, but with some analysts projecting a global food shortage by 2050, I want to be hopeful.

The company’s TedTalk in Brainport, Netherlands is certainly intriguing.

Granted, the world already produces enough food to feed its inhabitants. Most global hunger is attributed to the inequities and inefficiencies of the global food market, as well as various shortcomings in infrastructure, investment, and transportation. None of this means that we should give up on finding solutions to improve food production; rather it is just one component of a very complicated problem.

The Dutch Enjoy The Best Diet

The Netherlands tops just about every metric of national performance, from civil liberties and average income, to quality of life and even happiness. So perhaps it is no surprise that even its access to plentiful, nutritional food is among the highest in the world too, according to a recent report by Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization based in the U.K.

The study was compiled in fall 2013 and drew on data from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Foundation, the International Labour Organization, and other groups. The score is based on the sum of several factors, ranging from food prices to the rate of malnutrition and diet-based diseases; Oxfam cautions that the conclusion is not comprehensive of any one nation, but is a general ranking (e.g. regional disparities can exist within countries).

To quote The Guardian

The Netherlands [has] created a good market that enables people to get enough to eat. Prices are relatively low and stable and the type of food people are eating is balanced,” Deborah Hardoon, a senior researcher at Oxfam who compiled the results, said in an interview.

“They’ve got the fundamentals right and in a way that is better than most other countries all over the world.”

Oxfam ranked the nations on the availability, quality and affordability of food and dietary health. It also looked at the percentage of underweight children, food diversity and access to clean water, as well as negative health outcomes such as obesity and diabetes.

European countries dominated the top of the ranking but Australia squeezed into the top 12, tying with Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Luxembourg at No. 8.

Low food prices and low levels of diabetes played a major role in the Netherlands’ high ranking. Such a good diet is partly why the Dutch are among the longest-lived people on Earth, as well as some of the tallest on average.

France and Switzerland were runners up, while the U.K. landed in 13th place and the United States and Japan tied for 21st. Although America ranked high in the affordability and quality of food, its rating was pulled down by the high levels of obesity and diabetes; Japan fared poorly mostly on the relatively high price of food.

In last place was Chad, which often ranks in the bottom five of most reports on human development and prosperity. The African nation scored particularly bad for the cost of food and the number of underweight children — 34 percent. Only the West African countries of Guinea and the Gambia did worse in food prices, both falling at the lower end of the ranking.

Most of the bottom 30 countries in the Oxfam report were in Africa, followed by South Asian countries like Laos (112), Bangladesh (102), Pakistan (97) and India (97); in terms of nutrition and underweight children, Burundi (119), Yemen (121), Madagascar (122) and India have the worst rankings.

But there is a more important conclusion to draw from the study than the Netherlands’ impressive performance (which can nonetheless serve as a case study). Quoting The Guardian once more:

Oxfam said the latest figures show 840 million people go hungry every day, despite there being enough food for the hungry. It called for changes in the way food is produced and distributed around the world.

The causes of hunger, it added, include a lack of investment in infrastructure in developing nations and in small-scale agriculture, security, prohibitive trading agreements, biofuel targets that divert crops from food to fuel and the impact of climate change.

Research suggests that climate change could raise the number of people at risk of hunger by 20 to 50 percent by 2050, according to the group.

“This index quite clearly indicates that despite the fact of there being enough food in the world we are still not able to feed everybody in all the countries around the world,” said Hardoon.

“If we had a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, and particularly food, this wouldn’t be a problem,” she added.

It is a moral tragedy that hundreds of millions of people are scarred by hunger and malnutrition despite there being more than enough food to go around (such that an estimated one-third is wasted around the world, especially in the U.S., U.K., and other developed countries).

Good on the Dutch and other developed-world societies for mostly resolving all-too familiar human problem — now to apply their strategies and approaches on a global scale.

It’s An Exciting Time To Be A Foodie

It is easy to take for granted just how rich, diverse, and flavorful our diets can now be. With all the (understandable focus) on new technologies and scientific paradigms, it is easy to forget all the progress achieved in both food production and the culinary arts.

For the overwhelming majority of history, humans were limited to only the relatively small variety of foodstuff they could find or grow in their immediate area. (Although this obviously varied depending on the climate or environment.) Even the greatly connected empires of pre-modern history could only access a fraction of the world’s diverse quantity of food.

Now, thanks to advancements in trade, agriculture, and the culinary arts — all amplified by globalization — we enjoy a tremendous selection of produce, dishes, spices, cooking methods, and more that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Many of the cuisines we know and love are a product of decades or even centuries of cross-cultural intermingling, with creative fusions continuing to emerge.

In short, it has never been a better time to be a gourmet — although who knows what more culinary surprises the future holds?

(Now of course, I am well aware that this applies only to those fortunate enough to have secure, regular access to basic food, much less all these exotic  cuisines; needless to say I am grateful for that.)

Why Do We Call Turkey, “Turkey”?

Of course, by “we” I mean English-speakers, and there are several theories, all of which seem plausible. From The Atlantic

The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey coc” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts. The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

It gets more interesting: the Turks called the turkey “hindi” because they thought it origined from India. The French had also called the bird “poulet d’Inde” (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. The Dutch called it kalkoen, which means “hen from Calicut”, a major Indian city at the time. The Indians, for their part, called turkey “piru” or “peru” in some dialects, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to turkey. Malaysians call turkey “ayam blander” (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for “moan barang” (“French chicken”).

Whatever its etymology, most people would call it delicious (although — not to put a damper on Thanksgiving — the modern turkey has unappetizingly deviated much from its original stock).