Category: food science

Gluten-free continues to grow

Gluten Free Tours.

Photo by Flickr user Paul Swansen, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Thanks to J., I just read a recent article by Stephanie Strom at The New York Times that examines growing sales of gluten-free foodstuffs at grocery stores. (This despite the relatively small percentage of the population with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.) As she describes,

Harry Balzer, vice president at the market research company NPD Group, where he has followed the food industry for some 30 years, [said] “About 30 percent of the public says it would like to cut back on the amount of gluten it’s eating, and if you find 30 percent of the public doing anything, you’ll find a lot of marketers right there, too.”…

One of the biggest challenges for big grocery chains … is that the supply of gluten-free products is largely made up of small local and regional brands. “There are few dominant national brands, and consumers are very loyal to their local brands,” said Tim Mahan, general manager for Nature’s Marketplace. “Trying to strike a balance between having a meaningful assortment but still satisfying that loyalty is a challenge.”

The fractured market has created a bonanza for smaller food companies that do not have legacy processing plants laden with traces of gluten, a challenge faced by many major food producers. In 2011, for example, Smart Balance, an investor in small food companies specializing in healthful products, paid $66.3 million for Glutino, a gluten-free bakery operation.

A year later, it spent about twice that amount for Udi’s, another gluten-free baking operation. “Udi’s claim to fame was that he provided the first gluten-free bread you could actually eat — and that’s cracking a pretty tough code,” said Stephen Hughes, the chief executive of Boulder Brands, as Smart Balance is now known.

Last August, the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling, ruled that products labeled gluten free were permitted to contain no more than 20 parts of gluten per million, which made it more difficult for large food companies to get into the business. “You really need to have a captive facility because wheat floats,” Mr. Hughes said.

The full piece is worth a read; check it out here.

So-called superfoods won’t save you from death


Photo by Flickr user Jennifer C, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Amy Fleming recently penned a great piece for The Guardian that provides a healthy dose of skepticism and science to counteract those over-hyped claims you’ve heard about blueberries, açaí, yuzu, or whatever the latest life-saving fruit is. She begins:

In the early 1990s, a cookbook called Superfoods appeared in the bookshops. It was co-written by the alternative medicine practitioner, Michael Van Straten, who is one of a handful of people said to have coined what has become one of the most spuriously bandied-about marketing terms of our times.

The book revealed Straten’s “four-star superfoods”, which “supply the vital bricks that build your body’s resistance to stress, disease and infection”. The list held few surprises, consisting of, you know, stuff that’s good for you: common fruit and veg, whole grains, nuts. Foods we’re especially keen on eating in January, as an antidote to Christmas excesses. Wouldn’t these foods be more accurately described as simply “food” (as opposed to junk food)? Nevertheless, the notion of superfoods was, and still is appealing. Except this century, the term is now used to assign near-magical powers to overpriced, exotic foodstuffs. It’s promotional potency went into turbo boost when the theories about antioxidants – probably the most successful “the science bit” spiel of all time – hit the public consciousness. Ever since, food sellers have clambered to keep “discovering” novel, unparalleled sources of “extraordinary nutrients”.

Fleming goes on to debunk the superiority of these foods that, while healthful, won’t keep you out of the grave. As she concludes, “the key advice remains the same: eat a varied diet including plenty of colourful vegetables and whole grains.” Amen to that. Check out her full post here.

A brief history of MSG


Photo by Flickr user Jason Burrows [PunkJr], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I discovered a recent blog post at Smithsonian by Natasha Geiling on the food enhancer monosodium glutamate. She takes us back to the discovery/invention of MSG and considers how its use and our views of it have shifted over the last century here in the US. I especially appreciated her connecting MSG to contemporary foodies’ love of umami. As she writes,

Few letters have the power to stop conversation in its tracks more than MSG, one of the most infamous additives in the food industry. The three little letters carry so much negative weight that they’re often whispered sheepishly or, more often, decidedly preceded by the modifier “NO” that seems to make everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief when they go out to eat. Nobody wants MSG in their food—the protest goes—it causes headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and general malaise. It’s unhealthy and, maybe even worse, unsexy, used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavor, not an enhancement.

On the other side of the spectrum lies umami: few foodie buzzwords pop off the lips with such entertaining ease. Enterprising young chefs like David Chang (of Momofuku fame) and Adam Fleischman, of the LA-based chain Umami Burger, have built their culinary careers on the basis of the fifth taste, revitalizing an interest in the meaty-depth of umami. It’s difficult to watch the Food Network or Travel Channel or any food-based program without hearing mention of the taste wunderkind, a host or chef cooing over the deep umami flavors of a Portobello mushroom. Where MSG is scary, umami is exciting.

What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.

The full post is worth a read; check it out here.

Troubling, seemingly ubiquitous palm oil

Oil palm: nursery

An oil palm nursery in Borneo. Photo by Flickr user DrLianPinKoh, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The current issue of the Willy Street Co-op Reader includes a thoughtful article by Kirsten Moore titled, “Palm Oil: Making Sense of the Controversy.” As she describes,

Our relationship with palm oil began in the mid-1800s in Indonesia and Malaysia, where we discovered the oil palm was very rich in oil that could serve multiple purposes from making soap to fueling a steam engine. Palm oil yields average about 6000 liters per hectare, far beyond other edible oils (more than eight times that of soybeans), making it an oil that requires a lot less space to farm and a very cheap oil in the global market. Palm oil also has a longer shelf life than other oils. Virgin red palm oil has recently earned a healthy reputation for a very high antioxidant capacity of beta-carotene, tocotrienols, tocopherols and Vitamin E. Sounds great, right? … Not so fast.”

Moore goes on to consider a wide array of health, environment, and social justice concerns with most current palm oil production, alongside benefits and alternative production models. The issues are worth considering, since—as Moore details—”The overall use of palm oil has grown exponentially since the 1960s, rising from about a half million to over two million tons in the 1980s, and over 48 million tons in the mid-2000s. In 2005, palm oil surpassed soya as the world’s most produced vegetable oil.” For the full article, head here.

For more, check out these earlier posts of mine that touch on the subject of palm oil:

Marketing junk food to kids

Anna Lappé‘s Food MythBusters has a new video out. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, her message will be familiar, but it’s definitely worth hearing again. As she details in a column at Civil Eats*,

Big Food and its PR machine are pushing high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods and drinks on our kids all the time—the very products at the heart of this generation’s health problems.

And while we parents are charged with ensuring our kids make healthy choices, our work is being made more difficult for us by the advertising might of Big Food. The reality is kids are bombarded at every age with exploitative advertising telling them junk food is cool to eat.

This marketing goes well beyond ads on TV. If only it were as easy as just turning off the TV or tossing it out. Today, junk-food marketing to kids is everywhere—from public schools to sports events to specially branded Web sites like

Read her full post, visit the Food MythBusters website, and watch the video on YouTube.


* As of this writing, Civil Eats is currently trying raise $100K to keep their independent food journalism site up and running. Learn more and contribute to the campaign on Kickstarter.

Embracing preserved produce

Organic Blueberries

Photo by Flickr member Artizone, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fresh produce is great for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to give up on all lightly processed veggies and fruits. Kiera Butler has a nice post at Mother Jones that’s worth checking out. For example, she explains that

Some of the vitamins and minerals in produce start to degrade soon after harvesting, explains Diane Barrett, a food scientist at the University of California-Davis who has studied the nutritional differences between processed and fresh. By the time a stalk of broccoli makes it from the farm to the supermarket to your refrigerator, it has already lost some of its nutritional value. “Fruits and vegetables are frozen within hours of harvest, so that actually allows you to retain those nutrients,” says Barrett, who receives industry funding.

As I’ve said previously, when it comes to frozen peas, I couldn’t agree more.

Butler’s piece has “ifs,” and “mays,” and other qualifiers scattered throughout, but that’s largely a strength of her writing, not a weakness. (See, for example, her note above that Dr, Barrett’s work has had industry funding. That doesn’t in and of itself mark the findings as illegitimate, but it should give us pause.) This nuanced hedging reminds us that understanding the immense modern food system requires both an eye for detail and an appreciation of the complexity of modern life.  Check out the full post here.

The great prune juice mystery

Over the weekend, a friend [thanks, L!] offered me a prune. I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever having eaten one previously, so I decided to give it a try. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either, which is about par for the course when it comes to my reactions to most dried fruit. We somehow got to talking about how in the world prune juice gets made. After all, since a prune is a dried plum, can there actually be much juice left to squeeze from it? Not really, it turns out.

Image from a Sunsweet romotional booklet dating from 1942. Via Flickr user alsis 35 (now at ipernity), used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image from a Sunsweet promotional booklet dating from 1942. Via Flickr user alsis 35 (now at ipernity), used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As detailed by Laszlo P. Somogyi in the 1992 specialty publication Processing Fruits,

Prune juice prepared from California dried prunes has been produced commercially since 1934 and consumed in substantial quantities in the United States (Woodroof, 1974). Currently, it is not a popular beverage outside of the United States…. [Does he mean to suggest that it's actually a "popular" beverage here?]

Prune juice differs from other fruit beverages in that it is a water extract of dried fruit, rather than squeezing of fresh produce (Loh, 1980).

Essentially, the dried plums are rehydrated/cooked with boiling water. As Somogyi explains, “from the disintegrated fruit, the juice is separated, either by pressing the pulp in a hydraulic press or by high-speed centrifugation…. The extract is then clarified [through settling, siphoning, or filtering]…. The resulting extract … is collected in surge tanks and concentrated by heat….”

The FDA specifies what can legally constitute prune juice. In part, the rules note that “Canned prune juice is the food prepared from a water extract of dried prunes and contains not less than 18.5 percent by weight of water-soluble solids extracted from dried prunes.” The USDA similarly details [PDF] the “salient characterstics” of “juice, prune, canned,” specifying that “the canned prune juice shall be prepared from a water extract from properly dried, matured, sound, wholesome, whole prunes” and that “flavoring ingredients such as lemon juice, lime juice and citric acid, or combination of either one may be added. The canned prune juice may also contain honey and be fortified with ascorbic acid.” Why the so-called flavoring ingredients? In the November 1948 issue of California Agriculture, famed California food scientist W. V. Cruess notes [PDF] that “The addition of about 0.2% of citric acid greatly improved the juice, for most of those who tasted the juices.”

Reportedly, the expense of producing the dried fruit extract is high enough that “there is an economic incentive for adulteration of prune juice with less expensive fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates, and/or sugar syrups” by less-than-scrupulous producers; as a result, in the 1990s researchers in the Department of Pomology at UC-Davis devised chemical analyses “for establishing the authenticity of prune juice.” [PDF]

Alas, the popularity of prune juice as a natural remedy for constipation eventually led to a negative view of prunes among much of the American populace. As a result, the California Dried Plum Board (CDPB) explains that

In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration granted the California Prune Board permission to use “dried plums” as an alternative name to prunes.  Why the name change?  Because 90% of consumers told us that they’d be more likely to enjoy the fruit if it were called a dried plum instead of a prune.

Prune juice didn’t get rechristened, though. As a story from ABC News explained back in 2000, “Prune juice will still be prune juice, however. Dried fruit juice would be a contradiction in terms, the industry was told by the Food and Drug Administration.” Ya think?

Fake meat targets flexitarians

This piece from Jeremy Bernfeld at Harvest Public Media takes a look at food industry efforts to create products that cater to so-called flexitarians. As the story describes,

Some vegetarian food is getting a makeover. It’s being made to look, feel and taste more like meat. The industry is looking to latch on to a new group of eaters: ‘Flexitarians,’ health conscious, mostly young consumers who are cutting back on meat in their diets. Some cut out almost all meat, others cut out just a little. With over 44 percent of American eaters aged 18-29 choosing to eat a meatless meal at least once a week, according to market research firm Innova Insights, the strategy makes sense. If more people are looking to cut down on meat – but not give it up all together – create vegetarian products that taste like the food consumers are used to.

Gardein Crispy Tenders at Loving Hut Restaurant

Photo by Flickr user SweetOnVeg [Jennifer], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

For more, check out the full story.

Over the last couple years, J and I have made occasional use of meat-substitutes including Tofurky peppered deli slices and several Gardein products, especially the crispy tenders. (Gardein’s award-winning packaging very much speaks to young adults accustomed to clean, modern design thanks to brands as varied as Apple, Ikea, and Target.) Like similar meat-based convenience foods, these products are, well, convenient! With a few accompaniments (e.g., bread, cheese, mustard, and lettuce or spinach make a nice Tofurky sandwich, and a little BBQ sauce is all the crispy tenders need), we just add a quick side or two (e.g., cut carrots, frozen veggies, canned baked beans) for a nearly instantaneous meal. Nevertheless, lately I’ve been thinking about limiting these vegan-friendly products in our diets for two reasons.

First, although low on the food chain, these are highly processed foods that are the result of clever food science rather than simple cooking with whole foods. As such, they violate two of the wise principles that Michael Pollan outlines in his book, In Defense of Food: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and its related food rule, “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.” That said, Tofurky’s main ingredients are wheat protein and organic tofu, with the rest of the list mostly comprehensible (e.g., garbanzo bean flour, cracked peppercorns, lemon juice from concentrate, onion, celery). That’s a heck of a lot better than, say, the so-called ground beef at Taco Bell, which in addition to items like beef, tomato powder, sugar, and soybean oil also includes disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and trehalose. (Say what?)

Second, most of these faux-meat products are made primarily with conventionally farmed rather than organic ingredients. Tofurky gets points for using organic tofu (and a couple non-GMO ingredients), but the rest are conventional. After water, the Gardein crispy tenders’ main ingredients are conventional soy and wheat byproducts, with just a few of the many other ingredients listed as organic. Small in number though they are, none of the ingredients in Upton’s seitan (another item we sometimes purchase) are organic. Similarly, none of the Boca burger varieties (including the couple made with non-GMO soy) contain a single organic ingredient.

So, while the food scientists may be after ways to create more appealing meat substitutes, I’m going to see if in our house we can we stick to things like organic legumes, whole grains, and tofu when we are looking for a substitute for local, pasture-raised meat. Thankfully, we can still turn to our locally made tofu walnut burgers when we need a quick and easy meal!


The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on March 17, 2012.

“Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”

073/366 - Breakfast II

Photo by THEMACGIRL* [Pam Culver] (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As with Michael Moss’s new book, Salt Sugar Fat, which I ended up posting about not once but twice, I decided that although I posted last week about Melanie Warner’s new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, her work deserved a second shout out.

As Yoni Freedhoff describes in a blog post,

Warner reports that her interest was piqued consequent to her tremendously odd processed food collection – a collection she started to satisfy her desire to see how long beyond a processed food’s printed best before date that food would continue to be edible. From 9 month old only slightly brown around the edges guacamole, to 2 year old somewhat shrunken and crystallized processed cheese slices, to cereals older than 2 of my children that still look and taste like new, to chicken “nuggets” that rather than being immortal, liquefied (rather than rotted) within 10 days, Warner set out to figure out why.

Her book explores the history of some of the food industry’s biggest sellers: “Eternal” sliced cheese and the mistake that led to its creation; processed cereal and the story of a man who bragged that he never consummated his 40 year old marriage; discretionary fortification of foods and how and why your milk might contain extracts of sheep wool to return to it some of the vitamins stripped clean by the unbelievably harsh world of processing; the growth of soy and a tale of food flavourists and the debate over omega 3 and 6 ratios; whether or not there is such a thing as a healthy processed food, and much, much more.

Warner attributes her interest in food to her mother Therese who both accidentally ate the 9 month old guacamole (without negative effect), and also instilled in Warner two important messages, “What you put into your body matters, Melanie”, and, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”.

As Carey Polis writes at Huffington Post,

Pandora’s Lunchbox explores the world of processed food, whether it is understanding exactly what American cheese slices are made of, or explaining how soybean oil is showing up in so many different foods. Warner doesn’t expect people to suddenly give up processed foods after reading her book — this isn’t quite “The Jungle” here — and even admits that when she was writing the book, she ate and fed her children more processed food than she typically did. She faced the same problem countless of Americans do: sometimes there simply isn’t time to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal. “I don’t think it is realistic for people in this day and age to cook every night of the week,” Warner told The Huffington Post.

“Everyone has food that they hate to love. Some of that is totally fine,” she explains. “Some” is the key word here though — Warner is far from thrilled with the current state of the food system. But since a massive overhaul of major companies isn’t likely, she suggests some more realistic solutions. “In an ideal world, the processed food industry will be much much smaller,” she says.

The $1 trillion industry isn’t doing everything wrong, though. Minimally-processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, are a step in the right direction, she argues. They can still provide some nutrients and convenience while not offering tons of added chemicals or preservatives.

For more, check out Warner’s conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, which Goodman introduces this way: “As we continue deep inside the $1-trillion-a-year ‘processed-food-industrial complex, we turn to look at how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. And the vitamins and protein added back to this processed food? Well, you might be surprised to know where they come from.” The interview is available online in two parts, here and here.

Opening Pandora’s Lunchbox

Macaroni & Cheese Crackers: American Junk Food

Photo by greencolander [Michelle Tribe] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You know the phrase Pandora’s Box, yes? As the folks at Merriam-Webster summarize, its meaning of “a prolific source of troubles” derives from Greek myth, as in “from the box, sent by the gods to Pandora, which she was forbidden to open and which loosed a swarm of evils upon humankind when she opened it out of curiosity.”

Melanie Warner’s new book draws on that myth for its title, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. (I might call Pandora’s Lunchbox the best non-fiction title of the year, if only it didn’t rest on that tired misogynistic trope of woman as bringer of all that is evil. Oh well.) Paired with Michael Moss‘s Salt Sugar Fat, our heads are sure to spin as we consider what modern food science has done to the American diet.

Like Moss’s book, Pandora’s Lunchbox is getting nice reviews. Publishers Weekly says, “Warner takes readers on an investigative journey into the history, current practices, and future trends concerning food processing and additives…. Warner’s thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices.” Kirkus Reviews concurs: “What is lost from, or added to, factory-produced food in the quest for uniformity, flavor, cohesiveness, moistness and the ability to withstand temperature extremes? To answer this question, journalist Warner examined Kraft prepared-cheese product, Subway’s sandwich bread, breakfast cereals, soybean oil, chicken tenders and other foods. The author clearly explains the procedures and chemicals used to keep mass-produced food consistent and unspoiled, and she identifies the paradox of the food-processing industry: ‘that nutrition and convenience are sometimes deeply at odds with one another.’ … A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.”

The book is also making a bit of a splash in the press; here are a couple snippets to further whet your appetite for Warner’s work (if not the foodstuffs she writes about).

Andy Bellatti offers an informative Q&A with Warner, which includes this gem:

Q. You investigated how soybean oil is made. Can you explain why calling it “natural” is a complete misnomer?

A. It’s not easy getting mass quantities of edible oil from soybeans, which are small, brittle beans containing less than 20 percent oil. First you have to drench them with hexane, a toxic chemical solvent that is known to cause nerve damage in humans. The hexane percolates through the soybeans several times and is then removed from the oil (any residues that remain are small.) After that you have to treat the oil with sodium hydroxide and phosphoric acid, then bleach it with a filter, and deodorize it under heat and an intense vacuum. Then often the oil is hydrogenated or interesterified, allowing it to be more stable for frying or other high-heat conditions. Calling any of this “natural” is a farce.

Also check out this piece from PBS News Hour, which lists “Seven Foods You Think Are Healthy But Aren’t, According to Melanie Warner,” including #2, Subway sandwiches:

Subway has done an outstanding job of promoting itself as the “fresh” and healthy alternative to fast food, and to some extent, these accolades are deserved. Much of the chain’s food has fewer calories, fat and sodium than what you get at McDonald’s and the like. But unless you’re getting a sandwich with nothing but veggies, there’s very little about it that’s “fresh.” Even though Subway bakes its bread inside the stores, it’s definitely not Grandma’s homemade loaf going into those ovens.

The dough is produced in one of 10 large, industrial factories around the country, where it’s loaded up with additives like DATEM (short for diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides), sodium stearoyl lactylate, potassium iodate, ascorbic acid and azodicarbonamide. That last one — azodicarbonamide — is known to break down into a carcinogen when heated and is a chemical used in the production of foamed plastics. When a tanker truck carrying this substance overturned on a Chicago highway several years ago, city fire officials had to issue their highest hazmat alert and evacuate everyone up to a half mile downwind. Mmmmm, fresh!

On the same page, be sure to watch Warner’s conversation with Hari Sreenivasan.

For the PDF of Subway's full ingredient list, click the photo.

I’ve linked to the PDF of Subway’s full product ingredient list, so click the image if you’re feeling brave.