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?