Food Articles



Skeptoid on MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavoring agent originally developed from seaweed. As with so many other compounds, mountainous anecdotal evidence exists that certain people are sensitive to it or develop some reaction to food with MSG added. But there's a problem. MSG is a glutamic (gloo-TAM-ick) acid (as its name suggests), and glutamic acids are widespread in many foods, including virtually everything that contains protein. The supposed condition, called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or MSG Symptom Complex, exists only from self-diagnosis reports and has never been medically described. Reported symptoms vary, but often include numbness or a jittery feeling.

But just because it's common, and just about everyone gets some in just about every meal, doesn't mean that a big dose of it (like a big spoonful mixed into your teriyaki sauce) won't cause a reaction in people who are susceptible. This has been tested, a number of times, in large, well-controlled, randomized trials. The result? Even people who self-identify as MSG sensitive no longer have consistent reactions when given food that they don't know whether or not it contains MSG; and numerous studies have conclusively found that MSG produces no long-term effects in anybody.

This is one of those conclusions that's hard to swallow because so many of us take MSG syndrome as a given, but the science shows that it simply doesn't exist.



Skeptoid on Protein Supplements

Let's refer back to one of our starting theorems: There's no such thing as a miracle food. If you're weight lifting and want to build muscle, you need a lot of food: A lot of calories, a lot of proteins, a lot of everything your body uses to build itself. The idea that there's one supplement, or one protein type, or even a combination of several that will build your muscles faster is wrong. The biochemistry of your muscles is more complicated than that.

Your blood is your body's supply train. If you've worked out your muscles and they need raw materials to rebuild damaged fibers, the blood supplies those. When your blood becomes depleted of something, it gets it from your body's various stores — like your fat, your bone marrow, your lungs, your digestive system —whatever it needs to maintain its balanced supply inventory. There is no direct line to supercharge your muscles with protein; the body simply doesn't work that way.

If you're trying to build muscle by weightlifting, adding a bodybuilding supplement to your regular diet is probably better than adding nothing; but simply eating a whole lot of properly balanced meals is better still. Give your blood access to everything it needs, not just to one or two specific brands of miracle protein or amino acid. And don't skimp on the water, the single most important nutrient.

This is another really popular subject in bodybuilding circles. Everyone wants to maximize their body's available protein, but nobody wants to buy and eat more special protein powder than their body's going to use. Well, the 20 gram number is always going to be wrong, simply because everyone's a different size with a different amount of lean mass and different requirements based on all sorts of things. In addition, your digestive system is relatively slow, and this is for a good reason. A long, slow digestive tract smooths out the spikes of incoming nutrients from meals. Surprisingly, ignoring the effects of hunger and looking at it from a long-term perspective, most studies indicate no difference between people who eat one big meal a day and those who eat the same food spread out over a number of smaller meals and snacks.

The recommended daily allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but active bodybuilders (or hard workers like lumberjacks) may want to more than triple that to about 3 grams per kilogram. Despite concerns from some about damaging your kidneys through overwork, too much protein is not going to hurt you, regardless of whether you spread it out over a day or suck it down all at once in a giant protein shake.



Skeptoid on Milk Myths

Today we're going to drop by our friendly local dairy farm and pick up a quart or two of what has become among the trendiest of foodie fancies, raw milk. Raw milk comes straight from the cow's udder and into your glass. It hasn't been homogenized or pasteurized and has nature's full complement of fat, making it a scrumptious, creamy treat. But many of its fans aren't satisfied with touting its flavor; they also claim it brings a host of miraculous health benefits hitherto undiscovered by science. Health experts, on the other hand, warn against consuming it in no uncertain terms, claiming that its unpasteurized bacterial load makes it an unacceptable risk. Is one or the other of these positions true, or do the real facts lie somewhere in between?

Some raw milk lovers take their passion very seriously, almost to the point of a religion. It's fine to like something, fine to uphold ideological positions, fine to advocate to others. But it's never OK to invent bad science to defend a position; and unfortunately, it appears that's exactly what some raw milk proponents do. Here are five common arguments that I found being repeatedly made about the supposed evils of regular pasteurized, homogenized milk:

1. Pasteurization destroys milk's nutrients: False.

As we know, regular milk is pasteurized, and this is the key difference between it and raw milk. Heating food to reduce spoilage has been in practice for about a thousand years, even though the mechanism wasn't well understood at first. We now know that heat kills the microbes found in food; including bacteria, fungi, algae, and a whole host of other organisms. Dangerous bacteria, like Salmonella and E. coli, are the most worrisome.

We could sterilize food if we wanted to kill everything in it, but complete sterilization would also cook or destroy the food. It was Louis Pasteur who discovered in 1864 that a much gentler heating for only a short time was sufficient to kill such a high percentage of the microbes that food spoilage was largely mitigated. Today milk is one of many, many foods that are pasteurized to increase their shelf life and safety. There are various processes for doing this, but the net result is that the milk is briefly heated and then cooled again. Opponents say that a side effect of this is to destroy essential nutrients in the milk.

To see whether this is true, we first have to ask "What are these nutrients?" So far, the answer to this has been wanting. The nutrients in milk are mainly energy from fat and lactose, and these are unaffected by pasteurization. Similarly, the molecular structures of proteins and minerals are far too robust to be damaged by the relatively low heat. One fact is that a number of vitamins are found in reduced concentration in pasteurized milk, including vitamins B1, B12, C and E. Though true, it's a fine trade-off, because milk of any kind is a relatively poor source for these vitamins. Vitamin A content is actually increased after pasteurization.

Often, advocates point to the fact that regular milk is fortified with vitamin D as evidence that pasteurization destroys that vitamin, so it has to be re-added. Untrue. Milk is not a source of vitamin D; it's one of many products that are fortified (such as breakfast cereals, orange juice, and baby formula), and have been since rickets was a major public health problem in the 1930s.

Lactobacillus is a bacterium found in our bodies, and also found in cow's milk. Lactobacillus does help with our digestion and the conversion of sugars to energy. And, it is killed by pasteurization. While some raw milk advocates raise alarm over this, there's no need. Lactobacillus thrives and reproduces itself inside our bodies. There is no need to drink milk to get it.

2. Homogenization makes milk less healthy: False.

Raw milk is not homogenized like regular milk. Homogenization is just what it sounds like; making the milk consistent from batch to batch, and making the fat level consistent throughout each serving.

Homogenization is a simple process. The first thing that's done is to mix together milk from different dairies, making it more consistent overall and day to day. The second part is making it consistent throughout. Raw milk separates into a light, fatty layer on top, and a heavier layer on the bottom. Homogenization turns it into an emulsion, in which the fat particles are tiny and evenly distributed throughout the liquid in such a way that they won't separate like raw milk. This is just a matter of forcing it through a fine strain which breaks up the fat chunks into tiny specks. Presto, a homogenous product.

Opposition to the homogenization of milk is manifold, yet so far, unsupported by any good science. Most of it sprang from a mass-market 1983 book, The XO Factor: Homogenized Milk May Cause Your Heart Attack, which put forth a number of fringe hypotheses which were quickly refuted in the medical literature but achieved much more mindshare among the general public. The book claimed, as its title suggests, that the homogenized fat particles were responsible for a lot of heart disease. Other claimed issues included digestion problems, but again, once controlled testing was done, it was found that people claiming hypersensitivity to homogenized milk reported just as many digestion problems no matter what kind of milk they were given.

Raw milk may avoid homogenization, but the result is just a taste preference. No health benefits or detriments have been discerned either way.

3. Unpasteurized raw milk has less bacteria: False.

The whole point of pasteurizing milk is to reduce the dangerous bacteria, obviously; so this claim really had me scratching my head wondering how on Earth someone could have come up with it. Here is an example of one article that claims raw milk is likely to have fewer bacteria than pasteurized milk, this one from a web site called "The Daily Green":

...Provided it comes from a reputable farm and has been processed clean, it should arrive with a fairly low bacterial count (all milk, even pasteurized, has some kind of bacterial count). What has been shown with raw milk is that if you introduce pathogens (i.e., bad bacteria) into it, they die off. They think it's because the "good" bacteria (i.e., natural probiotics) that are in the milk naturally kill the bad bacteria -- just the way good bacteria in our intestinal tract kill off bad bacteria.

So if I might paraphrase, the claim is that yogurt-style live probiotic bacteria in raw milk kills bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli; but pasteurization kills the probiotics and allows the Salmonella and E. coli to flourish. Fair enough; however, this claim is founded upon two factual errors.

The first error is that probiotics kill bad bacteria. It's true that bacteria do feed on each other a lot of the time, but this is a far messier battleground than the simplistic miracle claim of "good bacteria beat the bad bacteria". In fact, a 2010 study in Sweden found that patients infected with Salmonella did not have improved outcomes when taking probiotics.

The second error is that pasteurization kills only probiotics and not Salmonella and E. coli. In fact, targeting those harmful bacteria is the entire reason for pasteurization. If it kills harmless probiotics as well, no matter; we don't really care about that.

Either way, the evidence is very clear that raw milk carries far greater risk of bacterial infection than pasteurized milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devotes an entire web site to reporting this increased danger: Among dairy product-associated outbreaks reported to CDC between 1998 and 2011 in which the investigators reported whether the product was pasteurized or raw, 79% were due to raw milk or cheese. From 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths. Most of these illnesses were caused by E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, or Listeria. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of the raw milk-associated disease burden falls on children; among the 104 outbreaks from 1998-2011 with information on the patients' ages available, 82% involved at least one person younger than 20 years old.

Without qualification, raw milk is substantially more dangerous than pasteurized milk.

4. Raw milk cures all sorts of diseases: False.

It's pretty common to find in the raw milk literature the claim that conditions like eczema, asthma, and allergies are all successfully treated by drinking raw milk. This claim is completely absent from the scientific literature, but alternative medicine journals have asserted on many occasions that the bacteria in raw milk better challenges a child's immune system, and thus protects the child from such conditions. This is exactly how a vaccine works, so really all they're saying is that raw milk is a vaccine against eczema, asthma, and allergies.

There are no vaccines against these conditions — although "allergies" is such a broad category that it's impossible to make any blanket statements. If it were possible to vaccinate against eczema, asthma, and all allergies, then drug companies would have done it decades ago for immense profits, as they've done with the existing vaccines on the market. Make no mistake, medical science would love to be able to prevent these conditions.

5. Grass-fed cows produce safer milk: False.

Most cows are fed grain, since it takes too much land and rare climatic conditions to let cows pasture graze. Although a lot of raw milk sources say that grass-fed cows produce milk that's higher in this vitamin or that vitamin or what have you, the only difference that's been consistently shown is that it contains a higher amount of a fatty acid called CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid. CLA is sold as a supplement in the alternative health industry as a cure for things ranging from cancer to obesity. There are a number of small studies supporting these uses in the alternative medicine literature.

CLA is found in all meat and dairy products, and it is indeed found in higher concentrations in grass-fed animals. But that doesn't necessarily make it a wonder drug. Unlike the alternative medicine literature, the science literature makes almost no mention of CLA outside of animal studies. There's certainly no clear evidence that CLA supplementation has any evident medical benefit, although it certainly isn't going to hurt you. In the real world, the tiny amount of CLA you'd get by drinking grass-fed cows' milk instead of grain-fed is almost certainly insignificant.

Regardless, it cannot be reasonably argued that the milk from grass-fed cows is "safer" than that from grain-fed cows.

The default feedback I'm going to get from this episode is that I am on the payroll of Big Dairy, paid to spread misinformation and put the small, enlightened dairy farmers out of business. The only people who pay me are my listeners, for pointing out bad information like this that can impact public health. Raw milk is indeed a health risk, but from what I've been able to find, it's not a huge one. It certainly puts fewer people in the hospital than bad meat. If you enjoy the flavor and don't mind the limited availability, I say go for it. But please, like it for what it is, and don't make up bad science to fool other people into sampling a potentially dangerous food.

My mother always told me to avoid dairy products when I have a cold as they increase congestion. Is this true or just an urban myth?

Would that there were a single food that could affect the outcome of a viral infection, but even in this popular folk-wisdom instance, it's not the case.

Perhaps the best study of this belief was done in 1990, with 60 people who volunteered to be given a cold virus. Researchers collected and weighed each subject's mucus output every day to see how much they were producing. Half drank a lot of milk each day; half didn't. It turned out that the milk drinkers did not produce any more mucus than normal, thus conclusively busting the myth.

However, subjects also reported subjectively on the severity of their cough and congestion. Those who stated they believed that milk would make congestion worse were also the same people who felt they suffered the most from cough and congestion, but there turned out to be no significant correlation between them and the subjects who produced more mucus. So, like so many phenomena, this particular snippet of folk wisdom also comes down to belief.



The Problem With Gluten

Two years ago, at the recommendation of a nutritionist, I stopped eating wheat and a few other grains. Within a matter of days the disabling headaches and fatigue that I had been suffering for months vanished. Initially my gastroenterologist interpreted this resolution of my symptoms as a sign that I perhaps suffered from celiac disease, a peculiar disorder in which the immune system attacks a bundle of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye that are collectively referred to as gluten. The misdirected assault ravages and inflames the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of vital nutrients and thereby causing bloating, diarrhea, headaches, tiredness and, in rare cases, death. Yet several tests for celiac disease had come back negative. Rather my doctors concluded that I had nonceliac “gluten sensitivity,” a relatively new diagnosis. The prevalence of gluten sensitivity is not yet clear, but some data suggest it may afflict as many as 6 percent of Americans, six times the number of people with celiac disease.

Although gluten sensitivity and celiac disease share many symptoms, the former is generally less severe. Compared with individuals with celiac disease, people with gluten sensitivity are more likely to report nondigestive symptoms such as headaches and do not usually suffer acute intestinal damage and inflammation. Lately, however, some researchers are wondering if they were too quick to pin all the blame for these problems on gluten. A handful of new studies suggest that in many cases gluten sensitivity might not be about gluten at all. Rather it may be a misnomer for a range of different illnesses triggered by distinct molecules in wheat and other grains.

“You know the story of the blind man and the elephant? Well, that's what gluten-sensitivity research is right now,” says Sheila Crowe, head of research at the gastroenterology division at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. As doctors continue to tease apart the diverse ways that the human body reacts to all the proteins and other molecules besides gluten that are found in grains, they will be able to develop more accurate tests for various sensitivities to those compounds. Ultimately clinicians hope such tests will help people who have a genuine medical condition to avoid the specific constituents of grains that make them ill and will stop others from unnecessarily cutting out nutrient-dense whole grains.

Seeds of Sickness

Among the most commonly consumed grains, wheat is the chief troublemaker. Humans first domesticated the wheat plant about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Since then, the amount of wheat in our diet—along with all the molecules it contains—has dramatically increased. Of all these molecules, gluten is arguably the most important to the quality of bread because it gives baked goods their structure, texture and elasticity. When bakers add water to wheat flour and begin to knead it into dough, two smaller proteins—gliadin and glutenin—change shape and bind to each other, forming long, elastic loops of what we call gluten. The more gluten in the flour, the more the dough will stretch and the spongier it will be once baked.

Until the Middle Ages, the types of grain that people cultivated contained far smaller amounts of gluten than the crops we grow today. In the following centuries - even before people understood what gluten was - they selectively bred varieties of wheat that produced bread that was lighter and chewier, inexorably increasing consumption of the protein. As technology for breeding and farming wheat improved, Americans began to produce and eat more wheat overall. Today the average person in the U.S. eats around 132 pounds of wheat a year - often in the form of bread, cereal, crackers, pasta, cookies and cakes - which translates to about 0.8 ounce of gluten each day.

Although historical records dating from the first century a.d. mention a disorder that sounds a lot like celiac disease, it was not until the mid-1900s that doctors realized the gluten in wheat was to blame. During World War II, Dutch physician Willem-Karel Dicke documented a sharp drop in the number of deaths among children with the severest forms of celiac disease in parallel with a bread shortage. In a follow-up study, researchers removed different components of wheat from the diet of 10 children with the intestinal illness. Adding back gluten caused symptoms such as diarrhea to resurface, but reintroducing a different complex molecule found in wheat, namely starch, did not. Thus, gluten was shown to be responsible for celiac disease.

Later experiments by other researchers revealed which component of gluten provokes the immune system. When digested, gluten splits back into gliadin and glutenin. For reasons that remain unclear, the immune system of people with celiac disease treats gliadin in particular as though it were a dangerous invader.

For years doctors used diet to diagnose the gut disorder: if someone's symptoms disappeared on a gluten-free diet, then that person had celiac disease. Over time, however, clinicians developed more sophisticated ways to identify celiac disease, such as tests that look for immune system molecules known as antibodies that recognize and cling to gliadin. With the advent of such tests, clinicians soon discovered that some people who became mildly ill after eating bread and pasta did not in fact have celiac disease: biopsies revealed little or no intestinal damage, and blood tests failed to find the same antibodies associated with the disorder. In the process, the new condition became known as nonceliac gluten sensitivity.

Now several studies hint that so-called gluten sensitivity might not always be caused by gluten. In some cases, the problem may be entirely different proteins - or even some carbohydrates. “We're so used to dealing with gluten as the enemy, but it might actually be something else,” says David Sanders, who teaches gastroenterology at the University of Sheffield in England. Joseph Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., agrees: “I'm starting to feel more uncomfortable calling it nonceliac gluten sensitivity. I think it might be better to call it nonceliac wheat sensitivity.”

Against the Grain

If the culprits behind certain instances of gluten sensitivity are, in fact, wheat constituents other than gluten, finding the right ones will be difficult. Wheat has six sets of chromosomes and a whopping 95,000 or so genes. In comparison, we humans have just two sets of chromosomes and about 20,000 genes. Genes code the instructions to build proteins, so more genes mean more proteins to sift through. Some initial experiments have spotlighted a few potential offenders, however.

In laboratory tests, wheat proteins known as amylase-trypsin inhibitors have stimulated immune cells in plastic wells to release inflammatory molecules called cytokines that can overexcite the immune system. Further tests showed that these wheat proteins provoked the same inflammatory response in mice. Likewise, in an Italian study, small concentrations of wheat germ agglutinin, a protein distinct from gluten, roused cytokines from human intestinal cells growing in a plastic well.

Preliminary research suggests that, in other cases, by-products of gluten digestion may be the problem. Breaking down gliadin and glutenin produces even shorter chains of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—some of which may behave like morphine and other soporific opiates. Perhaps these molecules explain some of the lethargy exhibited by people who do not have celiac disease but are nonetheless sensitive to wheat, suggests Aristo Vojdani, chief executive officer of Immunosciences Lab in Los Angeles. In a small study by Vojdani and his colleagues, the blood of people classified as gluten-sensitive had higher levels of antibodies that recognize these gluten by-products than blood taken from healthy volunteers.

A final group of potential culprits belongs to a diverse family of carbohydrates such as fructans that are notorious for being difficult to digest. A failure to absorb these compounds into the blood may draw excess water into the digestive tract and agitate its resident bacteria. Because these resilient carbohydrates occur in all kinds of food—not just grains—a gluten-free or wheat-free diet will not necessarily solve anything if these molecules truly are to blame.

No Piece of Cake

Despite the recent evidence that wheat sensitivities are more numerous and varied than previously realized, research has also revealed that many people who think they have such reactions do not. In a 2010 study, only 12 of 32 individuals who said they felt better on a diet that excluded gluten or other wheat proteins actually had an adverse reaction to those molecules. “Thus, about 60 percent of the patients underwent an elimination diet without any real reason,” notes study author Antonio Carroccio of the University of Palermo in Italy.

Nevertheless, uncovering nongluten agitators of illness will give doctors a more precise way to diagnose grain sensitivities and help people avoid certain foods. Researchers could, for example, design blood tests to look for antibodies that bind to various short chains of amino acids or proteins such as wheat germ agglutinin, explains Umberto Volta, a gastroenterologist at the University of Bologna in Italy. And some scientists think ongoing research will eventually yield new therapies. “If we know what triggers the immune system, we hope we can switch the system off and cure the disease,” says Roberto Chignola of the University of Verona in Italy.

Personally, I suspect that something besides gluten might trigger my own symptoms. On occasion, I have tried gluten-free grain-based products such as beer made from barley from which the gluten has been extracted. Every time my headaches came roaring back with a vengeance (far sooner than any hangover might have struck), making me all the more suspicious that gluten is not the root of my troubles.

If that is true, and there is even the remote possibility of safely reinstating gluten in my diet, I would really like to know. As a New Yorker, it is hard for me to forgo pizza. If gluten was vindicated in my case, perhaps I could add it to nongrain flours or otherwise cook up experimental pizza at home and get those gooey, stretchy slices out of my dreams and onto my plate.



Why Spicy Foods Make Us Feel Good

Any Sriracha devotee knows the spicy condiment will add a little zing to just about anything that’s edible. But in addition to spicing up a meal, the famous rooster sauce also gives you a naturally produced high.

Sriracha is made with a simple recipe of ground red chili peppers, vinegar, salt, sugar and some preservatives. The blend is so potent that Sriracha factories emit a problematically spicy pollution—the subject of a current lawsuit in California.

The secret of the sauce’s spiciness is the subject of a recent American Chemical Society video, unlocking the mystery of why Sriracha burns so good.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

The peppers in Sriracha, not surprisingly, are the key ingredient, and two key chemical compounds in those red-hot chili peppers are what give you the kick in the mouth: capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin. When ingested, these molecules trick our brains into thinking our mouths are literally burning.

Specifically, capsaicin variants bind and open up a nerve receptor on the tongue, called TRPV1. Temperatures higher than 109 degrees Fahrenheit activate these receptors, as do capsaicin compounds, telling your brain that your tongue is touching something hot. Allyl isothiocyanate, a heat-inducing compound in mustard and wasabi, will also perform the same trick as the capsaicin compounds.

Sensing our pain, our nervous system releases a shot of endorphins, the same chemicals that float around our bodies during sex, to give us a natural, pain-relieving high. So next time someone claims their Sriracha-drenched potato chips are better than sex, they may not be speaking figuratively.

Measuring the Heat

In terms of the big picture, Sriracha is really just the B-league for heat-seeking foodies. The Scoville scale, based on subjective testers’ ratings, measures the wallop of spicy foods.

A sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero. Sriracha sauce, on the other hand, usually falls between 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units. By comparison, a habanero pepper rocks the scales at 350,000 Scoville units.

If you’re really in the mood to show off for your friends, or are seeking a potent natural high, you could give the new heavyweight champion, the Carolina Reaper, a try. The take-no-prisoners pepper from North Carolina’s Ed Currie weighs in at 2.2 million Scoville units. We’ll stick with our Sriracha, please.



Sensible Eating

A baffling and alarming week of headlines for people who eat food — which is to say, er, everyone. The big news was that high-protein, low-carb diets were “as bad for you as smoking” — a patently ludicrous assertion, given that nobody dies from eating sea bass and broccoli.

A couple of days later came a new headline, this time screaming that low-fat diets do not curb heart disease or help you live longer and are a complete waste of time because the real culprits are ... carbohydrates and sugar.

You can see the impasse: a low-carb diet — restricting carbohydrates, shunning sugar and embracing “good fats” such as olive oil — is as bad for you as smoking, but eating carbs and sugar does nothing for you either.

By the end of the week people up and down the country were gazing at their breakfast, lunch and dinner in despair. The mere act of eating had become a minefield.

A few years ago, having lost a fairly dramatic amount of weight quickly and painlessly, I wrote a low-carb diet book — so, yes, I’m biased. Speak, as I did, to any doctor, any nutritionist, and a number of things become crystal clear.

One, sugar isn’t anybody’s friend, whether it’s in fizzy drinks or natural produce (organic fruit juice can still rot your teeth). Two, stodge makes you fat. Three, it’s not a good idea to eat Frankenfoods that have been so manipulated that they bear no resemblance to anything you might find in nature. If you can’t pronounce, let alone recognise, the 22 ingredients in your “healthy” snack, best put it back. Four, vegetables, the greener and leafier the better, are good for you. Five, fake sugar is worse than real sugar. Six, “diet” anything is worse than the real version.

These are hardly earth-shattering aperçus: they are how people used to eat. If your granny felt a bit tubby, she would dump the cakes, biscuits and potatoes for a bit and lose weight. In France women who are watching their weight don’t eat croissants for breakfast but they do eat steak, fish and vegetables for lunch and have cheese for pudding. Not all carbohydrates are created equal: complex carbs — brown things, basically — are fine, whereas processed carbs, or white things, are not.

The matter has become complicated because people have melodramatic views of low-carb diets. They think a typical meal might involve a steak fried in butter, with a cream-based sauce, a fried egg on top and a side of chicken wings with a mayonnaise dip — as opposed to, say, a giant spinach salad and a piece of fish. This presupposes that people have no common sense: surely by now everyone knows that ramming cheap, antiobiotic-pumped (and the rest) red meat down your gullet three times a day isn’t a brilliant idea.

The American writer Michael Pollan, a vocal critic of US food policies, put it neatly back in 2006 when he wrote: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

“Food” here refers to real, recognisable food, meat and fish included. (Pollan is also good on “the French paradox”. He wrote: “They have better heart health than we do despite being a cheese-eating, wine-swilling, foie gras-gobbling people. The American paradox is we are a people who worry unreasonably about dietary health yet have the worst diet in the world.”)

Pollan aside, I really hate these mad food edicts that pop up all over the headlines three times a year. What I hate even more is that we have become so anxious about the food we eat, so obsessed with health and weight control, that we have thrown all common sense out of the window.

Deep down we all know how to eat. We know that a home-made wholemeal loaf is better than plastic white bread. We know that giving a child a boiled egg is healthier than giving them a bowl of cereal (up to six teaspoons of sugar a serving. Yes, even the “healthy” ones). We know that “convenience” food is likely to inconvenience our health in the long term.

What I hate most of all about this is that food, one of life’s greatest pleasures and joys, has become medicalised. You know what? We all die in the end. Your stupid chia seeds aren’t going to save you and neither is your batty, joy-denying extreme diet, which, by the way, is likely to give you brittle bones in late middle age.

We all know how to eat — or, at least, we used to. When you feel battered by every headline, every health scare, every “healthy eating guideline” — eggs are the devil! Oh no they’re not. Red wine will kill you! Oops, sorry, reverse that — there’s only one thing to do: go with your instinct. Eat food you trust. Have the odd blowout and wake up face-down in a tray of doughnuts, by all means. But eat sensibly overall.



Make Them Accountable

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A–producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two agricultural economists, one from the Technical University of Munich, the other from the University of California, Berkeley, have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study, published in the journal Environment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears about the human health effects of Golden Rice thrown around by opponents, none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny. It is absolutely fair to charge that opposition to this particular application of genetically modified food has contributed to the deaths of and injuries to millions of people. The opponents of Golden Rice who have caused this harm should be held accountable.

That includes Greenpeace, which in its values statement promises, “we are committed to nonviolence.” Only their non-violent opposition to Golden Rice contributes directly to real human death and suffering. It includes the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, which claims the credibility of scientific expertise, and then denies or distorts scientific evidence in order to oppose GMOs. It includes the U.S. Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club and several environmental groups who deny and distort the scientific evidence on GM foods every bit as much as they complain the deniers of climate change science do. It includes the Non-GMO Project, started by natural food retailers who oppose a technology that just happens to threaten their profits.

Society needs groups like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to hold big companies accountable when they put their profits before our health, as they too often do. But society also has the right to hold advocates accountable when they let their passions blind them to the facts and, in pursuit of their values, put us at risk. Let’s be absolutely clear. That is precisely what opposition to genetic modification of food is doing, as the study of the Golden Rice delay in India makes sobering clear.

And Golden Rice is just one example. There are several other applications of GM technology that could contribute to food security and reduce hunger and starvation. Skeptics like the Union of Concerned Scientists criticize GM technology for not having fulfilled this promise. But that’s because opposition has prevented these products from coming to the market in the first place. It’s pretty tough to keep a promise you’re not allowed to try to keep in the first place. Opposition to several GMO applications, based on fears that don’t stand up against evidence from extensive safety testing, is denying people food and nutrition, and doing real harm.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, “risk is a feeling.” So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.

When advocates get so passionate in the fight for their values that they potentially impose harm on others, it puts us all at risk, and we have the right to call attention to those potential harms and hold those advocates accountable. And this is much broader than just GMOs:

Delay on dealing with climate change exposes us all to much greater risk. We should hold responsible those whose ideology-driven denial of climate change is responsible for some of that risk.

Resistance to anything to make it harder for bad guys to get guns puts us all at risk. Society should hold responsible the paranoid arch-conservatism that has created resistance to any prudent gun control and contributed to that risk.

Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids put others in their communities at risk. They certainly should be held accountable for this, and in some places, that’s beginning. Several states are trying to pass laws making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids.

To hold advocacy groups accountable, people could refuse to belong to or financially support these groups, and thus avoid personally contributing to the harm. They could belong to the groups but protest certain positions from within. They could chose to stand up to these groups in public meetings and respectfully challenge them to answer for the negative consequences and tradeoffs of what these groups espouse. A more skeptical press could challenge these groups about the harm that some of their positions can cause. Scientists can provide hard evidence about the negative impacts of the positions of these groups, as this new economic study does.

Scientists can also hold advocates accountable by demanding reasoned debate, in public forums, as GMO researchers did in 2012 in the U.K. When anti-GMO groups threatened to trash field trials of GM wheat, researchers invited them to debate the issue first, in public, with this challenge to open-mindedness:

“You have described genetically modified crops as ‘not properly tested’. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.”

Anti-GMO protestors, who claimed they were just trying to “Take Back the Flour”, first accepted and then refused. The British press and many in the public held them accountable, rejecting the advocates’ closed-mindedness.

Such efforts need to continue, and expand, on GMOs and any other emotional risk issue. Our values must always have a place in these debates. But when those values cause people to become so closed-minded and absolute that they deny or distort the evidence, and refuse to acknowledge the harmful consequences that our values can sometimes produce, it is fair for society to hold those advocates accountable for pursuing things so stridently that they are putting the larger community at greater risk.



Fat and Fit?

The idea that people can be healthy at any weight has gained credence in recent years, despite widespread evidence that obesity creates health risks. While the idea is attractive, it’s also dangerous because it can lull people who need to lose weight now into a false sense of security.

In a new book The Obesity Paradox: When Thinner Means Sicker and Heavier Means Healthier, for example, US cardiologist Carl Lavie argues that people with certain chronic diseases who are overweight, or even moderately obese, often live longer and fare better than normal weight people with the same ailments.

This may indeed be the case for a small proportion of people, but messages such as this are cause for concern because they can lead to complacency and delays in action against overweight by governments, health professionals and individuals alike.

Being fat and fit?

Lavie’s idea is not new. An increasing number of reports show it’s possible to have a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight (25 or more kilograms per height in metres squared) or obese (30 or more kilograms per height in metres squared) range and still be metabolically healthy. The latter is defined as the absence of certain risk factors for metabolic diseases typically associated with being overweight or obese, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

While the proportion of obese people who are metabolically healthy varies depending on how obesity and health are defined, it’s much smaller proportion than those who are not metabolically healthy. And it’s not possible to predict who will remain metabolically healthy despite excess weight gain.

What’s worse, recent research suggests it’s only a matter of time before obese people who are metabolically healthy start facing health issues. And whether or not a person with excess weight develops illness, sooner or later the mechanical effects of excess weight and the resultant gait abnormalities, combined with systemic inflammation, are likely to take their toll.

Overweight adults are more than twice as likely to develop knee osteoarthritis, and the risk increases with weight. Carrying excess weight also contributes to escalating difficulties in performing everyday activities, such as walking, getting out of a chair and climbing stairs.

Any delay in action is even more worrying because of emerging research in animals such as mice, rats and monkeys that suggests there may be a limited window of opportunity to do something about excess weight.

After a while on an excessive diet (several months in rodents; unknown in people), carrying excess weight may become “hard wired” into the parts of the brain that regulate appetite. It may then become almost impossible to lose weight.

Effects of processed food

Exposure to a processed, energy-dense diet that’s high in fat, or high in fat and sugar (the default diet of modern societies), initially leads to physiological changes in animals and humans that tend to counteract weight gain.

These include a loss of appetite, but whether you actually lose weight in this phase depends on whether you pay attention to how you feel or eat when you’re not hungry. Problems arise when signals for reducing food intake are ignored and people continue eating more than they need.

Chronic exposure to excess food in rodents leads to the breakdown of these compensatory responses. Changes in the brain similar to those seen in drug addiction also occur. Both changes are thought to contribute to a compulsive drive to overeat.

So, instead of the body fighting ongoing fat build-up, as is the case during the initial stages of kilojoule excess and weight gain, long-term excess and fat accretion lead to physiological changes that enable the body to put on weight more easily.

While we know this happens, we don’t know why or how eating too much over time breaks down the body’s natural defences against weight gain. And we don’t know whether the effects of long-term overconsumption to promote a seemingly permanent state of obesity in rodents also occur in humans.

More importantly – and more worryingly – we don’t yet know whether the detrimental effects of long-term excess can be reversed by switching to a healthier, lower-kilojoule diet.

Advantages of acting early

While there are gaps in the evidence for this idea, in light of emerging evidence from animals showing similarities with human brain pathways controlling body weight, it’s probably safer to act now rather than wait.

That’s why the increasingly widespread promotion of the idea of being healthy at any weight, which is potentially a recipe for complacency, is bad.

Governments should take urgent action to ensure that healthy diets are readily accessible to everyone, and that highly processed high-fat, high-sugar diets are difficult to access. We also need more research to find better ways to help people to lose excess weight.

Anyone carrying excess weight should do whatever it takes to rid themselves of it gradually. They should start as soon as possible – while their body is still likely to be amenable to weight loss.

If you put off losing those excess kilos until later, it may be impossible to do it without bariatric surgery or other extreme measures that leave you feeling permanently hungry.

As a society we need to work together to nip excess weight in the bud – the earlier the better, while it is still possible.



Why We Eat: The Science

Here are a few of the things that can make you hungry: seeing, smelling, reading, or even thinking about food. Hearing music that reminds you of a good meal. Walking by a place where you once ate something good. Even after you’ve just had a hearty lunch, imagining something delicious can make you salivate. Being genuinely hungry, on the other hand—in the sense of physiologically needing food—matters little. It’s enough to walk by a doughnut shop to start wanting a doughnut. Studies show that rats that have eaten a lot are just as eager to eat chocolate cereal as hungry rats are to eat laboratory chow. Humans don’t seem all that different. More often than not, we eat because we want to eat—not because we need to. Recent studies show that our physical level of hunger, in fact, does not correlate strongly with how much hunger we say that we feel or how much food we go on to consume.

That’s something of a departure from commonly held views of what it means to be hungry. Traditionally, hunger has been seen as largely physiological: our body becomes depleted and, to maintain homeostasis—the body’s status quo—certain hormones are released into our bloodstream and stomach to signal to our brain that it’s time to replenish its resources. We eat. We digest. We use up our store of energy. The process repeats. “There are literally thousands of studies on the behavioral and biological effects of prolonged food deprivation,” Michael Lowe, a psychologist at Drexel University who has been researching hunger since the late seventies, told me.

Food deprivation, however, is generally not a problem in modern, developed societies. While our ancestors had to struggle to consume enough calories, we can just go to the fridge or the supermarket. As a result, though newborns behave much like animals and our calorie-deprived ancestors—they eat when they are physiologically hungry (and they let you know when they feel that way)—that internal reliance soon goes away. From an early age, we learn to depend increasingly on external, socially, and culturally based cues. Infants as young as twelve months already show signs of taking eating cues from adults—and the eating behaviors that we learn at home often follow us later in life. Lowe calls it the difference between homeostatic and hedonic eating: eating for need and eating for pleasure.

The idea that environmental cues affect hunger is not a new one. As early as 1905, Ivan Pavlov demonstrated as much by training dogs to salivate when they heard a bell. In the nineteen-seventies, the French obesity researcher France Bellisle proposed that the timing and the size of human meals was “essentially determined by sociocultural factors,” which could, in turn, override the physiological signals sent by our bodies. Physiology, in other words, had become a secondary consideration.

Foremost among those factors is something quite simple: the time of day at which you learn to be hungry. Your scheduled lunch break at work or your usual family dinnertime can reliably set your stomach growling. Even if you’ve had an unusually late or large breakfast, your body is used to its lunch slot and will begin to release certain chemicals, such as insulin in your blood and ghrelin in your stomach, in anticipation of your typical habits, whether or not you’re actually calorie-depleted. New research goes as far as to suggest that when you choose (or don’t choose) to eat may be more predictive of weight loss and gain than the total number of calories that you consume. Our bodies don’t have just a single internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake. Each organ—including the organs related to eating—has a circadian clock of its own, and that clock is sensitive to when, precisely, we eat. If two groups consume the same number of calories but one group eats them during the first part of the day and the other during the second, the latter group is up to two times more likely to be obese. In one study, two groups of people were assigned to eat the same number of calories each day during a twelve-week period. One group received more of them during breakfast, and the other had more during dinner. The breakfast group lost significantly more weight.

In 2011, Mark Bouton, a psychologist at the University of Vermont, conducted a review of the types of conditional and operant stimuli that increase a craving for a specific food or our desire to eat more generally. He found that two types of cues play an important role. On the one hand, there are food-specific cues: a certain packaging or color associated with a preferred food (say, the distinctive red and orange of a Doritos logo and bag), a certain sound (someone opening the bag), a certain smell (the scent of the chips), or a certain taste (a hint of saltiness). But equally important are environmental cues that seem unrelated to food: the couch on which you typically watch movies while eating popcorn, a social gathering like a Super Bowl party, a sporting event, a shopping mall. These cues, in turn, are very difficult to unlearn. If you have a habit of snacking on Oreos while watching “Mad Men,” it will be tough to get through an episode without craving your cookie. (TV, in fact, is a particularly difficult stimulus to control; regardless of other ambient conditions, we tend to eat more when the television is on.)

Even the most weight-conscious, eating-savvy individual may find himself weakening under the constant onslaught of environmental cues telling him to eat, eat, eat. “Our environment is absolutely filled with highly pleasurable foods that are also high in calories, high in fat, relatively cheap,” Lowe said. Each time we give in, we increase the amount of self-control we need not to eat the next time. In an environment in which food is a perpetually available temptation, the costs of constantly resisting are high. There are only so many times that you can let a platter of pigs in blankets pass by before you take one.

Making this worse, if we break down and have a snack—and if it happens to be something that we like—we not only become slightly more hungry in the first minutes of eating but we will grow hungry again sooner. In a series of imaging studies, Lowe and his colleagues observed the brain both when it’s anticipating tasty food and when the food is consumed, and found a disturbing pattern. The first few times people eat a new, pleasurable food, their brain’s reward systems light up—both when they are about to eat and after they’ve done so. Over time, however, something shifts. “If you keep doing this repeatedly, over days, what starts to happen is the strength of the reward response to the actual consumption of the food slowly diminishes, but the reward response to the signal, the cue predicting the food, grows stronger,” Lowe said. In other words, our pleasure centers get excited by the promise of a delicious morsel, but no longer by the consumption. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Lowe said. “The more delicious food you eat, the harder it is to resist. But the actual hit, the reward you get from the food, diminishes, so you want to eat more to get the same reward—but when you do that, you further reduce the value of the food and further strengthen the signal for the food.” Environmental cues get stronger. Physiological responses get weaker. And the cycle of false hunger and very real eating grows harder to break.

Perhaps one of the reasons that weight-loss interventions fail, then, is that they have, for the most part, centered on personal life-style choices: your ability to exercise restraint and self-control. Because environmental temptations only grow stronger over time, individuals who have successfully lost weight may find it increasingly hard to keep it off. It takes more and more effort—in the face of greater and greater environmental resistance. Lowe’s solution is to focus on the environment: the psychological hunger cues that have taken over our basic physiology. “If a lot of the problem that overweight people face is exposure to too much delicious food in growing portions, that has big treatment implications,” he said.

In a study published last month, Lowe asked a hundred and thirty-two overweight individuals to participate in a twelve-week weight-loss program—a traditional approach based on the LEARN (Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, Nutrition) model, combining the use of Slim-Fast meal replacements with counselling on lifestyle changes. Participants lost, on average, about thirteen and a half pounds. Lowe then randomly assigned them to one of four maintenance regimes. The first two groups followed one of two approaches that had been taught in the initial program. One group, called the control group, continued to follow the LEARN protocols but, instead of meal replacements, received instructions on how to incorporate conventional food into the diet that would maintain the same caloric intake. For the second group, the meal replacement continued in modified form for one meal and one snack per day. The remaining two groups were taught a new approach that Lowe refers to as “energy density”: a focus on learning to purchase and prepare foods that, pound for pound, have fewer calories than other foods, based on an approach popularized by the nutrition expert Barbara Rolls in her “Volumetrics” book series. Both groups received regular homework assignments to help them to establish new shopping and cooking habits. They were also taught to minimize their exposure to high-density foods in all parts of their lives: in their cars, at work, at home. The third group continued to receive the Slim-Fast meal replacements for one meal and one snack per day; the fourth group switched entirely to conventional foods. The approach in both the third and the fourth groups left some things to chance—the same vending machine would be in your office when you returned from the study as when you began it—but people changed, say, the lunches that they brought to work and the aisles in the supermarket that they walked down first. The researchers tracked each participant’s weight (along with a number of other measures, including blood pressure, hemoglobin, waist circumference, physical activity, and home food environment) at three points in time: twelve months, twenty-four months, and thirty-six months after the start of the study. At the beginning, the groups didn’t differ in weight. By the end, however, stark contrasts had emerged. One year out, all the groups were still holding relatively steady. At twenty-four months, the group that was still practicing meal replacement on its own had gained back an average of three pounds, and the control group had gained back five. But the groups that had learned to create a less energy-dense environment had gained less than a pound. When the study came to an end, after thirty-six months, the differences were even more pronounced. The control group had gained back an average of eleven pounds and the meal-replacement group had gained back five. But the energy-density-centric group, which had both learned to replace all of its food with lower-calorie alternatives and switched entirely to conventional foods instead of meal replacements, had gained back only a pound.

No cue is unchangeable. Altering the environment in which you live and work, Lowe suggests—shopping for less-energy-dense foods, putting the Doritos out of reach on the top shelf, changing your commute so that you don’t drive by the doughnut shop—can go a long way toward changing the patterns of hunger that have become ingrained in your routine. When it comes to what we eat, we should be far less concerned with how we feel and far more focussed on—and wary of—when, where, and how we eat. As the English professor and famed aphorist Mason Cooley once remarked, “I pursue pleasure, but stingily, suspiciously.”



Why Not Eat Swans?

A roast swan stuffed with mushrooms and oysters. Slivers of swan poached in a sauce of saffron and peaches, too rich even for royal taste buds. Each night the lords and ladies of "A Song of Ice and Fire" dine on the finest, most fantastical foods that author George R. R. Martin can imagine, but the swan, resplendent in its white plumage, is a dish rooted in real history.

Once reserved for royalty — Tudor, not Targaryen — swans have been a taboo food for hundreds of years, thanks in large part to their perceived rarity and beauty. Over the past few decades, however, their numbers have swelled to the thousands in places like Michigan and New York, where the birds are called “destructive” and “invasive.”

Swans have been a taboo food for hundreds of years, thanks in large part to their perceived rarity and beauty. Over the past few decades, however, their numbers have swelled to the thousands in places like Michigan and New York, where the birds are called ‘destructive’ and ‘invasive.’

Various solutions have been proposed, but with one glaring exception: The legalized hunting and yes, eating, of swans. Swans are a bird, after all, no different than ducks and quite similar to a Christmas goose. We eat lambs with little cultural objection and with the “Game of Thrones” TV series stirring interests in medieval cookery, it is not impossible that adventurous eaters might like to give it a try.

Often served at feasts, roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce; others preferred to stuff the bird with a series of increasingly smaller birds, in the style of a turducken. Swans have been the property of the Crown since around the twelfth century, but Edward IV’s Act Concerning Swans in 1482 clearly defined that ownership. To this day, Queen Elizabeth II participates in the yearly Swan Upping, in which the royal Swan Master counts and marks swans on the Thames, and the kidnapping and eating of swans can be considered a treasonous crime. Great Britain’s royals are still allowed to eat swan, as are the fellows of St. John’s College of Cambridge, but to the best of our knowledge, they no longer do. Thanks to stories like Leda and the Swan and Lohengrin, the birds appear almost mythical; a restaurant on the Baltic island of Ruegen had swan on their menu for a short time, before protests began and it was swiftly removed.

In Michigan, however, which has the highest population of mute swans in North America, the creatures are considered pests. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the statewide breeding population increased from about 5,700 to more than 15,000 in just ten years. The birds attack people in the water and on shore, particularly children that wander too close to their nests.

In Michigan, mute swans threaten other native birds, such as common loons, black terns, and trumpeter swans, and are also destroying the wetlands where they live. The DNR has set a controversial plan to reduce the population to less than 2,000 by 2030 that involves issuing permits to remove mute swans and their nests from approved properties; a hunting season is not under consideration.

Regulated hunting, however, might gain approval from chefs like Mario Batali, whose friends in Michigan have hunted the birds before. “We once ate a swan at Christmas nine or ten years ago,” he told Esquire. “It was delicious — deep red, lean, lightly gamey, moist, and succulent… but I’ve never seen swan on a market list.”

Swan is not an animal that is hunted and besides it has the ‘cute’ factor going for it. I cannot imagine it on my menu.

“Nobody has ever requested swan,” says Mark Lahm, chef and owner of Henry’s End in Brooklyn. Lahm’s restaurant is one of the few in New York to focus on wild game and has claimed to serve every meat imaginable: bear, turtle, kangaroo—everything, except swan. “Swan is not an animal that is hunted and besides it has the ‘cute’ factor going for it,” Lahm says. “I cannot imagine it on my menu.”

The cultural reluctance to hunt swan (let alone eat it) is powerful, but the government’s desire to control overpopulation is equally strong. Michigan’s population reduction goals have even gained support from conservation groups like the National Audubon Society. Other states, like New York, may turn to more drastic measures. In January, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation proposed to eliminate all of the 2,200 free-ranging mute swans by 2025. The plan was met, of course, with outrage, and the department agreed that it would consider nonlethal means to control the mute swan population.

Few protesters were able to suggest an effective, alternative solution, but when the choice is between the carnage of the mass murder of New York’s swans and regulated hunting, the Lannisters and their roast swan dinners start to sound almost reasonable.



Myths About Food

Today we're going to take a collective look at all the conflicting warnings and exhortations we hear about what we should and shouldn't eat. It seems everyone has some pet theory that you shouldn't drink milk, or you have to eat organic, or you shouldn't eat "processed" foods, or you must only eat raw. There are always explanations for why this is: We didn't "evolve" to eat this or that; it isn't "natural" to eat something; our digestive systems weren't meant to handle a certain thing. I know what you're thinking: How is it possible to cover all those possible claims in a single Skeptoid episode? We're going to do it by stepping back from all of the specific claims and specific foods, way back. We're going to look at food as a whole, and study what it's made of, what those bits are, see what we need and what we don't. And then, with this as a foundation, we'll have the tools to effectively examine any given eating philosophy.

Originally, this episode was going to be about the specific claim that we shouldn't drink milk, based on the idea that humans are the only species that drinks another species' milk, and it's therefore unnatural. I've also been given the suggestion — several times — that we should never give pet food to pets, because its ingredients are not the ones they evolved to eat. I quickly realized that all of these notions are basically the same, and all depend on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of food. Dog food, beer, cheese, and cake frosting are all compounds that no species evolved to eat. Then how is it that we're able to eat them? In essence, it's because all food — in whatever strange form we want to present it — consists of the same basic building blocks, all of which we did evolve to eat, and all of which are found in nature.

Before we look at these building blocks, I need to state that it's impossible to be 100% comprehensive within the limitations of a Skeptoid episode. There are innumerable subtleties and exceptions and footnotes that I'm not going to go into. Most of these exceptions come from the fact that humans developed in a broad range of environments, and as a result, some groups are more or less adapted to certain compounds, lactose tolerance being an obvious example. People with phenylketonuria can't metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Some populations have difficulty synthesizing enough Vitamin D in their skin. These are just examples; there are plenty of others, and I'm not pretending to cover every nuance here. If you want to delve further, see the Further Reading suggestions in the online transcript for this episode. Today's discussion is at a level that applies generally to all humans, and to some degree to most other vertebrates as well.

Food breaks down into six basic compounds. All food consists of combinations of these six, and every one of them is found in nature:

1. Amino Acids

These are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are essential for our bodies. We need to eat protein, which is then broken down by our digestive system into its constituent amino acids, and then our body reassembles them into whatever proteins it needs. Some amino acids are called essential, and this refers to those that our body cannot synthesize and that we must eat. There are eight essential amino acids, plus about fourteen others that are conditionally essential: needed by infants, growing children, and other certain populations. With few exceptions, the body makes use of all amino acids; there's no such thing as an amino acid that we can't or shouldn't consume. Proteins in food like enzymes and hormones are usually not used by the body as enzymes and hormones; they too are broken down into amino acids which are then gainfully employed as building blocks.

2. Fatty Acids

Like amino acids, fatty acids come in essential and conditionally essential varieties. Omega-3 and omega-6 are the two essential fatty acids that we must get from food because we can't synthesize them, and that have a wide range of important functions throughout our bodies; three others are usually considered conditionally essential for some populations.

All the rest of the fatty acids are ones that we don't need to eat. Our body does usefully employ most of them, but it can synthesize what it needs, so you generally want to minimize your food intake of them. These include saturated fats (where all available chemical bonds are "saturated" with a hydrogen atom) and the non-essential unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.

3. Carbohydrates

These are your sugars and starches, which all break down into monosaccharides: the single sugars glucose, fructose, galactose, xylose, and ribose. Two of those together may come from a disaccharide like table sugar; a longer polysaccharide chain may come from the carbs in a granola bar. Whatever we eat gets broken down into those monosaccharides (though some populations may have enzymatic deficiencies that hamper the digestion of some combinations, like lactose). Those monosaccharides fuel our metabolism, and are the principal building blocks of the synthesis of other needed compounds. Any extra monosaccharides are put together into space-saving polysaccharides for storage.

4. Vitamins

Exactly what is a vitamin? There's a simple and clear definition. We've just discussed the three basic types of nutrients; a vitamin is any other organic compound that our body needs, that we are unable to synthesize enough of, and that we must get from food. Vitamins were discovered throughout the first half of the 1900's, and each time we learned about a new one, it was given a successive identifying letter: Vitamin A, B, C, and so on. After we learned about Vitamin B we found it was actually eight different vitamins, and so we have Vitamin B1, B2, B3, and the rest. Many animals synthesize these vitamins from proteins and fats, so they don't need to eat such a diversity of different foods to get them, the way we do.

There are two basic kinds of vitamins: water soluble (vitamins B and C) and fat soluble (all the others). If you consume more water soluble vitamins than you need, the excess will be quickly and harmlessly discharged in your urine. Overdosing on fat soluble vitamins provides a bit more of a challenge to your body though, and can lead to hypervitaminosis, which can be dangerous in extreme cases.

With a few notable exceptions, anybody who lives and eats in a modern industrialized country gets more than enough of all the vitamins their body needs, and there's no need to spend money on vitamin supplements. If you eat three meals a day, the buckets in which your body has room to store vitamins are brim full, and vitamin supplementation would be like pouring more onto an already overflowing bucket. Save your money.

5. Minerals

These are defined as the inorganic chemical elements that our body needs. There are sixteen essential elements (chemically, they're not really all minerals) including iron, calcium, zinc, sodium, and potassium. There are some half-dozen others considered conditionally essential, but if you stick with the sixteen you're probably all right. Minerals obviously have to be consumed; our bodies are not atomic reactors and so we can't synthesize chemical elements.

With a very few exceptions, anyone who eats regular meals in an industrialized country gets more than enough of all the minerals they need. Perhaps the two most common exceptions are pregnant women who can benefit from iron supplementation, and people who avoid dairy products and could often benefit from calcium supplementation.

6. Water

Kind of an obvious one. It's the only thing anyone needs to drink — there's no substitute — and most of us get all we need from what's contained in our food and other drinks.

And so, there we have the six fundamental compounds that make up all food. The basic argument against all of the various "You shouldn't eat this or that" claims is that those foods all break down into the same building blocks, building blocks which you would also get from other food. The opposing argument in favor of those claims is that some of these building blocks are good (like essential amino acids) and some are bad (like trans-fat), and we should strive to eat foods that deliver the most good nutrients with the least amount of harmful contents. Kind of a no-brainer, obviously, but it's rarely the argument that's actually made. Instead, the arguments I usually hear call out a particular food based on some ideology rather than its actual contents. Not that there's anything wrong with ideologies, but they should not be misrepresented as food science.

Other than a glass of pure water, there is hardly a food source on the planet that delivers anything less than a radically complex assortment of proteins, lipids, and starches, laced with vitamins and minerals. It's the proportions that differ. Looking at it from this perspective, there's little fundamental difference between milk and orange juice. The orange juice contains more sugar and vitamins but less fat and protein, while the milk contains a more even spectrum of nutrients. An argument like "Cow's milk is bad because early humans didn't evolve to drink it" becomes completely goofy when you consider only this one irrelevant characteristic. The same goes for arguments against manufactured pet food. There is no reason at all why pet food should look like, or come from the same source as, the animal's natural food; so long as it delivers the nutrients the animal needs.

Cooking introduces chemical changes that are, for the most part, the same as the first step in digestion. Some compounds cannot be digested unless they're cooked first to break certain chemical bonds. Most claims that cooking destroys nutrients are wrong; cooking merely starts the ball rolling on what your digestive system was going to do to the food anyway.

One nice thing about being a technological society is that we have the capability to understand food science, and to design nutritious foods that are more attractive and tasty than our ancestors were able to find on the savannah. The bottom line is that if you wish to evaluate any given food's nutritional value, you must look at what it actually delivers. Simply considering where it came from, or who designed it, is not a useful assessment of its actual substance.



Intestinal bacteria

Intestinal bacteria may help determine whether we are lean or obese.

For the 35 percent of American adults who do daily battle with obesity, the main causes of their condition are all too familiar: an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and perhaps some unlucky genes. In recent years, however, researchers have become increasingly convinced that important hidden players literally lurk in human bowels: billions on billions of gut microbes.

Throughout our evolutionary history, the microscopic denizens of our intestines have helped us break down tough plant fibers in exchange for the privilege of living in such a nutritious broth. Yet their roles appear to extend beyond digestion. New evidence indicates that gut bacteria alter the way we store fat, how we balance levels of glucose in the blood, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full. The wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth.

Fortunately, researchers are beginning to understand the differences between the wrong mix and a healthy one, as well as the specific factors that shape those differences. They hope to learn how to cultivate this inner ecosystem in ways that could prevent—and possibly treat—obesity, which doctors define as having a particular ratio of height and weight, known as the body mass index, that is greater than 30. Imagine, for example, foods, baby formulas or supplements devised to promote virtuous microbes while suppressing the harmful types. “We need to think about designing foods from the inside out,” suggests Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University in St. Louis. Keeping our gut microbes happy could be the elusive secret to weight control.

An Inner Rain Forest

Researchers have long known that the human body is home to all manner of microorganisms, but only in the past decade or so have they come to realize that these microbes outnumber our own cells 10 to one. Rapid gene-sequencing techniques have revealed that the biggest and most diverse metropolises of “microbiota” reside in the large intestine and mouth, although impressive communities also flourish in the genital tract and on our skin.

Each of us begins to assemble a unique congregation of microbes the moment we pass through the birth canal, acquiring our mother's bacteria first and continuing to gather new members from the environment throughout life. By studying the genes of these various microbes—collectively referred to as the microbiome—investigators have identified many of the most common residents, although these can vary greatly from person to person and among different human populations. In recent years researchers have begun the transition from mere census taking to determining the kind of jobs these minute inhabitants fill in the human body and the effect they have on our overall health.

An early hint that gut microbes might play a role in obesity came from studies comparing intestinal bacteria in obese and lean individuals. In studies of twins who were both lean or both obese, researchers found that the gut community in lean people was like a rain forest brimming with many species but that the community in obese people was less diverse—more like a nutrient-overloaded pond where relatively few species dominate. Lean individuals, for example, tended to have a wider variety of Bacteroidetes, a large tribe of microbes that specialize in breaking down bulky plant starches and fibers into shorter molecules that the body can use as a source of energy.

Documenting such differences does not mean the discrepancies are responsible for obesity, however. To demonstrate cause and effect, Gordon and his colleagues conducted an elegant series of experiments with so-called humanized mice, published last September in Science. First, they raised genetically identical baby rodents in a germ-free environment so that their bodies would be free of any bacteria. Then they populated their guts with intestinal microbes collected from obese women and their lean twin sisters (three pairs of fraternal female twins and one set of identical twins were used in the studies). The mice ate the same diet in equal amounts, yet the animals that received bacteria from an obese twin grew heavier and had more body fat than mice with microbes from a thin twin. As expected, the fat mice also had a less diverse community of microbes in the gut.

Gordon's team then repeated the experiment with one small twist: after giving the baby mice microbes from their respective twins, they moved the animals into a shared cage. This time both groups remained lean. Studies showed that the mice carrying microbes from the obese human had picked up some of their lean roommates' gut bacteria—especially varieties of Bacteroidetes—probably by consuming their feces, a typical, if unappealing, mouse behavior. To further prove the point, the researchers transferred 54 varieties of bacteria from some lean mice to those with the obese-type community of germs and found that the animals that had been destined to become obese developed a healthy weight instead. Transferring just 39 strains did not do the trick. “Taken together, these experiments provide pretty compelling proof that there is a cause-and-effect relationship and that it was possible to prevent the development of obesity,” Gordon says.

Gordon theorizes that the gut community in obese mice has certain “job vacancies” for microbes that perform key roles in maintaining a healthy body weight and normal metabolism. His studies, as well as those by other researchers, offer enticing clues about what those roles might be. Compared with the thin mice, for example, Gordon's fat mice had higher levels in their blood and muscles of substances known as branched-chain amino acids and acylcarnitines. Both these chemicals are typically elevated in people with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Another job vacancy associated with obesity might be one normally filled by a stomach bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Research by Martin Blaser of New York University suggests that it helps to regulate appetite by modulating levels of ghrelin—a hunger-stimulating hormone. H. pylori was once abundant in the American digestive tract but is now rare, thanks to more hygienic living conditions and the use of antibiotics, says Blaser, author of a new book entitled Missing Microbes.

Diet is an important factor in shaping the gut ecosystem. A diet of highly processed foods, for example, has been linked to a less diverse gut community in people. Gordon's team demonstrated the complex interaction among food, microbes and body weight by feeding their humanized mice a specially prepared unhealthy chow that was high in fat and low in fruits, vegetables and fiber (as opposed to the usual high-fiber, low-fat mouse kibble). Given this “Western diet,” the mice with obese-type microbes proceeded to grow fat even when housed with lean cagemates. The unhealthy diet somehow prevented the virtuous bacteria from moving in and flourishing.

The interaction between diet and gut bacteria can predispose us to obesity from the day we are born, as can the mode by which we enter the world. Studies have shown that both formula-fed babies and infants delivered by cesarean section have a higher risk for obesity and diabetes than those who are breast-fed or delivered vaginally. Working together, Rob Knight of the University of Colorado Boulder and Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello of N.Y.U. have found that as newborns traverse the birth canal, they swallow bacteria that will later help them digest milk. C-section babies skip this bacterial baptism. Babies raised on formula face a different disadvantage: they do not get substances in breast milk that nurture beneficial bacteria and limit colonization by harmful ones. According to a recent Canadian study, babies drinking formula have bacteria in their gut that are not seen in breast-fed babies until solid foods are introduced. Their presence before the gut and immune system are mature, says Dominguez-Bello, may be one reason these babies are more susceptible to allergies, asthma, eczema and celiac disease, as well as obesity.

A new appreciation for the impact of gut microbes on body weight has intensified concerns about the profligate use of antibiotics in children. Blaser has shown that when young mice are given low doses of antibiotics, similar to what farmers give livestock, they develop about 15 percent more body fat than mice that are not given such drugs. Antibiotics may annihilate some of the bacteria that help us maintain a healthy body weight. “Antibiotics are like a fire in the forest,” Dominguez-Bello says. “The baby is forming a forest. If you have a fire in a forest that is new, you get extinction.” When Laurie Cox, a graduate student in Blaser's laboratory, combined a high-fat diet with the antibiotics, the mice became obese. “There's a synergy,” Blaser explains. He notes that antibiotic use varies greatly from state to state in the U.S., as does the prevalence of obesity, and intriguingly, the two maps line up—with both rates highest in parts of the South.

Beyond Probiotics

Many scientists who work on the microbiome think their research will inspire a new generation of tools to treat and prevent obesity. Still, researchers are quick to point out that this is a young field with far more questions than answers. “Data from human studies are a lot messier than the mouse data,” observes Claire Fraser of the University of Maryland, who is studying obesity and gut microbes in the Old Order Amish population. Even in a homogeneous population such as the Amish, she says, there is vast individual variation that makes it difficult to isolate the role of microbiota in a complex disease like obesity.

Even so, a number of scientists are actively developing potential treatments. Dominguez-Bello, for example, is conducting a clinical trial in Puerto Rico in which babies born by cesarean section are immediately swabbed with a gauze cloth laced with the mother's vaginal fluids and resident microbes. She will track the weight and overall health of the infants in her study, comparing them with C-section babies who did not receive the gauze treatment.

A group in Amsterdam, meanwhile, is investigating whether transferring feces from lean to overweight people will lead to weight loss. U.S. researchers tend to view such “fecal transplants” as imprecise and risky. A more promising approach, says Robert Karp, who oversees National Institutes of Health grants related to obesity and the microbiome, is to identify the precise strains of bacteria associated with leanness, determine their roles and develop treatments accordingly. Gordon has proposed enriching foods with beneficial bacteria and any nutrients needed to establish them in the gut - a science-based version of today's probiotic yogurts. No one in the field believes that probiotics alone will win the war on obesity, but it seems that, along with exercising and eating right, we need to enlist our inner microbial army.



The Worst Waiter In The World

San Francisco in the late 1960s was a place for lovers, poets, and peace-makers. Positivity and goodwill were as omnipresent as the fog, and people were greeted with open arms and rosy cheeks. Unless, of course, you were on the second story of Sam Wo Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown.

Past steaming woks and chopping blocks and up a narrow, creaky staircase, Edsel Ford Fong -- the world's most insulting waiter -- greeted patrons with a “sit down and shut up!” Routinely, he cussed out his customers, sexually accosted female companions, and unapologetically spilled soup across laps. According to one diner, he was so malicious that he “made the Soup Nazi look like the Dalai Lama.”

But Edsel’s antics also made a legend: people would come to Sam Wo’s just to experience his wrath. In 1982, The Chronicle even deemed the man “San Francisco’s Worst Waiter.” Through oral histories, we’ve recounted who this man was, what it was like to be served by him, and the legacy he left behind.

The Edsel Ford Fong Experience

By the time it closed in 2012, Sam Wo Restaurant had been in business for nearly 100 years. In its prime, the dingy four-story Chinatown joint was legendary -- partly for its curry noodles, but more so for the antics of its wait staff. A regular who frequented Sam Wo’s in the 60s recalls the ordeal just to get to the building’s dining room:

“You'd pass through clouds of steam rising from big soup and noodle cauldrons, climb a flight and a half of steep stairs and find a stool at one of the tables in the long, narrow dining room. It was more like the galley on a Liberian registered tramp freighter. No armchair dining here.”

It was a cultural hotspot: celebrities, gamblers, musicians, beatniks, and hippies mingled with Chinese immigrants, and those who didn’t speak the language resorted to pointing to others’ plates and nodding. Plastered on each table, the house rules spelled out the establishment’s no-nonsense attitude -- "No Booze, No Jive, No Coffee, Milk, Soft Drinks, Fortune Cookies." Beside the authoritative words, a stern caricature of Edsel Ford Fong stared you in the eye with a look that negated everything about the restaurant’s literal translation (“Three in peace,” after the original founders).

Edsel, the son of Sam Wo’s owner, began as a waiter and soon became the restaurant’s coming attraction -- and for an unlikely reason: he was the rudest, most despotic waiter to ever walk the earth. At 6’, 200 pounds, Edsel sported a military crew cut, a long, perennially-stained white apron, and an omnipresent scowl. When it came to insults, recalls one customer, “he took no prisoners:”

“Mao said everybody eats from the same pot of soup but Edsel let you know he was an ardent supporter of Generalissimo Chaing Kai-Shek.

If there was a line and you weren't a regular, even if you were at the head of it, you'd have to wait. If you asked questions about the food, Edsel would point to menus tacked to the wall, all in chinese. He would slide your bowl across the table, not minding if some of it messed your pants or shirt along the way. He'd throw the chopsticks onto the table like they were a pair of dice. And to make matters worse, he'd laugh about it, right in your face.”

Joe Franco recalls his first visit to Sam Wo in 1981 and, consequently, his first Edsel experience. “Sit down and shut up!” he was told upon entering. When he made the grave mistake of attempting to order sweet-and-sour pork and a diet coke, Edsel was not pleased:

"You [stupid]? No coke!! Tea Only!! No sweet and sour!! You see on menu?!! You get house special chow fun...No fork, chopstick only...What you want, fat man?"

Another customer, Lou Sideris, once tried to order the “fried shrimp,” an item nearly double the price of anything else on the menu. “No! It’s a rip-off!” yelled Edsel. Sideris and his friends would return many times over the years, each time attempting to order the shrimp, and each time being furiously denied by Edsel.

Even if someone did manage to place an order approved by the waiter, he’d often confuse it with another table’s food, or write down a different item altogether. There was no complaining with Edsel -- you ate what you were given, regardless of whether or not it was what you wanted. If you took too long reading the menu, you’d receive a dose of Edsel’s first-class abuse: “What is this, a library?!”

Unless you were a VIP, your meal would be over the second your spoon hit the bottom of the bowl: Edsel would come by with a broom and literally sweep you out. Only one diner -- who bought him a “weekly ration of free X-rated movie passes” -- was permitted to enjoy a post-meal cup of “Edsel’s Special Tea” (pure ginseng extract). When another customer saw the drink and curiously inquired about it, he was kicked out. This wasn’t unusual: often, Edsel would forcibly remove seated patrons in the middle of a meal, “just to remind them who was running the show.”

For kicks, Edsel would parlay his waiting duties to unsuspecting guests. A first-timer in the mid-seventies learned the hard way. “You want to sit and eat? You clean the plates from the table!” Edsel yelled. For the next 15 minutes, the diner and his party stood at the sink rinsing dishes -- just in order to be served. Afterward, in the middle of the party’s meal, Edsel demanded they give up their chairs for some regulars who’d just walked in. They obliged, and ate the rest of their meal standing up. “It was one of the best dining experiences of my life,” recalls the diner. “If you went to Sam Wo’s for anything other than this type of madness, then shame on you.”

Gregory C. Ford, another patron in the late 70s, recalls similar treatment from Edsel:

“Upon entering, Mr. Fong instantly made me wipe the table get water and even fill water for the other tables. Then, he threw the order ticket on the table and had me write down the orders. I handed back the tickets and he threw it down and said ‘ADD IT UP!’ When the food came up from the kitchen, Edsel ordered me to deliver it.”

At the end of your meal, you’d always receive Edsel’s famous line: “small check, big tip!” If you left anything less than 20%, you’d be verbally berated. Edsel put on a show and expected to be compensated like a Hollywood star.

Edsel was also known for his crass “flirtation:” an entire wall at Sam Wo was dedicated to Polaroid photos of the waiter in various degrees of groping unsuspecting young females. “A charming first date destination if you never want to see your date again,” wrote one reviewer in the late 70s. “My ex-wife ended up on the wall. The groping part was the only time I ever saw Edsel smile. She was not amused.” (The pictures we’ve included in this article confirm Edsel's perennial smile in the presence of ladies -- we don't condone his behavior.)

On numerous occasions, Edsel attracted the attention of local authorities. James Flower, a diner in the late 60s, recalls one particular incident:

“He was serving a tourist family, looked down the young teen daughter's dress, and said, ‘Hmm, nice little apples!’ They stormed out, returned with a beat cop, who gave Eddie a stern talking to and assured the parents that whatever he was saying in Chinese meant, ‘I'm sorry,’ though he didn't seem particularly contrite. Edsel was certainly not what you'd call politically correct.”

At times, he’d even make physical contact. A guest in the 80s recounts his sister-in-law’s discomfort:

“Once I was there with my sister-in-law, who is a very proper sort of person. Edsel could really tell when he was pushing someone’s buttons, and he really lit into her. It ended with him thrusting his sweaty, grizzled face right against hers while taunting her with, “Give me a kiss, baby!” Needless to say, she didn’t relish her visit.”

Yet another diner recalls a time Edsel kissed his mother, but brushes it off as an inherent part of the man’s character. “If you knew Edsel, he kissed everybody and even got in a few back during his nightly repertoire!”

Edsel passed away in 1984, at the age of 55 -- but not before securing an eternal space in San Francisco's folklore.

Herb Caen, the Pulitzer Prize winning San Francisco Chronicle writer, was a regular lunch customer at Sam Wo’s throughout the 60s and would often publish Edsel’s remarks in his columns. In turn, Edsel would proudly march around the dining room, pointing to his name in the paper; if strangers inquired, he’d “unleash of volley of expletives.”

Edsel was also memorialized in Armistead Maupin’s novel series Tales of the City, where he appears as a no-less-vicious fictional version of himself. In the book, the protagonist is berated by a waiter at a Chinese restaurant for not washing her hands after leaving the restroom: “‘Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands! You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’” Flustered, the protagonist returns to her table, where her seasoned companion lets her in on the waiter’s secret: “He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’”

Today, Edsel is prominently featured on “Gold Mountain,” a San Francisco mural depicting Chinese contributions to American history. These is also a club-level Chinese bistro in The San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park that bear his namesake (though the service isn’t nearly as disarming).

Time after time, Edsel’s customers came back for more abuse: clearly, there was something about this man that transcended his awfulness.

On Saw Wo’s (now defunct) Facebook page, fans leave behind their favorite memories of the restaurant. Jan Bielawski recalls an experience from the 60s that could only be linked to Edsel: “A guest asked to change an order...the waiter screamed 'You order it, you pay for it, you EAT it!'”

But when she returned in the early 80s, she recalled an Edsel quite removed from his usual bitterness: “I was leaving and for some reason I felt I had to turn around: there he was, at the back of the kitchen, smiling at me. Then, he bowed. I never knew if his anger was genuine or an act, but it was always an experience.”



Prescriptive Planting - Innovation on the Farm

INNOVATION is a word that brings to mind small, nimble startups doing clever things with cutting-edge technology. But it is also vital in large, long-established industries—and they do not come much larger or older than agriculture. Farmers can be among the most hidebound of managers, so it is no surprise that they are nervous about a new idea called prescriptive planting, which is set to disrupt their business. In essence, it is a system that tells them with great precision which seeds to plant and how to cultivate them in each patch of land. It could be the biggest change to agriculture in rich countries since genetically modified crops. And it is proving nearly as controversial, since it raises profound questions about who owns the information on which the service is based. It also plunges stick-in-the-mud farmers into an unfamiliar world of “big data” and privacy battles.

Monsanto’s prescriptive-planting system, FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points.

The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.

FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name.

Prescriptive planting is catching on fast. Last November another seed producer, Du Pont Pioneer, linked up with a farm-machinery maker, John Deere, to beam advice on seeds and fertilisers to farmers in the field. A farm-supply co-operative, Land O’Lakes, bought Geosys, a satellite-imaging company, in December 2013, to boost its farm-data business.

The benefits are clear. Farmers who have tried Monsanto’s system say it has pushed up yields by roughly 5% over two years, a feat no other single intervention could match. The seed companies think providing more data to farmers could increase America’s maize yield from 160 bushels an acre (10 tonnes a hectare) to 200 bushels—giving a terrific boost to growers’ meagre margins.

But the story of prescriptive planting is also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise when data entrepreneurs meet old-fashioned businessfolk. Farmers might be expected to have mixed feelings about the technology anyway: although it boosts yields, it reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming—their core competence. However, the bigger problem is that farmers distrust the companies peddling this new method. They fear that the stream of detailed data they are providing on their harvests might be misused. Their commercial secrets could be sold, or leak to rival farmers; the prescriptive-planting firms might even use the data to buy underperforming farms and run them in competition with the farmers; or the companies could use the highly sensitive data on harvests to trade on the commodity markets, to the detriment of farmers who sell into those markets.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

In response to such worries, the American Farm Bureau, the country’s largest organisation of farmers and ranchers, is drawing up a code of conduct, saying that farmers own and control their data; that companies may not use the information except for the purpose for which it was given; and that they must not sell or give it to third parties. The companies agree with those principles, though so far their contracts with farmers do not always embody them. Also, once data have been sent and anonymised, farmers might be said no longer to own them, so it is not clear what rights to them they still have. For this reason and others, some Texan farmers have banded together to form the Grower Information Services Co-operative, to negotiate with the data providers.

Another worry is that, since the companies have not yet made the data fully “portable”, farmers may become locked into doing business with a single provider. To assuage all these concerns, the Climate Corporation has set up a free data-storage service for farmers, which others cannot access without the farmers’ permission. New niche data-management firms are entering the market, which should help make it more competitive.

For the time being, though, the biggest companies will dominate prescriptive planting. They collect the most comprehensive data and make better use of them than anyone else. And that raises a problem which affects big data in all its forms. Prescriptive planting could boost yields everywhere, just as mass, anonymised patient records could improve health care. But its success depends on service providers persuading users (farmers or patients) to trust them. If the users think they are taking a disproportionate share of the risks while firms are getting an excessive chunk of the benefits, trust will remain in short supply.



Nathan Myhrvold and Ferran Adria

Nathan Myhrvold, the Mad Hatter of modernist cooking, invited the movement’s leading chef, Ferran Adrià, over for a 50-course, lab-prepared meal.

Just one example: Watermelon - the fruit was served two ways: freeze-dried and also thinly sliced, compressed, left overnight and then fried.

(I've kept it as a NY Times link because the courses are photographed with explanations when you hover over. Switch to incognito mode if need to get round NYT 10-articles-a-month restriction)



Hipster Food Markets

Once we couldn’t live without their heirloom tomatoes and artisan bread. But thankfully now those days are over.

“The farmers’ market, the farmers’ market. You drive here in the Volvo and you park it. Market! The farmers’ market! We find any old crap and sell it in a basket.”

So went a popular Armstrong and Miller ditty a few years back, in which the comedians took a swipe at all us mugs being ripped off by a man who’s “no more a farmer than Morten Harket”.

And who doesn’t know how they felt? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve left the playground of my local primary school, transformed for the Sunday morning into a middle class fantasy world of butchers, bakers and organic quiche makers, and wondered how on earth it was possible to have so little to show for £50. Yes, the cheese had been cave-aged for 24 months, the heritage potatoes still had a fresh caking of mud, and the apples were so reassuringly misshapen they just had to taste good. However, I did also expect to have more to show than my one single (recycled) bag.

Now, after years of taking the financial hit, it’s time we woke up and smelt the (decidedly non-organic, mixed-origin) coffee. Food snobbery is dead. It has made patsies of all of us for too long. A decade ago you were nobody if your pork wasn’t rare-breed, your chicken wasn’t organic and your carrots weren’t knobbly and heirloom.To shell out £4 for a loaf of bread made with flour hand-ground in a Somerset watermill is no longer a mark of discernment. It’s a mark of being a mug. Because, whisper it, when you strip away the spin and the middle class fantasy, most of us can’t tell the difference anyway.

The news over the past few years has only been going one way, and it’s making me feel increasingly less fussy about the food I buy. First there was the dip in sales of organic food because of the recession. We started passing over the free-range, organic carrots for those with a healthy dousing of agrichemicals. And you know what? Not only did they not kill us but they tasted just as good as well. Sales of organic may be picking up again, but not in my house.

Then there was the rise of the discount supermarkets. People we knew and respected suddenly started telling us how good the cured meats were at Lidl, how you could get half a dozen large organic eggs at Aldi for £1. The arrival of £5 lobsters sealed the deal and the landscape of the dinner party changed for ever. Guests at my house always assume the best and who am I to disabuse them, especially as they exclaim at how good the nocellara olives are (thank you, Sainsbury’s).

Now the food snob’s safe house, the weekly farmers’ market, has been busted wide open. Jay Rayner, the TV food presenter, last week went on the attack, dismissing them as a status symbol for wealthy shoppers. Then news came that some of the most popular stalls at our farmers’ markets are run by large multinationals and are the very antithesis of what consumers think they are buying into. Cheesemakers, fruit merchants and tomato growers have all been accused of cashing in and hoodwinking buyers who think they are meeting the people who produced the food. In some cases, the same products are available in supermarkets at a lower price.

Mind you, the farmers’ markets have never been just about the business of filling our bellies. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be weekly, sometimes only monthly. No, we have loved them because we felt they were a way of sticking two fingers up to the supermarkets, of rebooting our dysfunctional relationship with food production. We say we go to them because we want to reconnect with the farmers, to see their labourer’s hands, to understand where our food is coming from. But let’s be honest, it’s mainly because, if you can afford it, wandering around a farmers’ market on a sunny weekend, Cashpoint-crisp notes in one hand, cappuccino in the other, is a lovely way of killing a couple of hours with the children. It’s like slipping on a pair of designer pants: it makes us feel good about ourselves; it shows we are worth it. And unlike when you put on designer pants, all your friends can see you are worth it too. My local market is like a middle class drop-in centre.

“There is nothing wrong with spending your expendable income in whatever way you wish,” Rayner says. “But what you mustn’t do is to allow there to be a veneer of self-righteousness across the top of it, which makes that indulgence of an aesthetic into some political statement. Which it ain’t.”

Markets are also deeply tribal. When Peckham, a hitherto unreconstructed area of south London, reached the sunlit uplands of farmers’ marketry a few years ago, the response of one acquaintance wasn’t “Finally. I can lay my hands on 28-day dry-aged Longhorn beef,” but: “Oh good, that will put £100,000 on my house price.”

“I hate farmers’ markets,” says the food writer William Sitwell. As he is the editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine, you might expect him to say that, but equally he sells his 3Cs vintage cider at some markets, so it’s not all vested interests. “You see the charming man with the breads, the lady with the cheeses and you get taken in by the atmosphere, but before you know it you’ve emptied your wallet.

“A lot of people like to badge themselves as foodies — they watch MasterChef, they cook for their friends — but like the rest of us they actually do their shopping at supermarkets. So to claim back the moral high ground, they go to farmers’ markets and talk about resuscitating the food culture. But farmers’ markets really only work in countries where farmers really are selling their own produce. In this country we have too sophisticated a supermarket structure. Here it’s a hobby, nothing more. What we really want are convenience, value and air conditioning, and you get that best from supermarkets.”

Not everyone is so dismissive. The chef Allegra McEvedy was patron of the Notting Hill farmers’ market when it set up a decade ago. “It fulfilled a real need back then,” she says, “because other street markets didn’t have the quality to satisfy those who cared about their food. Then farmers’ markets went a bit organic and twee, but they’ve come good again. The idea of farmers getting up at 3am to milk the cows, loading up their tractors and then bombing up to London to open their stall by 10 o’clock just isn’t realistic, and it’s slightly pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes, but when it works well, it’s good.

Jack Monroe, who has written a cookbook about thrifty cooking, agrees that some farmers’ markets exploit the postcodes they are in with their pricing, but she doesn’t accept they are about snobbery. “In my home town of Southend there’s a great market in the football ground that is really cheap. Markets aren’t all about people taking their wicker baskets and choosing a dozen cheeses for that night’s dinner party. Although if there is room for that economically, why not?”

Joanna Blythman, the author of Bad Food Britain, provides the keenest defence of farmers’ markets. “I don’t think farmers’ markets are an exclusively middle class thing. I see a big variety in the people who use them, people who want to spend their money in a progressive way, to buy food with provenance. And that’s wholly laudable. Ironically, it’s become fashionable for the middle classes to criticise farmers’ markets, when they are the result of a sincere wish among consumers to connect with their food. People who knock them should get out of the London bubble.”

I would get out of the London bubble, but having just bought an organic sourdough loaf, I’m afraid I can’t afford the bus fare.



A Boys' Pissing Contest

In March this year writer and critic Alan Richman used his column in the US magazine GQ to deliver a ravening polemic on the state of the American restaurant scene. There is, he says, a new and pervasive kind of cuisine, and he lists its characteristics: obscure, often foraged ingredients, weird combinations, tiny portions, tableside “narrative” from the server, tasting menus, it is simultaneously “intellectual … yet often thoughtless” but, above all, it centres on the chef, whose ideas, creativity and personality it’s all about. “The job of the customer is to eat what’s placed before him, and then applaud.” And because there’s no name for this trend yet, he handily coins one, “Egotarian Cuisine”.

God, it’s good. I wish I’d written it. It ties up all the irritants of modern dining into one neat package and then punts it neatly into a bin. But hidden halfway through, almost as an afterthought, is a single paragraph that in many ways is far more provocative.

“I came upon this kind of cooking again and again. It’s not limited to New York or California, where indulgences tend to thrive. Something else you should know is that it’s entirely male. I found no exceptions. Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.”

Surely, I thought, that can’t be true, not in the UK at least, but as it happened, last week I got a chance to test it. I’d been invited to host a series of three discussions on women in food. The organisers had assembled an amazing set of panellists, chefs, writers, producers and food entrepreneurs and the packed audiences comprised a good cross section of the female reading, eating, cooking, consuming and thinking public. Each night I read out Richman’s assertion and each night, the reaction was similar.

“Well yes! Obviously,” was one of the repeatable responses. Sometimes followed by “ … and you’re remotely surprised?” or on other occasions with a sort of weary and indulgent chuckle.

I could not find, among panel or audience, anyone who would disagree that the kind of cooking we’ve grown to accept as the cutting edge of our national cuisine was anything other than an elaborate competition between idiotic boys. Nobody actually used the term “pissing contest” but that was solely because they were too polite.

It was shocking. I’m immensely proud of the way this country has recovered and developed a food culture, proud of our chefs, our writers, critics. We’ve bounced back after generations of neglect to have a restaurant scene that’s the envy of the world, a nation seemingly hanging on every word of a cadre of internationally recognisable celebrity culinary superstars, and yet for at least half the population it’s obviously either irrelevant or indulged with a polite chuckle as the sort of behaviour you might observe among sexually immature male primates.

There are many generalisations made about male and female approaches to cooking. Professional cooking was long a male preserve because of the physical demands. Women tended to head private or institutional kitchens while men led restaurant “brigades”. Doubtless there is a Frenchman somewhere on the Rive Gauche with a roll-neck sweater and important hair who will opine that men transform food in the pan by main force, fire and tools while women incubate and nurture in the uterine spaces of pot and oven. Men kill, cut and sear; women gather, combine, ferment and culture. These are all entertaining to debate at the tail end of a good meal – an interesting enough idea to start an argument, but far too woolly to finish one – but what Richman touched on, and what those rooms full of women in food confirmed to me is a deeper and more worrying trend.

Modern cuisine was supposed to be about shaking up the old rules. It’s the defining pretension of the snake-hipped young chef that he’s not bound by the old prejudices. He isn’t held back by traditional techniques, he scorns the classical European canon. His food transcends limitations of nationality as he fearlessly “fuses” global cuisine. He subverts restrictions of class as he bravely reappropriates food of poverty and cleverly explores the “soul” of cheap and forgotten dishes. He is entirely the New Man and the Wonder of the Age – but he ignores a chasmic and growing gender divide.

Call it “Egotarian” or just profoundly boyish but this cuisine has become the norm for aspiring young male chefs and ambitious cooks of the MasterChef generation. I realise, of course, that this may be a pendulum swing, a reaction against the “female”, nurturing, peasanty cuisine of the Shaun Hill, Fergus Henderson, Alice Waters and River Café cohort, but surely the fact that half of food lovers greet modern cooking with a collective “so what?” is enough evidence that it’s time to get in touch with our female side again.



A Chef On Presentation

(Posted on Fark, credit: hubiestubert)

Presentation IS something we think about. Impact when folks get a dish first comes from the eyes, then you engage the nose, then you get the tactile from getting that first bite--as well as aural when they hear the sizzle of fajitas in the pan, the crunch as you take that first bite. You want to engage as many senses as possible to make a meal memorable. You want a dish to have impact when folks first get it though. Cameras? If folks are grabbing for a camera before tasting, then I've done a sh*tty job, because I want folks to want to dig in.

Folks are paying more attention to presentation. From the plates or planks or whatever you're serving on. At Glenndale Arena, we did a chaferless serving line for our buffet. Pics are in my profile. We did amuse bouche on the back line, little somethings that didn't really cost us a lot, we took some care to make them look inviting, to get folks to come back again and again. We did our vegetables in small batches so that while we had to refill that serving line often, it was always with pans that looked and smelled amazing, so that folks saw the care that we took to make their time at the game more than just kraut dogs and pizza. It looked amazing, because our job was to make folks who were visiting want to get season tickets to our club level. We were selling not just the buffet, but the whole experience. Down to the action station down on the other side that did 8oz all beef kosher franks, with chili and we carved chili-lime crusted prime rib for our cheese steak sandwiches while folks were there, and we made the cheese sauce right there on the station. It was supposed to fill the air with the scent of the cooking. Folks got a piping hot, freshly carved cheese steak, and a dog with gairdiniera that we pickeled in house. It was a serving line, but the idea was to make impact on folks. That has to come out in more than just the taste. It has to be seen, it has to be felt. You want to do your damn best for folks, and putting a bit of effort into the presentation, that illustrates that you're not just slapping food onto a plate.

You can go overboard. And some folks do. I don't like to put anything on a plate that doesn't contribute to the flavor. Be that a flavored oil, be that a sprinkle of parsley, be that berries or greens, it all has to tie back into the dish itself. You want height, but not just for the sake of building a tower of food, but so that when you dig in, you get all the flavors and all the textures. Sweet of the fish, tang of the sauce, a bit of crunch from the greens, and the flavor of those greens to mix all in. Your starch, if you are using one, has to complement the dish. It's holistic. Everything contributes. A lot of folks just want to do as crazy a presentation as possible, and that goes for the molecular gastronomy folks, and while I appreciate what they're trying to do, it's not really what interests me. I like the tradition. I like the history. I like to take dishes to different places, yes, but I want the base to be traditional. Be that plum tomatoes with an arugula pesto and a Parmesan crouton that is just barely cooled, to black beans and rice. You want balance, not just in flavor, but with color, with textures. You have to look at the dish as a whole. Simple is often better. Pea pancakes are easy to do, they're sweet and delicious, and you top with with a little salad with edamame and spring onions with a bit of honey and apple cider vinegar, and you've got a side dish that stands up all on its own. They look amazing, all green and soft and seared so that they get some color, and they taste even better. You have to look at the dish as a whole, not just looks.



AA Gill on Last Meals

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about America, available in selected Oxfam shops, and I wanted to include a chapter on the penal system: from John Wayne’s film fantasy of the sheriff’s jail to the eugenics of black kids who are able to look forward to a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated, which is better than their chance of going to college.

I came across a list of the last meals ordered by condemned men in Texas prisons. It’s a strange truth that those who lock up others seem compelled to keep exhaustive and compulsive lists, as if the methodical repetition of the banal makes the insufferable turnkey business innocuous. The last suppers were recorded along with the name, age and crime of the diner. They are a relentless recounting of fast food, the cheapest, nastiest, mass-produced, processed, careless pulp from national chains with Formica counters, neon lights, primary colours and disposable cutlery; a dreadful litany of burgers with everything. Fries, pizza, tacos, fried chicken, chilli, well-done steaks followed by proprietary pies, cake, doughnuts and gallons of artificially flavoured ice cream, washed down with soda.

There was barely a freshly made dish, let alone a homemade one, nothing that hinted at lives that had ever sat at a kitchen table or used a napkin or been nurtured with hospitality. There was one that stood out. A young murderer asked for milk and cookies, a heartbreaking taste of childhood bedtime, a simple memory of family and safety and warmth. Another condemned man said he didn’t want anything, but could a pizza be delivered to a homeless person on his behalf? The prison governor said it wasn’t the Texas penal system’s job to be a delivery boy for murderers. On the day of the execution a local pizza shop received dozens of orders to be given to the destitute.

In the end, the chapter never got written, but the list haunts me. Our public debate about food is only ever about nutrition and obesity, vanity and self-obsession, which is narrow, dumb and intrusive, a fundamentally philistine view of the importance of food. It’s so depressing and, in the truest sense, uncivilised. There are countless studies about the nutrition of the poor, but I’ve never read a word about their exclusion from the conviviality, the pleasure, civility and the camaraderie of the table. Social bonding is the most important and valuable and precious constituent of our food. The reason that global cuisine is so dazzlingly varied and complex is not because of calories or bikini bodies or type-2 diabetes, it’s because it is the bond and the garland of our humanity. The second most important thing you can ever learn is how to cook; the first is how to eat.

The last suppers were recorded along with the name, age and crime of the diner. They are a relentless recounting of fast food, the cheapest, nastiest, mass-produced, processed, careless pulp.

There are thousands of charity cookbooks asking celebrities and chefs for their last meals, their desert island dishes, and most of us have thought of it at some point. I’ve whittled mine down to a white peach, but actually it would have to be in the south of France in August. I wouldn’t want one in November in a cell in Texas.

The whole idea of a last meal is oxymoronic: eating is innately optimistic, a vote for the future.



40 Different Fruits On One Tree

This single (and quite colorfully blossoming) tree grows 40 different varieties of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and even almonds — but just how does it do it?

It does it through the process of chip grafting. After sculptor Sam Van Aken bought a failing orchard in upstate New York full of hundreds of different fruit trees, he began the painstaking process of grafting several of the different varieties together into one tree. Six years later, the result is this 40-fruit bearing tree, which includes some heirloom varieties that are centuries old.

The combination of multiple fruits onto one true is accomplished by grafting shoots of new plants onto a tree. But, long before anyone picks up a pair of pruning shears, whether a graft will work or not is determined by the characteristics of the plants used and, in this case, the fact that all the fruits in the tree share a genus:

They also call it "bud grafting"... My uncle taught me to do it. It works when you swap genus to genus, so you can graft citrus to citrus, malus to male, or, as with the tree above, prunus to prunus. It's tedious, but less traumatic to the host tree. It works like gangbusters.

Almonds (Prunus dulcis), peaches (Prunus persica) and cherries (Prunus avium or Prunus cerasus) can be grafted together because they are of the same genus. Notice how cherry and peach pits are kind of shaped like almonds? They are botanical relatives.

Though that similarity of genus helps the graft to take and the plant to eventually thrive, though, it's not the only factor at play. Growth times, hardiness, and vigor are also key. In fact, in rare instances, plants that are unusually good grafting hosts can even cross genera, as the University of Missouri's Horticulture department explains:

Most varieties of a particular fruit or flowering species are interchangeable and can be grafted. Because of differences in vigor, some are better able to support others as understocks. For example, although a union is possible, sour cherry is not a good understock for sweet cherry. Sweet cherry is more commonly grafted onto Mazzard (Prunus avium) or Mahaleb (P. mahaleb) seedlings. Plants of the same botanical genus and species can usually be grafted even though they are a different variety. Plants with the same genus but of a different species often can be grafted. But the result may be weak or short-lived, or they may not unite at all.

Plants of different genera are less successfully grafted, although there are some cases where this is possible. For example, quince, genus Cydonia, may be used as a dwarfing rootstock for pear, genus Pyrus.

The process that makes these fruit cocktail-style trees possible isn't just limited to trees, though. It's also the same process responsible for producing other dual-producing plants, including the pomato (just like it sounds, folks, potato + tomato).



Selfie Toast

If ever a kitchen appliance captured the zeitgeist, this would appear to be it: you can now eat your own face, thanks to a “selfie toaster”.

The toasters are custom built, and will scorch a particular image into a piece of bread. They cost $75, and to order one you must send a picture of yourself to the manufacturer.

“We have truly created custom toast for the masses,” says the website for the Vermont Novelty Toaster Corporation. “But remember: fine detail is darn near impossible to achieve with heat and toast. If we squint and can’t see your face, we will cancel your order and refund your purchase.”

The device is the brainchild of Galen Dively, the company’s chief executive, and he says he has been inundated with orders. He plans to launch the product in Britain in November.

Mr Dively is riding a wave: toast has become something of a fetish for fashionable Americans. Pacific Standard, a Californian magazine, recently declared that the humble snack now represents the “tip of the hipster spear”. In San Francisco, “artisanal toast” – typically an inch-thick slice of posh bread, grilled and topped with an exotic condiment such “small-batch almond butter” or “sour strawberry jam” – is sold for as much as $4 a slice.

The New Yorker has suggested that such fads reflect the US mood. “Americans wanted cupcakes ten years ago … because they sought childhood comforts after the trauma of 9/11; Americans wanted fondue in the sixties because they aspired to cosmopolitanism,” it said earlier this year.

“Artisanal toast, one might posit, represents our intensifying obsession with and fetishisation of food. Every meal is special and important, every dish should be elevated, revered, and broadcast—even something as pedestrian as toast.”



We Don't Know Why People Get Fat

In January of this year, the first subject checked into the metabolic ward at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to participate in one of the most rigorous dietary studies ever devised. For eight weeks, he was forbidden to leave. He spent two days of each week inside tiny airtight rooms known as metabolic chambers, where scientists determined precisely how many calories he was burning by measuring changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air. He received meals through vacuum-sealed portholes so that the researchers' breath wouldn't interfere with their measurements. The food itself had been chemically analyzed to ensure an exact number of carbohydrate, protein, and fat calories.

The two-day stays in the chambers were only a small part of the testing, which was also being carried out on subjects at three other institutions around the US. Twice a month, the subjects were required to lie down for dual-energy x-ray absorpti­ometry scans, an accurate way to measure body fat. They offered up their veins again and again so that scientists could measure their lipids and hormone levels. They provided samples of their stools so the researchers could record the different colonies of bacteria residing in their guts.

And yet for all the poking, prodding, measuring, and testing, the most remarkable thing about the $5 million undertaking may be that it's designed to answer a question you'd think we'd have answered long ago: Do we get fat because we overeat or because of the types of food we eat? The Energy Balance Consortium Study, as it's called, is one of the first to be backed by the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit that prides itself on funding fanatically careful tests of previously overlooked hypotheses. NuSI (pronounced new-see) was launched in September 2012 by crusading science journalist Gary Taubes and former physician and medical researcher Peter Attia. The three NuSI studies now under way, which focus on establishing the root causes of obesity and its related diseases, provide just a glimpse of Taubes and Attia's sweeping ambition. NuSI has already raised more than $40 million in pledges and is in the midst of a $190 million, three-year campaign to fund a new round of studies that will build off the findings in the initial research. Together, the studies are intended as steps toward an audacious goal: cutting the prevalence of obesity in the US by more than half—and the prevalence of diabetes by 75 percent—in less than 15 years.

NuSI's strategy is to bring the nation's top nutrition researchers together to find answers as a team. But arriving at a consensus about our nutrition woes won't be easy. Almost as striking as the grim health numbers themselves - two-thirds of American adults are now overweight or obese; more than 115 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes - is that for all the thousands of studies and billions of dollars we've spent on research, there is no agreement among the experts on why we've grown so much more fat and sick over the past several decades or what we should do about it.

The standard explanation is that Americans eat too much—and especially too much fat, which for a long time was thought to be the underlying cause of obesity and most other chronic diseases. That's why major health organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society continue to recommend diets low in saturated fat, with prominent vegan doctors arguing that the answer to our problems lies in avoiding all animal products.

But in recent years, competing theories have suggested other culprits. A growing number of doctors and advocates now see decades of increased consumption of table sugar and other refined carbohydrates as the most likely explanation for our current epidemics. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, rose to national fame after a 2009 lecture in which he called sugar “poison” went viral on YouTube. (Lustig had a chance to repeat his case against sugar in the 2014 Katie Couric-produced documentary Fed Up.) Meanwhile, newer science has undermined the consensus that fat is all that bad for you. A recent meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no clear evidence that eating saturated fat contributes to cardiovascular disease. This major study resonated across the cultural landscape, garnering a Time magazine cover (“Eat Butter”) and a public reconsideration of the danger of fat by television host Dr. Mehmet Oz, who had previously preached against high-fat diets.

Taubes and Attia are firmly in the sugar-bad, saturated-fat-good camp. Indeed, Taubes has written a number of the articles and books—including the best-selling Good Calories, Bad Calories—on which that thinking is based. But even they acknowledge they can't be certain. That's because, as Taubes eloquently argues, most of the existing knowledge gathered in the past five decades of research comes from studies marred by inadequate controls, faulty cause-and-effect reasoning, and animal studies that are not applicable to humans. The whole body of literature, Taubes wrote in a blog post announcing the launch of NuSI, “is based on science that was simply not adequate to the task of establishing reliable knowledge.”

For instance, much of what we think we know about nutrition is based on observational studies, a mainstay of major research initiatives like the Nurses' Health Study, which followed more than 120,000 women across the US for three decades. Such studies look for associations between the foods that subjects claim to eat and the diseases they later develop. The problem, as Taubes sees it, is that observational studies may show a link between a food or nutrient and a disease but tell us nothing about whether the food or nutrient is actually causing the disease. It's a classic blunder of confusing correlation with causation—and failing to test conclusions with controlled experiments. “Good scientists will approach new results like they're buying a used car,” he says. “When the salesman tells you it's a great car, you don't take his word for it. You get it checked out.”

NuSI's starting assumption, in other words, is that bad science got us into the state of confusion and ignorance we're in. Now Taubes and Attia want to see if good science can get us out.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Taubes, 58, founded a project as daring and ambitious as NuSI. He has a well-deserved reputation for being tough-minded and combative. (His detractors in nutrition science have long accused him of hubris.) He majored in applied physics at Harvard, where he also played on the football team's defensive line. (John Tuke, one of his teammates, recalls that Taubes stood out for his intensity.) After Harvard, Taubes headed to Stanford for a master's in engineering with visions of becoming an astronaut. It was only after realizing that NASA wasn't likely to send a man of his size to space - Taubes is 6′2″ and 220 pounds - that he decided to pursue an interest in investigative reporting that had been sparked by reading All the President's Men.

He attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and soon landed a job at Discover magazine. He caught a break in 1984, when a profile of particle physicist Carlo Rubbia led to a deal for his first book, Nobel Dreams. Taubes thought he would be documenting a breakthrough in physics. Instead, the book chronicled Rubbia's errors and the machinations he used to outmaneuver his fellow physicists. Taubes was struck that science could be so subjective at the highest levels—that it's not just the big mistakes that scientists have to worry about but the numerous small ones that accumulate to support their misconceptions. “You can be fooled in a thousand subtle ways,” he says.

That lesson stuck with him when, almost by accident, he turned his attention to nutrition science in 1997. By then a freelancer and running low on rent money, he called his editor at Science and asked if there were any assignments he could turn around quickly. The editor mentioned a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine that detailed a dietary approach to reducing blood pressure without restricting salt. Maybe he could write about that?

Taubes knew almost nothing about the topic. He would end up spending the next nine months interviewing 80 researchers, clinicians, and administrators. That research resulted in an August 1998 article headlined “The (Political) Science of Salt.” It was a sweeping takedown of everything scientists thought they had established about the link between salt consumption and blood pressure. The belief that too much salt was the cause of hypertension wasn't based on careful experiments, Taubes wrote, but primarily on observations of the diets of populations with less hypertension. The scientists and health professionals railing against salt didn't seem to notice or care that the diets of those populations might differ in a dozen ways from the diets of populations with more hypertension.

Taubes began to wonder if his critique applied beyond salt, to the rest of nutrition science. After all, one of the researchers Taubes interviewed had taken credit not only for getting Americans to eat less salt but also for getting them to eat less fat and eggs. He kicked off a multiyear research project that culminated in 2002, when he published a New York Times Magazine cover story on fat that would vault him into prominence and onto the path to NuSI.

Under the cover line “What if Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?” Taubes made the case that we get fat not because we ignore the advice of the medical establishment but because we follow it. He argued that carbohydrates, not fat, were more likely to be the cause of the obesity epidemic. The piece was a sensation. “Gary Taubes is ruining my life!” one NYU professor of nutrition, Marion Nestle, complained to Popular Science at the time. “I can't go anywhere without someone asking about that damn article.”

“I lost friends over that story,” Taubes says. “One journalist friend who had written a book about obesity accused me of having a brain transplant.”

The Times article led to a $700,000 deal for what would become Good Calories, Bad Calories, and Taubes spent the next five years plowing through late-19th- and 20th-century nutrition research. In doing so, he found himself drawn to an even more radical theory, the so-called alternative hypothesis, which holds that we get fat not because we eat too many calories but because specific kinds of calories trigger hormones that regulate how our fat cells behave. In particular, eating refined carbohydrates, and especially sugar, on a sustained basis leads to chronically elevated insulin levels. Among its many other crucial functions in the body, insulin tells fat cells to take up glucose, which is converted into fat, and then keeps fat from all sources locked inside. Therefore: Consume a bunch of sugar every day, as most Americans do, and you'll get fat.

Of course, Taubes could only present the hypothesis. He couldn't prove any of it. The right experiments had never been done.

By the time Peter Attia read Good Calories, Bad Calories, he already sensed that something was off about nutrition science. He didn't have to look much farther than his own waistline. Attia had taken up endurance swimming in his thirties. (In 2008, at age 34, he became the first person to swim from Maui to Lanai and back.) And yet despite exercising for three to four hours a day and watching what he ate, he'd become fat.

At age 35, Attia weighed 205 pounds, 45 more than he did in high school. Alarmingly, his blood work suggested he was on the path to heart disease. Fearing for his future and out of conventional options, in late 2009 Attia began eliminating more and more carbs from his diet while adding more and more dietary fat. Over the next two years, his waist shrank from 36 to 31 inches. His triglycerides, an indicator of cardiovascular risk, dropped from 154 to 22. His HDL (the so-called good cholesterol) rose from 31 to 85 even as his LDL (the arguably bad cholesterol) dropped from 113 to 59.

In April 2011, Attia sent an email to Taubes, asking a few questions about fructose versus glucose. They eventually agreed to meet at an Oakland, California, café. Attia came prepared with 20 pages of highly technical medical questions. The two men discussed their passionate interest in nutrition science and soon discovered a shared admiration of physicist Richard Feynman. Before long, they decided to start a new organization together. The Feynman Foundation, as it could be called, would recruit world-class scientists from different fields to review existing nutrition literature and create consensus statements.

But the more they discussed the idea, the more unlikely it seemed that mere reviews of the existing literature would be enough to change the consensus about diet. “We decided the only way to do this was to create this Manhattan Project-like entity where you bring in all these scientists and remove that one obstacle”—funding—“that is preventing them from doing what they really need to do,” Attia says. “We wanted to just say, ‘Go out and solve it.’”

In Attia, Taubes found a partner even more driven than he is. Attia, now a lean endurance cyclist, appears every bit as fit as Taubes. (Both men took up boxing in their youth.) Like Taubes, Attia had planned to study engineering before deciding to go into medicine.

Taubes and Attia's initial plan was to start slowly, raising money on nights and weekends. Then one day in November 2011 a former natural-gas trader named John Arnold sent Taubes a five-line email. He had heard Taubes on a podcast talking about the type of study that could help uncover the triggers of the obesity epidemic. Arnold was listening closely. “From the little I know about the science of nutrition,” he wrote, “your study makes a lot of sense.”

Taubes had never heard of Arnold. Some quick Googling revealed that he was something of a legend in his field. In 2007, at 33, he became the youngest billionaire in the country. He got his start at Enron before founding his own hedge fund, Centaurus Energy Master Fund, where he proved to be almost preternaturally prescient in making bets on gas prices. In May 2012 Arnold announced that he was closing his fund to focus on philanthropy. Later that month, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation gave NuSI a $4.7 million seed grant. An additional $35.5 million grant was announced last year. “The reason the research hasn't been done right, according to the scientists we've talked to,” says Denis Calabrese, president of the foundation, “is that it's too expensive. And John and Laura said, ‘Well, fine. Tell us how much it is, and let's do it right.’”

So Taubes and Attia have the money and the mission, but what they emphatically don't have—they insist—are prebaked answers to the tough questions they are asking. They are leaving those up to some of the top names in nutrition research—many of whom, as it turns out, are highly dubious of the alternative hypothesis. Consider Kevin Hall, a senior investigator at the NIH's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Like other researchers in the Energy Balance Consortium, he agreed to work with NuSI only once he understood that the initiative would have no control over the study's design, conduct, or reporting.

A physicist by training, Hall has developed a mathematical model that can predict how different diets impact metabolism and body composition. According to Hall's model, the low-carb, low-insulin diet that the participants will eat in the second phase of the metabolic ward study should have at most a tiny effect on the total calories they burn. “I'm currently skeptical,” Hall says of the alternative hypothesis.

Rudolph Leibel, one of the researchers working on the consortium study at Columbia, also has similar doubts—not least because his own research fully supports the calories-in/calories-out model, which holds that all calories have equal impact on our weight. When Leibel had participants in one study drink formulas with the same number of calories but hugely different proportions of fat and carbohydrates, he saw no difference in the amount of energy they burned.

Like Hall, Leibel makes no secret of his doubts about the alternative hypothesis. And considering the lack of love between Taubes and many in the nutrition research community, the most surprising aspect of NuSI may be that these skeptical scientists have agreed to work with the organization in the first place.

One likely explanation is money, or more specifically the science that money makes possible. NuSI is giving researchers an opportunity to carry out unusually ambitious work. The NIH might fund similar studies to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars a year. “The NIH has a very limited amount of money at a time when science requires increasingly expensive research to answer much more sophisticated questions,” says David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

With coprincipal investigator Cara Ebbeling, Ludwig is overseeing a NuSI experiment that launched in July 2013. The $13.6 million study ($10.3 million of which comes from a NuSI grant) also tests the alternative hypothesis on 150 overweight and obese college students, faculty, and staff who are fed most of their meals under direct observation in the school's cafeteria.

In contrast with Hall and Leibel, Ludwig's previous work has supported the alternative hypothesis. And Ludwig is optimistic that NuSI-sponsored science may one day change the way many of us think about nutrition: “One key study could be the hammer that dislodges the loose brick in the prevailing paradigm.”

In March 2013, Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine and a director at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, began preparing for NuSI's first free-living study—where subjects aren't directly observed as they eat. One of the largest such human experiments ever to test a low-fat diet against a low-carbohydrate diet, Gardner's study stems from his previous research, which suggests a diet's effectiveness may be due to how insulin-resistant the dieter is at the outset. It will randomize 600 overweight-to-obese subjects into two groups. Both will receive regular counseling meant to help them stick to their diets, a standard practice in other free-living studies. But to overcome the major problem with such work—inaccurate accounts of consumption based on volunteers' food diaries—NuSI is funding the creation of an app that allows subjects to record their eating activity by selecting photos from an extensive database. (Because of confidentiality agreements with the developers, Attia wouldn't provide much detail on the app's features.)

The app is just one example of NuSI's ambition to rewrite the rules of nutrition research funding, take huge risks, and arrive at answers as quickly and unambiguously as possible. It's “go big or go home,” says Attia, who runs NuSI's day-to-day operations.

Taubes, too, is aware of the risk. As Calabrese puts it, “Gary is advancing a study that may refute a theory he's built his career on. It may blow his theory right out of the water.”

If that happens, or if NuSI fails to bring any clarity to our obesity epidemic, Taubes won't be totally unprepared. In the entryway of his home, just off the main foyer, there's a frame with two photos in it. In one, taken just before the start of an amateur boxing match, a young Taubes is standing, gloves at his side. In his tank top and boxing shorts, the muscular young man looks powerful enough to punch his way through anything. In the other photo, taken about two minutes later, Taubes is lying on his back unconscious. “It's my hubris protection,” Taubes says. “Whenever I think I'm so cool I can do anything, it reminds me that I am not and that this is real life.”



Menu Language and Price

THEY say you should never judge a book by its cover but it seems you can judge a restaurant by its language.

A linguistics professor has analysed the link between the wordiness of a menu and the prices the restaurant charges.

The use of long words to describe a dish is a clear sign of a high price, Professor Dan Jurafsky’s study of 6,500 menus found. In fact, he calculates that for every extra letter in the description of a dish diners can expect an extra 11p to be added to their bill.

Jurafsky, of Stanford University, California, concludes that expensive restaurants want to appear high class by giving the impression their clientele must be highly educated. “You’re flattering your customers, but it’s also a bit of showing off,” said Jurafsky, who details the research in his book The Language of Food. “Cheap places can’t do it because the diners want to know what they are getting. There isn’t that trust.”

Words such as “exotic” and “spicy” also raise the price of a dish, according to the study, while vague gushing adjectives such as “delicious”, “gourmet” and “hearty” feature more in cheap menus.

“It’s the cheapest restaurants in which the customers do not assume it will be delicious where the restaurants really feel like they need to convince you,” Jurafsky said.

Indeed, superlatives such as “tasty” or “terrific” typically reduce the dish’s cost by 5p, and adjectives such as “rich”, “chunky” and “zesty” lower the cost by 2p, his study found.

Those writing cheaper menus also often feel the need to describe ingredients as “real” or “genuine”, Jurafsky said, and invariably offer more choice.

The options on offer at mid-market Chinese and Indian restaurants often run to up to a dozen pages, whereas in many gourmet places diners are handed a single sheet.

Budget eateries are also more likely to offer to cook the dishes “your way”, Jurafsky said. Meanwhile expensive restaurants expect their clients to trust in the experts, with some now even giving diners no choice at all and letting them see the menu only after they have eaten.

The Sunday Times asked Jurafsky to compare the à la carte menu at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, which has three Michelin stars, with the main course menu at Harvester, the mid-market nationwide restaurant chain. Ramsay’s eatery charges £95 for three courses, while Harvester offers a £9.99 meal deal for a main course with unlimited salad, ice cream and tea or coffee.

The first thing that struck Jurafsky was the gulf in choice. Harvester offers 42 dishes on two crammed sides of A3, including five ways to have your chicken, while Ramsay offers just 12 dishes, spaced out on a couple of sides of A4.

“You eat what Gordon Ramsay gives you,” he explained. “You’re paying for the theatre, you’re paying for the chef to do something fabulous and new. For the cheap restaurants you’re eating at every day, you want to be able to order exactly what you want.”

Ramsay’s menu, he pointed out, contained longer words, with ingredients such as “langoustine”, as well as unusual terms such as “wild chervil”, which is a herb.

Jurafsky then picked out Harvester’s £4.99 goat’s cheese dish, which the menu describes as “soft and tangy”. “That’s classic,” said Jurafsky. “How would goat’s cheese not be soft?”

He made similar points about the descriptions of “fresh chicken”, “fluffy jacket potato” and “fresh grilled pineapple” before his eye settled on the restaurant’s “famous ½ spit roast chicken”, which is described as being “carefully spit-roasted”.

“It’s not like you’re expecting a sloppy spit-roaster,” he said. “It’s the result of the restaurant’s insecurity.”

Finally he singled out a description of barbecue sauce as “tasty”. “If you have nothing to say, you have to resort to tasty,” he said.

Referring to Ramsay’s menu, which is littered with references to its food’s provenance, he added: “If you can’t say your scallops are from the Isle of Skye, then you have to use a superlative.”

In a further study of almost 1m restaurant reviews, Jurafsky found that positive reviews of expensive restaurants tended to use sexual words such as “orgasmic” while praise of cheap restaurants used drug-related words such as “crack”.



Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity — the kind that’s not associated with celiac disease — is a mysterious thing. An estimated 18 million people don’t fit the criteria for celiac disease, the genetic disorder that erodes the small intestine and causes digestive symptoms like bloating and stomach pain. And yet consuming gluten still makes them feel awful, notes health writer Jane Brody in a two-part series on the protein for the New York Times this week. But what if gluten is only a piece of the puzzle?

A bit buried in her second article, Brody nods to some overlooked nutrition research published last year, which indicates that for many who are currently considered to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten may not be the only thing that’s causing their health issues. The real culprit, this study suggests, may be a group of sugars represented by the somewhat unwieldy acronym FODMAPs, which Brody defines like so:

Fodmaps is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, sugars that draw water into the intestinal tract. They may be poorly digested or absorbed, and become fodder for colonic bacteria that produce gas and can cause abdominal distress.

And this is a big deal, some nutrition scientists say, because so far non-celiac gluten sensitivity has mostly been defined by what it isn’t: It’s not a wheat allergy, and it’s not celiac disease. It does result in the same gastrointestinal issues that plague celiac patients, but it’s also often accompanied by symptoms outside the gut: headache, joint pain, foggy mind.

The idea of non-celiac gluten sensitivity was established in the scientific community back in 2011, when a study published in Nature by a team of Australian researchers concluded that it “may exist.” This research was among the first to show that people who did not have celiac disease could still suffer from celiac-like symptoms after consuming gluten, including bloating, intestinal pain, and tiredness.

But many of the people in this study still experienced these symptoms long after switching to a gluten-free diet. And so the researchers decided to continue to follow these folks. They asked the participants to switch from their gluten-free diet to a diet low in FODMAPs, which means avoiding a pretty extensive list of fruits, veggies, and grains containing those sugars that are harder for some to digest. Some of those foods do contain gluten, but many do not. For more detail, here’s a list of foods considered to be high and low in FODMAPs.

And here’s their remarkable finding: All of the participants in this study reported improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms after two weeks of following the FODMAPs diet. It’s early yet, as nutrition scientists are just beginning to explore the connection between FODMAPs and celiac-like symptoms. But for many, singling out gluten may not be the answer, since the real culprit could lie elsewhere.



Moulded Pumpkins

Like Victor Frankenstein, Tony Dighera was determined to bring a new creature to life. Though he was fairly new to farming, Mr. Dighera saw profit to be made in strangely shaped pumpkins.

So he created a “pumpkinstein.”

Grown in a plastic mold, the pumpkins bear the distinctive face of the Frankenstein monster, and Mr. Dighera has harvested roughly 5,500 of them this year. With a slight smile, a wide button nose, a slightly furrowed brow and ears sticking out just slightly, the pumpkins are easy to mistake for something carved from wax.

“People never believe it’s real the first time they see it; they all want to touch it to make sure,” Mr. Dighera said, holding one of his creations on his 40-acre organic farm north of Los Angeles, as workers harvested cilantro and dill one recent morning. “The point was to make something that would get attention.”

Their distinctive if unnatural shape is so far a major success. Mr. Dighera sold out his crop to suppliers months ago, offering the pumpkins wholesale for $75 each. Retailers expect each to fetch $100 or more in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Halloween has grown beyond the simple days of trick-or-treating and into a $7 billion business, according to the National Retail Federation, as retailers go to greater lengths each year to try to surpass the previous season.

Just over $2 billion was spent last year on candy alone, according to industry figures. And long ago it stopped being just a sweets-fueled holiday for children. Among the biggest money earners are adult costumes, with costs typically ranging from $30 to well over $100. And last year, consumers spent $310 million on costumes for their pets.

Decorations now account for nearly a third of Halloween spending, and the fast-growing category is one of the most competitive aspects of the industry.

Cue pumpkinstein and Mr. Dighera, who got his start in oddly shaped produce several years ago, after coming across a website that featured square watermelons grown in Japan.

In 2010, Mr. Dighera began experimenting with plastic molds and watermelon varieties. Was this mold too sharp, that plastic too strong, the shade too dark? If the fruits were too small, they would not take the shape, but if they were too big, they would crack. After trying dozens of seed varieties and experimenting with how much sun the crops received, he produced a sweet, crisp, red-fleshed, cube-shaped watermelon. Elated, he moved on to a heart-shaped mold.

This year, Mr. Dighera sold the square and heart-shaped watermelons for $40 each, primarily through local upscale markets. At the same time, he figured out how to use a mold to imprint logos: Whole Foods received its own branded melons, the letters perfectly pressed into the rind.

It took Mr. Dighera 27 varieties of pumpkin — and roughly $400,000 — before he found the right one to take the monster shape.

“I started playing around and realized pretty quickly this wasn’t going to be a quick thing,” he said. “But I also realized that if I could really figure it out, I would have something special.”

Mr. Dighera, 53, worked as a tractor operator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for more than three decades, but he always harbored dreams of tilling land instead of asphalt, as his grandparents had done on their farm in San Diego. In 2003, he bought a small piece of property in Ventura County, in an area known for avocados. For more than a decade, he mostly lost money as a small organic farmer, growing kale, lettuce, berries, tomatoes and whatever else he could on the fertile ground, selling primarily to nearby organic markets.

For the past four years, though, he has pursued the creation of perfectly molded produce with a vengeance. He learned that he could shape only the first two fruits of a vine — subsequent pumpkins were too big. He worked with a local plastics company to develop a mold.

“When you try something for four years of your life, people really start to think you’re wacko,” he said.

This year, he estimates he produced 5,500 pumpkin heads. But in the coming year, he plans to turn over almost his entire farm to the endeavor, aiming to harvest between 30,000 and 40,000 pumpkinsteins. Cultivating them is easier than watermelons, Mr. Dighera said, because nobody is concerned about how a Halloween pumpkin tastes.

In the food-obsessed corners of Southern California, it is hardly unusual for a single piece of produce to cost well into the double digits. But to Andrea Moss, who has been willing to fork over $30 for foraged mushrooms, Mr. Dighera’s creations look like too much of a splurge.

“They certainly caught my eye,” Ms. Moss, 43, said as she shopped at Erewhon, an organic market in Calabasas, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, where the pumpkins were being sold for $100 (by pre-order only). “But looking amazing won’t make me spend that much right now.”

David Johnson, a buyer for Specialty Produce, a supplier based in San Diego, said he did not think that his customers — among them some of the costliest restaurants in the region — would spring for items sold by Mr. Dighera’s farm, which is called Cinagro (“organic” spelled backward). Still, Mr. Johnson said, he understood the appeal.

“Everyone is trying to do something to get noticed in this industry, experimenting with something or another,” he said. “There are going to be people who can afford it first, and the more they grow, the cheaper it will become.”

Mr. Dighera has caught people trying to sneak onto the farm in the middle of the night four times — presumably to steal pumpkins or to try to figure out how they are grown. He has turned down offers to be bought out by major farms, he said, but is considering licensing the molds to other growers next year.

His sales pitch to retailers is simple: Even if you think the price is too steep, customers will come in just to see the oddly shaped fruits.

“Most people aren’t going to walk into a market, buy this on a whim and then decide to eat it,” Mr. Dighera said. “But when it’s an event — especially if it’s an event involving their children — people are willing to spend a lot more money.”



Food Critics

Recently, Michelin—which describes as “the European tire maker that publishes what could be the world’s most recognized guide for dining out”— released its annual list of New York’s best restaurants. Based on assessments by a group of anonymous expert “inspectors,” the tire maker turned fine-dining arbiter assigns between one and three stars (one for “a very good restaurant in its category”; two for “excellent cuisine, worth a detour”; three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”) to any restaurant deemed worthy in a given year. (John Colapinto wrote a story for The New Yorker about the inspection process in 2009.) Think of Michelin stars as the restaurant Oscars: eagerly anticipated, highly influential, and hotly disputed.

After this year’s stars were bestowed (or withdrawn, in the case of some unfortunate establishments), the statistician Nate Silver, whose Web site, FiveThirtyEight, has recently turned its attention to food, decided to compare highbrow and lowbrow food judging. “Michelin reviewers,” he wrote, “are accused of being pretentious and ‘out of touch’ and of enforcing a rigid view of dining that’s biased against certain cuisines.” He compared the stars bestowed by Michelin to the stars awarded by the crowdsourced review site Yelp, which, Silver explains, is often accused of attracting reviewers who are “unsophisticated, cheap, and obsessed with trivial details of the restaurant experience.”

Silver found that, for all their differences, the two rating systems are largely in agreement about which are the best places to eat in New York. Restaurants such as Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and Jean-Georges, all of which have three Michelin stars, are also beloved on Yelp, according to Silver’s formula, which takes into account the number of Yelp reviews a restaurant has, as well as its average number of stars. “In most respects, the challenge in evaluating restaurants is the same as when looking at any other statistical distribution,” Silver wrote. “It’s easy to identify the outliers—the extraordinary restaurants and the execrable ones.” But, he went on, “Distinguishing the very good restaurants from the average ones is more challenging. There may be no substitute for eating your way through them.”

I can think of one. In 1997, when I was ten years old, I saw the movie “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” In the film, Julia Roberts plays a woman named Julianne Potter, who realizes that she’s in love with her best friend just as he’s about to marry someone else. I was captivated less by this plot than by Julianne’s job: she’s a New York City food critic. In an early scene, she and her editor (played by Rupert Everett) sit together in a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant, gazing coolly around the place and exchanging knowing glances as a flurry of tuxedoed waiters and toqued chefs lose their minds over her presence. “I will kill your family if you don’t get this right!” the real-life chef Charlie Trotter (in a cameo as a version of himself) says to one of his underlings.

The camera follows a signature dish—a fussy arrangement of what seems to be lamb on a pedestal of polenta and spinach—as it leaves the kitchen and arrives at Julianne’s table. She takes a bite, pauses, then pronounces, “I’m writing it up as . . . inventive. And . . . confident.” The entire restaurant staff, including three chefs with their noses pressed up against the porthole in the kitchen door, breathes a collective sigh of relief.

In retrospect, it’s a pretty ridiculous, unrealistic scene. But, at the time, my mind was blown. It hadn’t occurred to me—a child who loved to eat, especially in restaurants—that this was a profession. I began to read the weekly “Dining In Dining Out” section of the Times, flipping eagerly each Wednesday to the restaurant review, which was, serendipitously, being written by a woman, Ruth Reichl. I drank up her words on restaurants that I knew I’d never set foot in. It didn’t matter; the writing was wonderful in and of itself. She danced circles around Julianne Potter’s “inventive” and “confident,” painting vibrant, nuanced pictures of restaurants and their food and the people who were eating it. The following year, she published her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone”; I declared it my favorite book, and Reichl my idol.

Eighteen years and four critics later, the Times’ restaurant reviews are as sharp as they’ve ever been and still hold a good deal of clout. (Several years ago, I worked at a restaurant that, in time-honored fashion, kept a picture of Sam Sifton tacked to a bulletin board outside the basement prep kitchen.) But, in this age of Yelp and Michelin stars, we run the risk of forgetting what real restaurant reviews are worth.

Both Michelin and Yelp offer words, in addition to stars. Michelin publishes an actual physical guidebook, which contains a brief writeup of each restaurant, and reviewers on Yelp are free to natter on to their hearts’ content. But Michelin inspectors write stuffy, generic things like “The words posh and exclusive come to mind when admiring the spacious tables, corner banquettes, and stunning views.” Yelp reviewers tend to offer unimaginative, useless notes like “The location is great, service is superb, and food is epic.” Why would anyone seek out advice on where to eat from people who can’t come up with anything better than that?

In 1999, Ruth Reichl reviewed a Floyd Cardoz restaurant, since closed, called Tabla. The Times, of course, awards stars, too, and she gave Tabla three. But what she wrote was much more instructive than any number of stars could ever be:

"Those who do not like Tabla tend to dislike it with a passion. I know this because each time I dine at the restaurant I encounter at least one person who despises the food. It always takes me by surprise. I sit there, thrilled by the taste of mustard fettuccine tossed with veal; I love the way the crusty chunks of meat are soft as custard when you bite into them. Savoring this mixture of spinach, spice, tomato and flour, I suddenly look up and find my guest staring with disbelief, at a bowl of wild mushroom soup. ‘‘It’s horrible,’’ he says. I take a bite; it is electric with the taste of tamarind. The power of the ginger in the liquid takes my breath away. ‘‘It’s fabulous,’’ I cry, ‘‘you’re insane.’"

While reading Pete Wells’s recent review of Tavern on the Green, I laughed out loud at his spot-on description of the renovated building: “woven into the life of the park more fully than in its last incarnation, a wedding-cake palace as imagined by a 6-year-old princess with a high fever.” Tejal Rao, Bloomberg’s new restaurant critic, piqued my interest in the Brooklyn restaurant Take Root much more than did the restaurant’s inclusion on Michelin’s new list. A dish of cucumbers and macadamias, she wrote, “was finished at the table with a pour of macadamia milk. It was rich with olive oil, thickened with bread leftover from last night’s service, but meticulously strained and emulsified until it was lush as cream. Richer and more refined than an almond-based ajo blanco, the Spanish soup that informed it, it was also one of the loveliest things I’ve eaten this year.”

I don’t always agree with the restaurant critics in the Times or elsewhere, but I trust them—in the way that I trust certain critics of film, television, art, or literature—not to predict what I or anyone else will like (how could they possibly know?) but to entertain me; to provide carefully researched historical and cultural context; to make me think. I trust them to write so thoughtfully and distinctively that I don’t have to wonder if they’re biased; rather, I know that they are, and, over time, can learn their biases and balance my own judgments against them. The relationship between critic and reader is exactly that: a relationship, between two people. You can’t have a relationship with stars.



Food Calorie Labels and Exercise

What if nutrition labels told people exactly what calories meant, in practical terms? A bottle of Coke could dole out specific exercise requirements. The calories herein, it might say, are the equivalent of a 50-minute jog. The decision to drink the Coke then becomes, would you rather spend the evening on a treadmill, or just not drink the soda?

Some would say that's a joyless, infantilizing idea. The implication that people can't understand calorie counts is unduly cynical. Have a Coke and a smile, not a Coke and a guilt-wail. Others would protest on grounds that it's impossible to make this kind of exercise requirement universal to people of all ages, body sizes, and levels of fitness. Everyone burns calories at different rates. But Sara Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is not among these people. She describes these labels as her dream.

For the past four years, translating nutrition information into exercise equivalents has been the focus of Bleich's increasingly popular research endeavor. Her latest findings on the effectiveness of the concept are published today in the American Journal of Public Health. In the study, researchers posted signs next to the soda and juice in Baltimore corner stores that read: “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” or “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about five miles of walking?” (And, long as those distances and times may seem, they may even underestimate the magnitude of the metabolic insult of liquid sugar.)

The signs were a proxy for an actual food label, but they made the point. They effectively led to fewer juice and soda purchases, and to purchases of smaller sizes (12-ounce cans instead of 20-ounce bottles). Bleich also saw learned behavior; even after the signs came down, the local patrons continued to buy less soda and juice.

"The problem with calories is that they're not very meaningful to people," Bleich told me. "The average American doesn't know much about calories, and they're not good at numeracy."

"Why not give this information in the most digestible form, in a way that's shown to have the largest impact on behavior?" That concern is the impetus for a growing movement to make nutrition information as simple and practical as possible. Some have proposed a three-tiered stoplight system, where healthy foods are labeled with a green light (Go!), and junk bears a damning red. Yellow is ... everything else. Others have proposed an even simpler thumbs-up, thumbs-down dichotomy.

"Let's say you do know that you need to take in about 2,000 calories a day - which most Americans don't know," Bleich said. "Let's say that a hamburger at McDonald's has 250 calories. To figure out the percent that 250 represents of 2,000 is tough, mentally. Most people can't do that, and they certainly can't do it quickly when they're trying to place an order."

The notion is only partly cynical, in that most people only glance at labels for a few seconds, so simplicity is apropos. And the people who consume the most junk calories are also those with the least education and health literacy. These are the populations with the highest rates of obesity and related chronic diseases. These labels need to reach and speak to, most importantly, those at-risk groups.

Bleich launched her initial 2011 foray into exercise-labeling investigation after driving around some of Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods. She saw boarded-up houses and drug trade on the corners. "I thought, do the people who live here care about the calories in the food they eat?" She posted the exercise-equivalent signs in one corner store, to good effect. "In fact, they did."

Today's new results explore a larger, more substantial version of that original study, including the subtleties of changes in people's decisions. The research looked exclusively at black middle-school and high-school students in urban Baltimore. On average, black adolescents drink twice as much soda and juice as the American Health Association guidelines recommend at maximum. The exercise equivalents were based on average metabolic rates for 15-year-olds weighing 110 pounds.

So the conversion from calories to exercise is far from universal. But everything in nutrition is based on averages, Bleich notes, including the generic dietary recommendation of 2,000 calories daily, which is a very rough estimate that depends on age, weight, activity levels, basal metabolic rate, and even environmental temperature. Some athletes need closer to 4,000. But, she says, providing a usable benchmark is much better than an absolute number like a calorie count, which has little relevance to many people. "That's the beauty of this system," she said. "Federal regulations already require that this nutrition information is conveyed. Why not give it in the most digestible form, in a way that's shown to have the largest impact on behavior?"

Listing physical activity-equivalents on labels and menus could, in Bleich's vision, either replace or augment calorie counts.

Counting calories is, as I've written before, a terrible approach to eating. As the nutrition mantra goes, "A calorie is not a calorie." Calories from sugars affect the body differently than do calories from fats or protein. Our bodies are great at taking in and storing calories from food, and terrible at burning them. That's because of a stubborn insistence on staying alive.

According to the work of David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, the vast difference in the effects of different types of calories on the body comes down to the hormone insulin. Eating too many refined carbohydrates releases insulin, which programs fat cells to suck in and store the sugar calories. Blood-sugar levels drop, which triggers a starvation response. We experience that as slowed metabolism and becoming hungry again shortly after eating.

"David is certainly not wrong," Bleich said. "If you have a snack of M&Ms at 3:00 versus an apple snack, you're going to be hungrier again much more quickly. But I think the way to think about the 'calorie is a calorie' argument is, putting aside these sugar spikes, if you're just looking to lose weight, cutting calories, no matter what kind they are, is going to lead to that outcome."

Counting calories is a terrible approach to eating. As the nutrition mantra goes, "A calorie is not a calorie." Another problem with that approach is that the food industry has lately embraced calorie counts as a way of marketing junk. In June, Coca-Cola held a marketing stunt on Santa Monica beach where passersby could hop on a giant stationary bike and pedal until they burned enough calories to earn a can of Coke. By the company's calculation, that was an optimistic 23 minutes. The event, part of the company's "taking on obesity" campaign, artfully reinforced the message that junk calories are fine, as long as you are physically active. That's untrue in that even the most active person can develop chronic disease from a high-sugar diet. And it's almost impossible for most people to out-exercise their stomachs, especially when they get into the throes of a sugar-heavy hunger cycle.

Ludwig's recommendation is to focus on limiting foods that over-stimulate fat cells (refined carbohydrates and concentrated sugars) to store energy. Eating this way, he argues, we can basically ignore calories. The body's innate system of hunger and satiety will take care of itself. He and Bleich are on the same page in trying to minimize intake of sugars, at least, as is the consensus of nutrition experts.

By leading kids away from soda, Bleich is convinced that this labeling system is a prudent approach. "It works. It's helping kids, and they're learning from it." Of the kids in today's study who said they saw the signs, 40 percent said they subsequently changed their behavior. Her next step is to expand the intervention to Hispanic populations and to put the signs on solid snacks, presumably to the same promising effect. But as for real-world implementation, while Bleich has seen support from the FDA in the quest to make nutrition labeling as relevant and digestible as possible, she has also seen pushback from industry groups like the National Restaurant Association.

The menu-labeling provisions of the Affordable Care Act require chain restaurants to provide calorie information on their menus and menu boards, along with a statement addressing recommended daily caloric intake, that gross approximation. In the New England Journal of Medicine last year, Bleich and her Johns-Hopkins colleague Lainie Rutkow argued for exercise-equivalents on those menus, but the time has passed for this to be a part of federal law. And new nutrition labels on food packages were proposed earlier this year by the FDA, but they did not include exercise equivalents. Still, for restaurant chains or food companies looking to voluntarily take on a progressive public-health image, Bleich hopes the approach could get traction.



Grow Your Own

A group of artists in Amsterdam undertook an experiment they called the Sandwich Factory that took locavorism to its extremes: To make their own croques-monsieurs, they raised and eventually butchered Wim and Max, their own pigs, before turning them into ham. They also made and aged cheese and grew wheat to make bread.

They did all of this, of course, in order to push the bounds of the farm-to-table ethos so people could see how much work goes into even the most basic things they eat. One year and $45,000 later, they served up their 100-percent-from-scratch tostis to a few hundred people, which was all the tostis they had ingredients for. Those ingredients, one team member explained, were "super simple," but the few things involved ended up requiring 20 volunteers working for a whole summer on their ad hoc farm.

Sandwich Factory creator Sascha Landshoff says he learned some things, but definitely not how to undertake a fun art project: It was, he says, "the worst project that ever existed. It took us a year, day and night, and €35,000, and we only got 350 sandwiches in the end." Perhaps next year they'll stick to lettuce and beet wraps, or at least something with more sprouts.



Reviews As Entertainment

In 2012, the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote a review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar, in Times Square, so scathing that it went viral. Conceived as a sort of open letter to Mr. Fieri himself, it consisted entirely of rhetorical questions like, “Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” and “When we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?”

Damning, to be sure, and quite saucy (no pun intended) for the usually genteel Times. And yet Wells’s review seems almost Puritan when compared to a review that caught the Internet’s attention last month. This one, published in the London newspaper the Observer, considered a “steak and crab joint” in that city called Beast, where, the writer declared, “the corn-fed, dry-aged Nebraskan rib-eye, with a carbon footprint big enough to make a climate-change denier horny, is bloody marvelous.” And, he went on, “at £100 a kilo it bloody well should be. At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.”

These were the words of the critic, novelist, and television personality Jay Rayner, who writes sometimes incendiary, often crass, always cheeky assessments of restaurants in his native U.K., and who is often mistaken for the chef Marco Pierre White. On a recent evening at Union Hall, in Park Slope, he used his doppelgänger to begin a PowerPoint presentation called “My Dining Hell,” flipping between a photograph of himself and one of White: “Marco. Me. Marco—we are not the same bloody person.” Then he slammed White’s food: “A little while ago, I went to the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill. I still remember the smoked-mackerel-and-whiskey paté. If that had been found in the deserts of Iraq in 2003, there would have never been protests across Europe against the invasion of Iraq. They would have gone, ‘Fair, dudes, take the fuckers out.’” (His brand of humor would have done well in the Catskills in the nineteen-sixties.)

A fitting start—Rayner was there, he explained, “to talk to you about bad reviews. Well, the reviews are brilliant. But I’m here to talk to you about reviews of truly terrible restaurants and why we like them.” He had several theories: because we’re horrible; because it’s a way to take revenge on every bad restaurant experience we’ve ever had; because it makes us feel better about ourselves. “There’s also the idea of catharsis, in Greek theatre, that you read something terrible and then you feel better, you have a purging,” he said. “And if the restaurant meal is truly appalling, you will literally purge yourself.” (Ba-dum ching.)

He likes writing about terrible restaurants, he explained, because “when you start to write about good restaurants, the lexicon begins to close down. You end up in the language of the motivational poster. But when you’re talking about a bad restaurant, basically you are rubbernecking at a car crash. And the language opens up before you. There are more tools in the toolbox.” Citing the famous Tolstoy line about happy versus unhappy families, Rayner argued that it could be applied to restaurants. “All good restaurants are good in the same way: they have tables; they have chairs; they have nice food, and it’s served by people who aren’t psychopaths. The number of ways by which restaurants have to fuck things up, the bad ones, leaves me speechless—for a little while, until I sit down to write.”

He cycled through some of the ways: Waiters who begin service by saying things like “Hi, guys, can I tell you about the concept behind our menu?” (“I choose, you bring, I do not want to know! That worked for a very, very long time.”) Waiters who are too quick to refill wine glasses, or too eager to ask, “How is everything?” Misguided menu language: basil-enthused, homemade (“Who made the rest of this crap?”). Then he launched into a list of his worst-ever restaurant experiences: a branch of Buddha Bar where the music was so bass-heavy you could “basically get a prostate exam at the bar” and where a “Red Thai” salad “was to Thai food what Robert Mugabe was to democracy.” A Kosher restaurant with gefilte fish so leaden it “could pull planets out of alignment.” A place called Abracadabra, where the urinals in the men’s bathroom were shaped like open, lipsticked mouths and the faucets in the ladies’ were designed to resemble penises.

Penises came up again during the post-PowerPoint Q. & A., as the conversation shifted to differences of style in the U.S. and the U.K. Of his Beast review, Rayner said, “There is absolutely no chance that that would ever have appeared in an American publication. If I had filed a review to the New York Times which said the list was full of Montrachet and Pomerol and priced for men with very small penises, I would have had a phone call from a fact-checker saying, ‘Do you have an e-mail line which proves that it was priced for men with small penises, and what do you define as small?’”

In London, he explained, the stakes are different. “There are eleven of us, patrolling the waterfront and competing with each other, and being absolutely aware that if we’re not entertaining enough you will go and read someone else,” he said. “Pete Wells doesn’t have that competition, and I think that leads to a certain elegance and decorum, which perhaps makes it less of a fun read, if I’m absolutely honest. It may be more precise and more proper. It may give you even perhaps possibly a more considered review of the restaurant, but you’re not going to necessarily laugh as much. And obviously it’s all about the laughs.”

“How do we get that here?” a woman in the audience asked. Rayner looked thoughtful. “There’s a great division in the U.S. between popular and highbrow culture, which is less existent in the U.K.,” he replied. “It’s almost as if when you get to the quality press, whatever you want to call it, in the U.S., there’s a fear that if you get too down and dirty, you’re giving in to the forces of popular culture. I have no idea how to loosen the bra straps on that.”

Could he describe something he liked?, another woman wanted to know. He hesitated for just a moment, before eloquently describing a dish he’d had the previous night at Estela, in Manhattan: a sea-urchin omelet that he deemed “one of the most glorious things I’d eaten in a long time,” just set, “with that kind of brilliant iodine tang of sea urchin.” Highbrow. But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he went on, “Sea urchins and oysters—a taste for them is a mark of adulthood, I think, and also of a healthy sex life. Women should never take a partner who doesn’t like oysters and sea urchins, ’cause it’s not gonna be good. I said that in a review once!”



Cannabis Cooking

Recreational marijuana is both illegal and controversial in most of the country, and its relationship to food does not rise much above a joke about brownies or a stoner chef’s late-night pork belly poutine.

But cooking with cannabis is emerging as a legitimate and very lucrative culinary pursuit.

In Colorado, which has issued more than 160 edible marijuana licenses, skilled line cooks are leaving respected restaurants to take more lucrative jobs infusing cannabis into food and drinks. In Washington, one of four states that allow recreational marijuana sales, a large cannabis bakery dedicated to affluent customers with good palates will soon open in Seattle.

Major New York publishing houses and noted cookbook authors are pondering marijuana projects, and chefs on both coasts and in food-forward countries like Denmark have been staging underground meals with modern twists like compressed watermelon, smoked cheese and marijuana-oil vinaigrette.

“It really won’t be long until it becomes part of haute cuisine and part of respectable culinary culture, instead of just an illegal doobie in the backyard,” said Ken Albala, director of the food studies program at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco.

Two problems, however, stand in the way: First, it’s hard to control how high people get when they eat marijuana. And second, it really doesn’t taste that good.

Still, what if chefs could develop a culinary canon around marijuana that tamed both its taste and mood-altering effects, and diners came to appreciate dishes with marijuana the way one appreciates good bourbon? Paired with delicious recipes and the pleasures of good company, cannabis cookery might open a new dimension in dining that echoes the evolutions in the wine and cocktail cultures.

“I am sure someone is going to grow some that is actually delicious and we’ll all learn about it,” said Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine and a former New York Times restaurant critic. Who could have predicted that kale would be the trendiest green on the plate, or that people would line up for pear and blue cheese ice cream, she asked.

“Cuisine is a product of people who cook and the ideologies they bring into the kitchen and what they are able to do with the instruments they have on hand,” said Adam Gomolin, a lawyer and amateur chef who helped found the crowd-funded publishing company Inkshares.

In the fall, his company plans to publish “Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis,” a project which has attracted the cookbook author Michael Ruhlman.

The place where culinary science and heightening pleasure meet interests Mr. Ruhlman, who is in talks to write a chapter on proper ratios for preparing culinary cannabis.

The rest of the book will contain recipes like marijuana-infused black pepper biscuits, butternut squash soup and sausage marinara developed by Melissa Parks, a Denver chef who once worked for General Mills and now serves as vice president of product development for Nutritional High International, a company based in Toronto. “What intrigued me,” Mr. Ruhlman said, “is the notion that you could figure out a ratio that would allow you to use pot in the way one would enjoy a martini and still have a pleasant experience.”

Cannabis cooking will hit the mainstream, he said, only “when you can give it to someone and not make them a complete idiot.”

The book is the second, more sophisticated effort from the people who created “The Stoner’s Cookbook,” a website that has more than five million page views a month. The site’s chief executive, Matt Gray, predicts the legal marijuana industry will be worth $10.2 billion in five years and that edible marijuana could be as much as 40 percent of that.

Cooking with marijuana requires a scientist’s touch to draw out and control the cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which alter one’s mood and physical sensations. To get a consistent, controllable effect, marijuana is best heated and combined with fats like butter, olive oil or cream.

But it could also work — albeit less effectively — as a seasoning, which was the point of a discussion in the hallway of a five-star hotel here this year, when a few chefs in town for a conference took a break to huddle around a collection of marijuana-infused sweets including one called a rookie cookie.

The snicker doodle, purchased at a shop that looked like a pared-down Apple Store, was baked with just enough cannabis-infused butter to give a novice a tender high.

“The weed is pretty faint, but it’s not an un-delicious weed type flavor,” said Michel Nischan, a chef from Connecticut. “It’s almost like when you do a savory cookie and you might find sage or rosemary or verbena in it.”

Ms. Lazarus, who New York magazine called “the Martha Stewart of weed baking,” makes confections like the Scout’s Honor, which is a play on the Thin Mint cookie, and tart key lime and white chocolate truffles.

Because law prohibits tasting dosed products at work, she first works out recipes without using marijuana, and then adds cannabis-infused sugar, oil or butter. She tests the products in a laboratory. They get taste tested as well, but not at work.

For the moment, her products are for the medical-marijuana market, which allows for higher doses than food sold under a recreational license. Under new rules beginning in February, each product can only have 10 milligrams per serving and only 100 milligrams total.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana sales. Only four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado — allow recreational sales. The people who sell edible marijuana often advise people who have not tried it before to start with 10 milligrams or less. Dosing is easier to control in batter-based dishes or chocolate, where the drug can be distributed more evenly. In savory applications, dosing is trickier. A cook might be able to make sure a tablespoon of lime-cilantro butter has 10 milligrams of THC, but will the guest eat exactly that amount?

Cooks who work with cannabis are apt to compare it to cooking with wine or spirits. But opponents counter that a bottle of young red wine brings an important flavor component to a dish like beef bourguignon. In cannabis cookery, the point is usually to mask the taste.

“From my very limited experience with edibles, the flavor is pretty awful,” said Grant Achatz, the Chicago chef who made his reputation with experimental cooking.

Ms. Parks, who only rarely uses cannabis and began cooking with it to help a friend with cancer, argues that marijuana can be delicious.

“There are dozens of strains and some might smell like lemon grass or strawberry or sage or wheatgrass,” she said. Different strains also offer different highs. A well-placed dose of cannabis might provide just enough elevation in an appetizer or a calming finish to meal that alcohol could become less interesting.

“A lot of people could argue that a lot of alcohol doesn’t taste good, either,” said Ms. Reichl. “So maybe you won’t need to drink wine with your dinner. It could be very bad for the wine industry.”



The GM Food Myths

No matter how many articles are published detailing how and why genetically engineered crops are safe, misinformation always seems to reign. Anti-biotech activists persist in charging GMO crops (Genetically Modified Organisms) with just about every crime against humanity, ethics, and science. Although Monsanto is the company drawing nearly 100% of the flak from anti-biotech activists and is probably the only genetic engineering company known to most people, it's actually only one of the six biggest companies that develop GMO crops. The others are DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, and Bayer Cropscience. Beyond the big six, about 20 other smaller companies located all around the world are also in the business. But don't expect to go down to the local nursery and find seeds branded with these names: like most manufacturers, they all sell under a variety of more customer-friendly brands. Monsanto, the market leader among the big six, sells 15 different brands, each tailored to specific products or regions. What happens to all these brands of seeds that get bought, sown, and reaped? See if you can guess all of these "fact or fiction" choices right, starting with:

Supermarkets are full of GMO foods.

True, but mostly as ingredients in prepared food. About 85% of three major food crops grown in the US — corn, soy, and cotton — are GMO. Most of the produce you buy (corn and soybeans being the only real notable exceptions) are currently not GMO. Another exception is the papaya. Most of the papayas available in the United States come from Hawaii, where the ringspot virus decimated the species in the mid 1990s. But in 1998, a crop scientist found a way to insert a single ringspot gene into the papaya, thus conferring natural immunization; and now the Hawaiian papaya flourish.

But beyond those three examples from the produce aisle, it's pretty hard to find a prepared food product that contains no corn, soy, or cottonseed products, so the answer is yes. If you live in the Americas, you've been eating a lot of GMO food from the supermarket for the past several decades.

GMO leads to monoculture.

False. Supply and demand is what leads to monoculture, and that's got nothing to do with GMOs. Monoculture is when you plant the same crop over and over again in the same field, without rotating. Rotating crops naturally prevents the most common pathogen and pest antagonists to gain a foothold on any particular crop, and keeps the soil as healthy as practical. Farmers have understood the benefits of crop rotation since at least 6000 BCE. If there was an equal demand for corn, soy, and cotton, farmers would be able to rotate perfectly and everything would be hunky dory.

Sadly that's not the case. In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of corn; 74 million acres of soybeans, 56 million acres of hay, 46 million acres of wheat, but only 10 million acres of cotton. So many products, both food and industrial, come from these, but the acreage needed from each is so disparate that crop rotation is often problematic. Further complicating it is that each crop grows best in a specific climate zone and soil. It's really, really hard to find two or more crops that are both in equal demand and that will grow well on any given farm's ecology.

Three of these top five crops are mostly genetically engineered varieties. But as we can see, this has nothing to do with the problems of monoculture or the farmer's ability to rotate.

GMO crops contain genes from jellyfish and other animals.

False. There have never been any GMO crops brought to market that contained any animal genes. But it's not necessarily for lack of trying. In many parts of the world, crops can freeze and get destroyed. So one thing researchers have tried is to give them some genes that confer antifreeze abilities in the winter flounder, a fish that can survive sub-freezing temperature. These genes express a protein (found in many plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria) that binds to small ice crystals, preventing them from becoming larger ice crystals that can damage cells. Although it would be great if we could give fruit and vegetable orchards this same ability, so far it hasn't worked. This is why genetic engineers are always going to be busy: for every one project that succeeds, a hundred fail.

More herbicides are sprayed on GMO crops.

Mixture of true and false. It is probably generally true for one of the two dominant GMO crops on the market, those typically described as "Roundup Ready", that are resistant to glyphosate (GLY-fo-sate), the active ingredient in Roundup. Glyphosate's patent is expired, so it's now widely available and inexpensive. It affects the plant systemically, inhibiting the production of an enzyme needed for the synthesis of certain amino acids. Ideally, you can spray your entire field liberally with glyphosate, and only your Roundup Ready crops will remain. No weeds at all. Glyphosate is only 1/25th as toxic to humans as caffeine; so such agricultural usage is harmless, according to an EPA study that predicted no ill effects from a lifetime of eating unwashed, heavily glyphosate contaminated crops. Humans aren't plants and so it doesn't affect us the same way.

But evolution eventually finds a way, and weeds that have naturally evolved to be Roundup Ready have started to appear. It will probably always be an arms race between the farmers and the weeds. But no matter what technology is used to kill weeds, GMO or conventional, weeds will continue to evolve and adapt, so this is not a problem that's specific to GMO crops.

So the answer is true for Roundup Ready GMO crops: they are more likely to have been sprayed with glyphosate. But for GMO crops that have been designed for purposes other than resistance to glyphosate, there is no reason they would have been exposed to more herbicides than their non-GMO counterparts.

More pesticides are used on GMO crops.

False. Some GMO crops are designed for insect resistance, and so far less (and often no) pesticides are used on them at all. But for GMO crops with different traits, then again, they have probably been exposed to just as many pesticides as non-GMO counterparts.

The main type of insect resistance in GMO crops is the incorporation of a gene that allows them to express a certain protein that is toxic to certain of the most pesky shoot-boring insects. This protein is from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, from where we get the name Bt Corn and so on. Bt occurs naturally in the soil, and it's the main active ingredient used in organic pesticides. So with GMO we simply cut one step out of the process; rather than spraying fields with Bt, we put it right into the crop itself.

But again, evolution rears its ugly head. Shoot-boring insects that are resistant to Bt have been appearing for as long as the bacterium has been in the soil, which predates GMO technology, and even predates the use of organic pesticides. Adaptive insects always have been a problem and always will. It is a problem that has nothing to do with GMOs. So for a related claim:

Bt GMO crops harm good insects as well.

False. It's the Bacillus thurengiensis that kills some desirable insects, like monarch butterflies, but it has nothing to do with whether they were sprayed with organic Bt pesticide or whether they nibbled on a Bt GMO crop. But so far, it hasn't been proven that butterfly larvae can get a harmful dose just from nibbling on the crops.

GMO crops have "terminator genes" making them sterile so farmers can't replant next season with the seeds from this season.

False. The patents for terminator genes have all been secured by companies like Monsanto who have pledged never to put them into commercial crops, and as a result, there has never been a GMO seed on the market with a terminator gene. It's also a national security issue; if some unforeseen natural or manmade disaster shuts down the infrastructure, food will be at a premium and neither the nation nor the world can afford the risk of having no crops available next season.

But more significantly, the underlying assumption that farmers would otherwise be reusing each season's seeds is false. Although most crops produce seeds that can be replanted for the next generation, trying to harvest these seeds is both impractical for most farms, and impossible for many commercial crops. It's possible with cotton and soy, but it's really labor intensive to try to collect seeds and you end up with a bad mixture that contains a lot of weed seeds and seeds of poor quality. It's much easier and cheaper for most farms to simply buy new stocks of seeds each year, and yields better quality crops. Corn is another matter. Most corn is a hybrid of two species, and doesn't produce usable seeds. All of these farming challenges have always been the case, and have nothing at all to do with GMOs.

Labeling of GMO foods protects consumers.

False. It doesn't protect them; it misinforms them by suggesting that some food is safer than others. Oft-repeated claims that GMO foods are inadequately tested are simply false; both the USDA and the FDA require exhaustive safety testing, as they do on all new foods. In the twenty years that GMO foods have been commercially available, there has been not a single observable consequence to anyone's health.

The only cogent suggestion that's been put forth is that getting crops to express a new protein is actually a plausible mechanism to provoke an allergic response. It just hasn't happened yet, nor do we expect it to. The largest research review to date examined 770 studies of health effects from GMO foods on either humans or animals, and found not a single example.

Eating transgenic food alters your genes and gives you a third eye.

True. This is why you see so many three-eyed people walking and flying around, and transmuting themselves through walls.

Obviously I'm being tongue-in-cheek here. The actual answer is false. When you eat food, your body does not incorporate the genes of what you eat into your own DNA. That's incredibly irrelevant to how the digestive system works. Genes that get digested are broken down into their constituent amino acids by your digestive system. For those that pass through your tract without being digested, no mechanism exists for some type of complex gene-splicing to take place that would overtake your body. It made for fun science fiction in John Carpenter's The Thing, but it's not the reality of how digestion works.

So eat up. Enjoy your sweet corn, rejoice that probably very little or no herbicides or pesticides had to be used on it, and don't worry about growing a third eye.



Warren Buffett Diet

How does the world’s top investor, at 84 years old, wake up every day and face the world with boundless energy?

“I’m one quarter Coca-Cola,” Warren Buffett says.

When he told me this in a phone call yesterday (we were talking about the death of his friend, former Coca-Cola president Don Keough), I assumed he was talking about his stock portfolio.

No, Buffett explained, “If I eat 2700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it everyday.”

Perhaps only a man who owns $16 billion in Coca-Cola KO 0.77% stock—9% of Coke, through his company, Berkshire Hathaway BRK.A -0.28% —would maintain such an odd daily diet. One 12-ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories. Typically, Buffett says, “I have three Cokes during the day and two at night.”

When he’s at his desk at Berkshire Hathaway headquarters in Omaha, he drinks regular Coke; at home, he treats himself to Cherry Coke.

“I’ll have one at breakfast,” he explains, noting that he loves to drink Coke with potato sticks. What brand of potato sticks? “I have a can right here,” he says. “U-T-Z” Utz is a Hanover, Pennsylvania-based snack maker. Buffett says that he’s talked to Utz management about potentially buying the company. Investors in Berkshire Hathaway may feel relieved that the CEO isn’t addicted to Utz Potato Stix at every breakfast. “This morning, I had a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream,” Buffett says

Asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet that has somehow enabled him to remain seemingly healthy, Buffett replies: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old.” The octogenarian adds, “It’s the safest course I can take.”



Plant Meat

A PLANT-BASED hamburger patty that bleeds. Meatless chicken strips with the same fleshy and fibrous texture as cooked poultry. Mayonnaise made without eggs that is creamy and smooth. And a vegan beverage that contains all the ingredients for human sustenance, making it unnecessary to bother eating ordinary food every again. Hungry yet?

These are the offerings from a recent crop of Silicon Valley-funded startups which are trying to change the way people eat. The idea of making such products is attracting entrepreneurs and venture-capital firms who think that the traditional food industry is ripe for disruption because it is inefficient, inhumane and in need of an overhaul. The companies have different approaches, but they share the ambition of creating new plant-based food that they say will be healthier, cheaper and just as satisfying as meat, egg, dairy and other animal-based products—but with a much lower environmental impact.

“Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable. Yet the demand for meat and dairy products is going up,” says Patrick Brown, founder of one such startup, Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City in the heart of Silicon Valley. It has raised $75m to develop plant-based meat and cheese imitations.

According to the United Nations, livestock uses around 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Making meat also requires supplying animals with vast amounts of water and food: in the United States producing 1kg of live animal weight typically requires 10kg of feed for beef, 5kg for pork and 2.5kg for poultry. Yet between now and 2050, the world’s population is expected to rise from 7.2 billion to over 9 billion people—and the appetite for meat to grow along with it. To keep up with demand, food production will need to increase significantly.

It is a big challenge, but also an economic opportunity. “Anytime you can find a way to use plant protein instead of animal protein there’s an enormous efficiency in terms of the energy, water and all sorts of other inputs involved—which translates at the end of the day to saving money,” says Ali Partovi, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and investor in tech startups, such as Dropbox and Airbnb, as well as half-a-dozen sustainable-food companies.

The problem is many people shun vegetables and prefer to eat meat or dairy products. Dr Brown and others think the solution is to mimic the taste of meat and other animal-derived foods with plants and take the animal out of the equation. In theory at least, there would be plenty of food for everyone and fewer resources needed to produce it. “We’re reinventing the entire system of transforming plants into meat and milk,” he says. Other startups have similar aspirations. Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based chicken strips and beef “crumbles”, is already selling its products in stores. As is Hampton Creek, whose eggless mayonnaise has become a bestseller at Whole Foods Market, a big American chain.

Beyond vegetarianism

Of course, the food giants already offer a variety of meat and dairy alternatives that many vegetarians and vegans buy. What is different with this new approach is that the startups are not targeting the small percentage of the population who largely live on a plant-based diet already. They are after people who love meat and dairy products, and that means replicating the meaty, cheesy or creamy flavours and textures that so many people crave. “We want to have a product that a burger lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had,” says Dr Brown.

This is also different from “growing” meat in a laboratory using tissue engineering, which involves culturing cells taken from live animals. Modern Meadow, a New York company, is working on this technology, although its more immediate aim is to grow unmarked cultured leather.

Introducing a new food category is risky as it takes a lot of time and money. Big food firms prefer to acquire innovative products rather than develop them internally, explains Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer at Mattson, a California-based food and beverage consultancy which has developed many new products. “It may take someone from outside the food industry to really disrupt it,” reckons Ms Stuckey. And Silicon Valley has enough hubris to do so.

The business has already attracted a fair share of famous venture-capital firms and investors, including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and others. “If we can provide [plant-based] food that’s healthier, tastes equal to better, at an equal to lower cost, it’ll go everywhere,” says Khosla’s Samir Kaul. If the companies they are backing succeed, the returns could be massive. The US beef industry alone is worth $88 billion. And even for condiments, such as mayonnaise, the market totals $2 billion. Still, not everyone is bullish on the prospects. These are high-risk endeavours and some of them might fail, cautions Michael Burgmaier of Silverwood Partners, an investment bank involved in dozens of food and beverage deals. The question is, he says: “Is the consumer ready for some of these products?”

Impossible Foods’ Dr Brown thinks they are. The inventor of a DNA chip now widely used in gene-expression analysis, his firm has been developing meat and cheese imitations from plants for three years. For meat, the aim is to recreate its key components—muscle, connective and fat tissue—using suitable plant materials. The company’s first product, a hamburger patty, already looks and cooks like meat, and will taste as good or better by the time it reaches the shops, Dr Brown promises.

To do this he has assembled a team comparable to one at a biotech or pharma company. It is largely made up of molecular biologists and biochemists, as well as some physicists; only a few members of his staff have a background in food science or have culinary training. In the company’s laboratory scientists break down plant materials and extract individual proteins with functional properties that can, for example, make foods firm up or melt down during cooking or baking.

The company has also spent a lot of time working out what gives meat its unique flavour. According to Dr Brown, the secret to a burger’s taste is haem, a compound found in all living cells, including plants. It is especially abundant in haemoglobin in blood, and in muscle tissues as myoglobin. It also gives a burger its red colour. During the cooking process haem acts as a catalyst that helps transform the amino acids, vitamins and sugars in muscle tissue into numerous volatile and flavourful molecules, he explains. To create the meaty flavour in its burger patties, the company uses a heme protein equivalent to one found in the roots of legumes.

Development of the burger has come a long way. Dr Brown says one person described the taste of the very first prototype as “rancid polenta”. Recent versions have been reviewed much more favourably as “better than a turkey burger”. In terms of nutrition, the patty’s protein content may be slightly higher than that of a conventional burger and have at least as many micronutrients. Because it is made from plants, it will not contain any traces of antibiotics, hormones or cholesterol. The company hopes to start selling the burger before the end of this year.

Getting the flavour

Beyond Meat, based in Southern California, has also been studying the components of meat to emulate its texture and flavour. “We’re smart enough now to understand the architecture and the composition of a piece of muscle,” says Ethan Brown (no relation to Dr Brown), the company’s CEO. The firm’s flagship product, Beyond Chicken Strips, has been on sale since 2012, and has a surprisingly authentic feel when eaten. When several Whole Foods Markets accidentally sold mislabelled chicken salads with the company’s plant-based strips there were no complaints. Only when an employee discovered the mix-up after two days were the salads officially recalled. The product’s texture is based on years of research at the University of Missouri, and it can now be created in a process that takes less than two minutes. An extruder rapidly heats, cools and pressurises a mixture of proteins and other ingredients into a structure that mimics the fibrous tissue of muscle.

The company’s most recent product, the Beast Burger, was released last month. It has more protein, more iron and is overall more nutritious than actual meat burgers. “The entire quest for meat in human evolution is really about a nutrient-dense source of food,” explains Mr Brown. “I wanted to build on that theme.”

But marketing plant-based burgers to carnivores is not easy. “My view is that meat has a masculine bent to it. You can’t sell it the same way you sell lettuce,” says Mr Brown. Hence the company is building the brand with images of vitality, fitness and health. In promotions it is using athletes. David Wright, captain of the New York Mets baseball team, has already signed up. In return, he is getting a small stake in the company.

Still under development is what may be Beyond Meat’s most ambitious product to date—a raw ground beef equivalent which it hopes will be offered in supermarkets’ meat sections right next to actual beef. Due for release later this year, it can be cooked and moulded into a meatloaf or meatballs—or, as Mr Brown hopes, even supplied to a fast-food chain to make burgers.

San Francisco-based Hampton Creek has replaced eggs with plant proteins in the products it has released so far. Its Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough are now distributed in 30,000 stores, including Kroger and Walmart. Other items in the works include a ranch salad dressing, a scrambled-egg alternative and pasta. The goal is to create products that make it easy for people to choose sustainable plant-based foods over conventional items. “Change happens by making something so delicious and so affordable, everyone chooses it,” says the firm’s boss, Josh Tetrick.

To accomplish this, Hampton Creek has assembled a team that includes experts in biochemistry, bioinformatics and food science along with a number of chefs. Scientists extract and isolate proteins from plant materials and conduct basic biochemical studies to understand their characteristics and possible applications for a variety of foods. The promising ones are tested in recipes in the company’s bakery and culinary sections to see how they perform.

So far, Hampton Creek has analysed more than 7,000 plant samples and identified 16 proteins that might prove useful in food applications. Several are already being used in its commercial food products, including a type of Canadian yellow pea in its mayonnaise. The team are looking for proteins with functional properties such as foaming, gelling and moisture retention. Mayonnaise, for example, requires a substance that binds the right amount of oil with water to create a stable emulsion. For its version in stores the company tested more than 1,500 different formulations.

Dan Zigmond, the former lead data scientist for Google Maps and now Hampton Creek’s vice-president of data, is in charge of simplifying the process of finding useful proteins. There are an estimated 400,000 plant species in the world, each of which may have tens of thousands of proteins. To search this vast number more efficiently, his team are feeding data the company has already gathered into machine-learning models, which are designed to predict which types of proteins could be useful in specific food applications without having to go through all the biochemical tests.

Last October Unilever, a consumer-goods giant, sued Hampton Creek for false advertising, saying its product should not be called “mayo” because it does not contain eggs. (Based on food standards from America’s Food and Drug Administration that date back to 1938, mayonnaise includes eggs.) Unilever also complained that the plant-based product had taken market share away from its well-known brand Hellmann’s, which is made with eggs. Some people saw the lawsuit as a frivolous food fight in which a big company tries to bully a fledgling one. Andrew Zimmern, a celebrity chef who had preferred Just Mayo over Hellmann’s in a blind taste-test, even started an online petition to urge Unilever to drop the lawsuit. It gathered over 100,000 signatures.

“This was great for Hampton Creek because it got their name out there and people on their side,” says Matthew Wong, a research analyst at CB Insights, an analytics firm. Initially Unilever demanded that Hampton Creek rename its product, take existing inventory off the shelves and pay damages. But in December, the company suddenly dropped its lawsuit. It was on the same day that Hampton Creek announced its latest funding round of $90m, bringing its total raised to $120m.

Hampton Creek has been successful with the products it already sells. However, it is not trying to build a burger patty from scratch with plants, as Impossible Foods is trying to do, and it has not yet released its scrambled-egg replacement. “It’s much easier to make a cookie dough without egg than it is to create a scrambled egg without egg,” says Mattson’s Ms Stuckey. In a cookie dough or mayonnaise there are plenty of other ingredients to work with. But in creating an egg or meat analogue there is a higher bar in the consumer’s mind, she adds, because the product is not combined with other ingredients it can hide behind.

Perhaps the most radical approach to disrupting the food industry comes from Soylent, whose beverage is designed to be a complete substitute for food and not just one of the many diet drinks or nutritional supplements. Sold as a powder to be mixed with water, it contains all the ingredients needed for sustenance, says Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s founder. It also eliminates the need to plan meals, cook and clean up afterward. “I see it as a life-simplification tool,” he says.

The name originates from the sci-fi novel “Make Room! Make Room!” in which people in an overcrowded, apocalyptic world live on foods made of soy and lentils. (A twist in the movie version “Soylent Green” is that its secret ingredient is human flesh.) The company moved from the San Francisco area to Los Angeles in late 2013 in search of cheaper office space.

Some users of the first version of the beverage complained of flatulence because of the high fibre content. That problem has now largely been solved by changing the carbohydrate blend and adding some digestive enzymes. Mr Rhinehart likens the improvements to the continuous updates to software that tech companies make. Soylent 1.3, the most recent version, has a smoother texture than the original, a more neutral taste and its omega-3s now come from algae as opposed to fish oil.

Out with the dishes

Mr Rhinehart himself uses Soylent for about 80% of his dietary needs. As a result he has not made a trip to the grocery store in years. He owns neither a fridge nor dishes. And he has turned his kitchen into a library. “I’ve also been able to separate the feeling of biological hunger from the craving of food from an experiential aspect,” explains Mr Rhinehart, who still enjoys “recreational food” on occasion.

As of mid-February his firm had a four-to-five-month backlog for new orders. Customers subscribe online to receive monthly shipments with a “meal” costing roughly $3. According to Mr Rhinehart, his company is already profitable and will use a recent $20m cash infusion to expand production and sales.

Mr Rhinehart is, to put it mildly, a little extreme. Not everyone may want to separate eating into utility versus pleasure. Impossible Foods’ Dr Brown does not believe such a compromise is necessary. “I don’t see any reason why you can’t have it all—the best tasting food, healthiest, best for the planet and most affordable.”

But even if the scientific hurdles of making plants taste like meat and other animal-based products are overcome, the bigger obstacle these companies face may be cultural. People have been eating meat and having meals together for thousands of years. Meat in particular is not only prized for its taste but also perceived as a force of vitality, strength and health.

A recent study by the Humane Research Council, an animal advocacy group, says most vegetarians and vegans, about 2% of America’s population, go back to eating meat eventually. In the future that may not be an option. “We can’t sustain the number of people that we’re going to need to feed over the next couple of decades with the current way that we’re eating, ” says Ms Stuckey. Whether out of necessity or choice, Silicon Valley’s vision of a big shift to plant-based foods may be inevitable.




Although Americans have been using the word umami for the past decade and it’s been in use in the English language since 1979, its definition remains elusive to many. Ask someone who thinks that they know what umami is, and she’ll tell you it’s the “fifth taste,” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. It’s that other thing, the thing you didn’t even know needed a concept or a name until someone pointed it out. That deep, dark, meaty intensity that distinguishes seared beef, soy sauce, ripe tomato, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and mushrooms, among other things. It hits the back of your throat and leaves you craving more.

But what does that actually mean? Isn’t that “fifth taste” just a combination of two or more of the other four? Umami, it turns out, is bolstered by science. The word and its concept were coined, in the early twentieth century, by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda. Curious to know what was chemically responsibly for the distinct and dominant flavor of dashi, the stock that’s a staple of Japanese cooking, Ikeda examined closely the molecular composition of one of its main ingredients, a variety of seaweed. He determined that the culprit was a single substance, glutamic acid, and he named its taste umami, from the Japanese word for delicious, umai; umami translates roughly to “deliciousness.” Taste research from the past fifteen years has confirmed that molecular compounds in glutamic acid—glutamates—bind to specific tongue receptors; this, apparently, is what makes the magic. Any food in which glutamic acid occurs naturally or after cooking, aging, or fermentation is considered umami. In crystalline form, glutamates are known as MSG—palpable as sugar or salt, the reason why it’s hard to stop eating even the worst Chinese takeout.

Yet MSG has been largely stigmatized—a lazy shortcut, a headache-inducer—while umami has been unreservedly celebrated. Last week, three of New York City’s finest chefs appeared on a stage at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for the sixth annual Umami Recipe Competition, part of the International Restaurant and Foodservice Show. Wearing a headset and narrating his movements, each chef—employed, respectively, by the private dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Café Boulud, and Roberta’s—prepared a dish he’d devised to wow the judges.

The contest, I assumed, would be straightforward: Who could make the dish that tasted the most intensely umami? It’s a challenge that one American chef and entrepreneur has already embarked upon in an aggressively commercial way. Adam Fleischman, the man behind the two dozen restaurants called Umami Burger, came up with the idea after having an epiphany at an In-N-Out Burger, in 2008. He was eating a Double-Double, he told an interviewer in 2013, when he found himself wondering, “Why, over the years, do more pizza places and burger joints open up than any other kind of restaurant in this country?” Last week, over the phone, he told me that he had first read about umami a few years earlier, in various cookbooks. After his epiphany, he had another: umami might be the answer to his question, and the key to raising the bar on America’s favorite foods.

Working from a list of umami-rich foods he found online, Fleischman set about maximizing the potential of the hamburger by using ingredients like cheese, seaweed, and dried fish to amplify its flavor. (Dana Goodyear wrote about this process in 2011.) First, he tried blending them directly into the meat, but after months of experimenting, he took a different tack, creating “natural flavorings” he calls Umami Master Sauce, Umami Dust, and Umami Spray, to be added to a burger after it’s been cooked. Instead of the standard fresh tomato slice, Fleischman bakes tomatoes overnight in a soy-based sauce. Instead of American or another typical cheeseburger cheese, he uses aged Parmesan (in the form of a wafer, because Parmesan doesn’t melt well). For added measure: shiitake mushrooms, and housemade ketchup—already umami, but further accentuated with a touch of truffle. As the Umami Burger menu has expanded over time, so have the umami accoutrements, which include truffle cheese, soy pickles, miso mustard, and umami crema.

What I learned at the umami competition was that Fleischman’s approach—Where do I find the umami, and how can I get as much as possible?—is distinctly American, and different from the way the Japanese think about umami. Though all three of this year’s participants were American, the contest had a Japanese bent. There weren’t many rules, but the first mandated that the recipe “must contain one (1) known umami-rich ingredient” and offered a list of examples that figure prominently in Japanese cooking: kelp, bonito, dry mushroom, mirin, miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar. The three dishes entered into the competition were not the bold, powerful flavor bombs I expected. They were all complex and delicious, but also subtle, balanced, even virtuous. The dish that won was the least complicated: simple Berkshire pork chops, marinated in miso, sake, and soy and then grilled, by Jason Huang, of the Members Dining Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After the grand prize—an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan—had been awarded, I spoke with one of the judges, Kazu Katoh, the president of the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (J.R.O.), which sponsors the event. Umami, Katoh told me through an interpreter, is the foundation of Japanese cuisine. He acknowledged that it exists around the world: in the tomatoes and Parmesan cheese of Italy, for example, and in the miso, soy sauce, sake, and vinegar of Korea and China. The difference, according to Katoh, is rooted in geography. Japanese umami starts with Japanese terroir: “The temperature, and the moisture in the air. Vegetable growing, water. The dirt, the earth—it’s all important.” Then there’s technique: “The brewing and aging processes involved.” In French cooking, he said, “it’s all about adding. It’s about adding sauces, cooking it in bouillon, using oil, pouring more dressing on it. Japanese cooking is very, very simple. It’s about extracting.”

What then, did Katoh think of Umami Burger? He smiled knowingly. “I can say that they’ve been very careful to extract the taste of the meat by not burning it and not letting the juiciness escape,” he offered. But American hamburger meat, he said, “has been minced to kingdom come. There’s no more muscle, there’s no fat, it’s all just turned into mush.”

When I asked him to describe what umami tastes like, he grew philosophical. “It’s something that’s kind to the body,” he said. “It’s mild, and, after eating, it’s not heavy on your stomach. It helps you wake up better in the morning. That’s what deliciousness is about. It’s about feeling good after eating.” The most balanced meals, he said, have the same level of saltiness as exists naturally in our bodies, and umami in other countries can be too heavy on the stomach. “In Japan, we talk about it tasting good, sleeping well, and clean bowel movements. It has to do with the entire digestive process.”

Adam Fleischman is familiar with this line of thinking. The Japanese, he told me, define umami as “an over-all harmonious state of perfection where the ingredients come together, a really rounded and harmonious dish. They have a sort of zen way of looking at it.” But, he explained, “each chef uses it in the context of their country’s food. America has bold flavors. Japan’s are more subtle: kombu, dashi. Not so in your face.” With Umami Burger, he has tried to achieve both harmony and boldness. “At first, it was about the Japanese balance,” he said. “But I was also interested in amping up the umami flavors.” The Japanese, he said, “grew up on those ingredients. They’ve always had them. Their understanding of umami is more evolved than our understanding in the U.S. We have burgers, pizza, fried chicken, steak with a reduced demi-glace sauce.” The differences are stylistic, he said, but “related in glutamate.” In 2013, David Chang, of Momofuku, embarked on a quest to develop what Jane Kramer, in this magazine, dubbed “the New York umami.” “We wanted to create something that, when you taste it—well, you know where you are and who we are,” Chang’s head researcher said.

Umami may indeed be the fifth taste, and there may come a day when a bottle of MSG is as common in the home kitchen as the salt shaker or the sugar bowl, the simplest of flavor enhancers. But for now, as popular understanding of the concept discovered just over a hundred years ago continues to evolve, umami is more than the sum of its glutamates. It is a cultural cipher, a malleable, claimable standard of identity, innovation, and taste. Umami is a badge of pride, once Japanese, now universal. A state of mind. Deliciousness.



Thai Street Ice Cream




Food Babe/Science Babe

Vani Hari, AKA the Food Babe, has amassed a loyal following in her Food Babe Army. The recent subject of profiles and interviews in the New York Times, the New York Post and New York Magazine, Hari implores her soldiers to petition food companies to change their formulas. She's also written a bestselling book telling you that you can change your life in 21 days by "breaking free of the hidden toxins in your life." She and her army are out to change the world.

She's also utterly full of shit.

I am an analytical chemist with a background in forensics and toxicology. Before working full-time as a science writer and public speaker, I worked as a chemistry professor, a toxicology chemist, and in research analyzing pesticides for safety. I now run my own blog, Science Babe, dedicated to debunking pseudoscience that tends to proliferate in the blogosphere. Reading Hari's site, it's rare to come across a single scientific fact. Between her egregious abuse of the word "toxin" anytime there's a chemical she can't pronounce and asserting that everyone who disagrees with her is a paid shill, it's hard to pinpoint her biggest sin.

Hari's superhero origin story is that she came down with appendicitis and didn't accept the explanation that appendicitis just happens sometimes. So she quit her job as a consultant, attended Google University and transformed herself into an uncredentialed expert in everything she admittedly can't pronounce. Slap the catchy moniker "Food Babe" on top, throw in a couple of trend stories and some appearances on the Dr. Oz show, and we have the new organic media darling.

But reader beware. Here are some reasons why she's the worst assault on science on the internet.

Natural, Organic, GMO-Free Fear

Hari's campaign last year against the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte drove me to launch my site (don't fuck with a Bostonian's Pumpkin-Spice Anything). She alleged that the PSL has a "toxic" dose of sugar and two (TWO!!) doses of caramel color level IV in carcinogen class 2b.

The word "toxic" has a meaning, and that is "having the effect of a poison." Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose. Enough water can even be poisonous in the right quantity (and can cause a condition called hyponatremia).

But then, the Food Babe has gone on record to say, "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever." I wonder if anybody's warned her about good old dihydrogen monoxide?

(AKA water.)

It's a goddamn stretch to say that sugar has deleterious effects, other than making your Lululemons stretch a little farther if you don't "namaste" your cheeks off. However, I implore you to look at the Safety Data Sheet for sugar. The average adult would need to ingest about fifty PSLs in one sitting to get a lethal dose of sugar. By that point, you would already have hyponatremia from an overdose of water in the lattes.

And almost enough caffeine for me.

And what about that "carcinogenic" caramel color? Well, it turns out that it's not the only thing in your PSL that's in carcinogen class 2b.

There's also coffee.

Coffee is class 2b because of the acrylamide accumulated during the roasting process. Coffee, before Starbucks turns it into a milkshake, is pretty healthy for you. Class 2b means that all possible carcinogenic effects haven't been ruled out (because we haven't tested drinking it while tightrope walking across the Grand Canyon and simultaneously attempting to eat fire… yet), but that it hasn't been shown to cause a single case of cancer.

This is a blatant attempt at getting you to look to her for answers by making you unnecessarily afraid. The goal of Hari's campaign was to… well, we're still not sure. Remove the caramel color? Smear Starbucks? After that campaign failed, she launched a failed attempt to get them to use only organic milk, which would have made their lattes far more expensive and no healthier.

Hari uses this tricky technique again and again. If I told you that a chemical that's used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?

What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?

This is Hari's business. She takes innocuous ingredients and makes you afraid of them by pulling them out of context (Michelle Francl, in a review of Hari's book for Slate, expertly demonstrates the shallowness of this gimmick). This is how Hari demonized the harmless yet hard-to-pronounce azodicarbonamide, or as she deemed it, the "yoga mat chemical," which is yes, found in yoga mats and also in bread, specifically Subway sandwich bread, a discovery Hari bombastically trumpeted on her website. However, as the science-minded among us understand, a substance can be used for more than one thing perfectly safely, and it doesn't mean that your bread is made of a yoga mat if it happens to contain azodicarbonamide, which is FDA-approved as a dough-softening agent. It simply means your bread is composed of chemicals, much like everything else you eat.

Hari's rule? "If a third grader can't pronounce it, don't eat it."

My rule? Don't base your diet on the pronunciation skills of an eight-year-old.

A Force to Disagree With

In a recent blog post, Hari accused several of her detractors of having nefarious ties to sinister organizations. These evildoers included Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director for Science and Society at McGill University, Dr. Steve Novella, a Yale-educated neurologist and contributor to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, and Dr. Kevin Folta, the horticultural chair at the University of Florida. Why? Because these highly credentialed scientists had the nerve to use facts against Hari. Dr. Schwarcz speaks out regularly about her tactics. Dr. Novella debunked some wild claims of hers about the science of microwaves. And Dr. Folta said "she found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you're talking about."

But could any of these scientists' criticisms possibly have merit? Not to Hari. She has flung these accusations at Dr. Folta multiple times. He's responded on his personal blog and has released his email correspondence to prove that he has no financial connections to hide. And yet, Hari has not recanted.

Moreover, the tireless crusader for transparency doesn't want you to pay attention to the bullshit behind the curtain. And it's not just when scientists point it out in the news–it's when anybody questions her on her Facebook page.

There's a group on Facebook called "Banned By Food Babe" that boasts nearly 6,000 members. Reasons for being banned include "I asked for her qualifications" and "I pointed out that water was a chemical." Some members of the page were former fans of hers who were banned when they asked questions of clarification. Any dissent couldn't possibly have merit within the ranks of the Food Babe Army.

And when Hari's been questioned about silencing critics by news outlets? She consistently says that she won't be silenced by people who are haters and shills, racist or sexist.

If she thinks she's being attacked for being a woman, she's missed that she's not the only "babe" in this discussion.

If her arguments had merit, she could engage in a battle of wits with her detractors instead of making insidious accusations. It's not about Hari, the woman who gets home at the end of the day, maybe gives her dog an (organic) treat and watches some crappy TV show. It's about Food Babe LLC, the business organization that spreads terribly inaccurate science.

It's about statements like this:

"The enzymes released from kale go in to your liver and trigger cancer fighting chemicals that literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body."

One of her outspoken critics, Kavin Senapathy, is a writer at Grounded Parents and a contributor at the Genetic Literacy Project. Senapathy has said that the Food Babe "exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers." With a background in genomics, Senapathy is a science writer and likewise an Indian American woman, but I'm sure it's a much more comforting narrative in the Food Babe Army to say that we're all just sexists and racists.

Is It Made With Real Girl Scouts?

How many companies or products do you think it would make sense to crusade against in the course of a career? One? Three? A dozen?

Hari has declared, to date, more than 610 products and companies to be unsafe over the course of four years.

According to Hari, the problem with most of them, including Girl Scout Cookies: GMOs and pesticides. She's even alleged that an apple can be worse for you than a hot fudge sundae, if it's not organic.

And is there even a shred of truth to this? Not in the least. Hari claims going organic will save you from pesticides, but organic farming uses pesticides too. Some of them are far more toxic than conventional pesticides. (Remember, the dose makes the poison. Neither apple would have enough pesticide by the time it reaches market to be harmful.)

The difference between organic and conventional? For a product that's no healthier, organic is more expensive and they give Hari a commission.

As for those GMOs in the Girl Scout Cookies, fret ye not. In order to introduce a genetically modified crop into the food supply, they have to be proven to be nutritionally indistinguishable from their non-GM counterparts.

Maybe Hari's crusades would be OK if she had the facts to back them up. But she doesn't, and worse, when she's wrong, she tries to make her errors disappear.

Recently, a writer from the New York Times contacted me to ask for some background on Hari. I was happy to oblige. She was looking for the articles for which Hari had been widely criticized and that were conspicuously absent from her Facebook page. Hari had told the writer that she couldn't recall those articles.

Luckily, the internet never forgets.

If you want proof that Hari doesn't research anything before she puts it online, look no further than this article on airplanes, which she deleted from her site. She claimed that pilots control the air in an airplane, so you should sit near the front to breathe better air. She wrote that passengers are sometimes sprayed with pesticides before flights, and that airplane air is pumped full of nitrogen.

Please recall high school science, in which you hopefully learned that the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. Also, if anyone has personally been sprayed with pesticides before a flight, please email me, I would love to talk to you about it (not really).

The other piece of writing that she unsuccessfully attempted to cleanse from the bowels of the internet claimed that microwaves are like small nuclear reactors, and they make water crystalize the same way it does when you say "Hitler" or "Satan" to it, because water has ears and a grasp of early twentieth-century European dictators.

Feel Better—Detox and Definitely Don't Vaccinate!

Food Babe has written that, in order to deal with the flu, you should take vitamins, get sunshine, and "encounter the flu naturally." In other words, her advice is to get the flu, an infection that kills an average of 31,000 people annually.

A PSA: Please remember that when you vaccinate, you help protect the people around you who cannot vaccinate. You protect people who are immunocompromised, who are going through cancer treatments, and who are on immunosupressants. If you catch the flu, you become a disease vector and can easily infect more people.

"I won't eat any of these ingredients or even put them on my body," Hari wrote of the components that make up the flu vaccine. "However, the mainstream medical community, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies suggest that I directly inject these ingredients into my bloodstream? And I need do it every year until I die? Are you freaking kidding me?"

Nope! Not kidding. The flu is serious. To scare people into not taking every measure they can against a deadly disease mortifies me. Hari has denied that she's anti-vax, but all the reasons she has for avoiding the flu vaccine are ones anti-vaxxers hold near and dear to their hearts for letting their children suffer. Toxins. Aluminum. Mercury. The usual suspects.

But hey, the next time you're down with a bug, follow Hari's lead and detox your way out of it. Who doesn't want to lose a few pounds, feel better, and have more energy? Hari will help, for only $9/per bottle from her sponsor, Suja.

In Hari's non-defense, they're "only" $6 per bottle from Suja's website.

But wait, didn't she say that the Pumpkin Spice Lattes had a toxic dose of sugar at fifty grams in a grande? So why does she endorse Suja when it has forty-two grams of sugar and even comes with a warning on its website that it's not suitable for diabetics?

It's probably because detox is complete bullshit.

In order to buy into the premise that you need detoxing, you first have to be "toxed." The common enemies they claim that juice can clean out of your system are heavy metals and pesticides. The bullshit? Those don't cause allergies, acne, weight gain, or whatever symptom she's using to scare you into buying overpriced juice this week. Heavy metal toxicity has specific symptoms, and actual pesticide poisoning is really scary.

Neither can be fixed by fruit juice. Not even organic fruit juice.

You're constantly "detoxing" just by living. Your kidneys and liver take care of cleaning out unnecessary things in the body fairly efficiently on their own. Proof? The toilet paper industry.

Go Ahead, Lie About Your Food Allergies

We've already established that Hari has a fickle relationship with the truth. How about the definition of the word "allergy"? That seems basic enough. An allergy is an immune system overreaction. Life-threatening food allergies are serious.

And this one is very serious.

Hari claimed that she's allergic to refined sugar in a blog entry in which she also wrote about about all the desserts she's eaten. But only refined sugar, because apparently short-chain carbohydrates are only evil if they're not from one of her approved sponsored sugar sources. So, I guess she can just eat these now that her acupuncturist diagnosed and treated her for this alleged sugar allergy.

Alleged. Because she's admitted that she's fine with lying about allergies.

"Go as far as telling the server you are allergic to butter and dairy, soy and corn," she writes. "Butter really isn't bad for you if it is organic and you use it in moderation – but restaurants can go crazy with it, adding several hundred extra calories you can live without."

This is a problem.

I have celiac disease, and there are people with genuine life-threatening allergies. When people like me go into a restaurant, we're at the whim of a waiter who may have just served twenty fussy assholes from the Food Babe Army who think that gluten causes your spleen to turn radioactive, or whatever lie she's using to sell organic kale dipped in yak's butter this week. So when I tell a server that I can't do gluten, that waiter might roll their eyes at me because of people like Vani Hari.

Well, people like Hari and her Food Babe Army. Changing the world, one lie at a time.



Orthorexia Nervosa

The symptoms vary. In some patients the illness manifests as an obsessive interest in the eating habits of cavemen, in others, those of Gwyneth Paltrow.

Then there are more subtle warning signs: a tendency to make “pasta” out of courgettes, broth out of bones or — most worryingly — an ability to pronounce “quinoa”.

In all cases, however, the diagnosis is the same: orthorexia nervosa.

Dieticians have suggested that this should be added to the list of eating disorders. Orthorexia is not about how much or what you eat but rather the way you do it. It is the compulsive following of healthy diets to the point where it becomes unhealthy.

In past years we have had Dukan, paleo and raw diets. There have been the wildly popular Hemsley sisters, whose recipes promise to be free from grain, gluten and refined sugar and often require their Spiralizer (£29.95, from their website) to turn vegetables into noodles, in case you are one of those orthorexics who considers noodles a food crime to far.

Then there are the established stars such as Paltrow, the actress who has gone from advising the world to drink varied green juices (“as energising as a cup of coffee with none of the letdown”) to taking a holistic approach to your body such as steam cleaning your vagina. While many might consider such advice harmless (third-degree burns excepted) nutrition experts are concerned that for some the near-religious following is, even if sometimes healthy for the body, unhealthy for the mind.

The term orthorexia nervosa was coined in 1997 by Steven Bratman, an American doctor, with “ortho” meaning straight, correct or true. It has still to get mainstream acceptance but even so nutritionists have developed a diagnostic test, asking questions such as: “Have you given up foods you used to enjoy in order to eat the ‘right’ foods? Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat out, distancing you from family and friends? Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?”

Emmy Gilmour, founder and clinical director of the Recover Clinic, said: “Orthorexia is basically an obsession with what the sufferer believes to be healthy but is actually an unhealthy emphasis on food and exercise.

“It begins with steadily cutting out things from the diet that most of us perceive to be genuinely unhealthy. But then what you find is gradually they are cutting out more and more and eventually just eating fruit and veg.”

She has seen such symptoms go undiagnosed. “They are much more likely to go undetected. People may maintain a low weight, but not an anorexic weight. In their mind they are being healthy, and are far less likely to be aware there’s an issue.”

Dr Bratman referred to this as “kitchen spirituality”. “As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless,” he wrote. “When an orthorexic slips up . . . he experiences a fall from grace, and must take on numerous acts of penitence.

“These usually involve ever stricter diets and fasts.”



GM Foods Meta Study

ON NOVEMBER 4th voters in Colorado rejected a ballot initiative that would have required special labels for foods made with genetically modified (GM) ingredients. As The Economist went to press, voters in Oregon seemed likely to say no to a similar proposal there, though the count was not complete. Regardless of the outcome, however, the referendums indicate the strength of feeling generated by GM crops: the Oregon vote was the costliest ballot in the state’s history. By chance, the day before the poll saw the publication in PLOS ONE of the largest review yet conducted of the crops’ effects on farming. It concludes that these have been overwhelmingly positive.

The review in question is a meta-analysis. This is a statistically rigorous study of studies, rather than a mere summary of the literature. Its authors, Matin Qaim and Wilhelm Klümper, both of Göttingen University, in Germany, went through all examinations of the agronomic and economic impacts of GM crops published in English between 1995 and March 2014. This provides a near-complete survey. Most studies of the subject have been published in English, and the widespread adoption of such crops began only in the mid-1990s.

Commercial genetic modification for crops comes in two forms. One makes them resistant to insect pests. The other confers tolerance to glyphosate, enabling farmers to spray their fields with this herbicide and kill off all the other plants (ie, the weeds) in them. As a consequence, the study found, herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs—though this was not true for insect-resistant crops, where the need for less pesticide was offset by higher seed prices, and overall production costs were thus about the same as for unmodified crops. With both forms of modification, however, the yield rise was so great (9% above non-GM crops for herbicide tolerance and 25% above for insect resistance) that farmers who adopted GM crops made 69% higher profits than those who did not.

Many poor countries eschew GM crops, fearing they will not able to export them to areas which ban them, notably the European Union. This has a big opportunity cost. Dr Qaim and Dr Klümper found that GM crops do even better in poor countries than in rich ones. Farmers in developing nations who use the technology achieve yields 14 percentage points above those of GM farmers in the rich world. Pests and weeds are a bigger problem in poor countries, so GM confers bigger benefits.

In debates about GM the methodology of studies has often generated as much controversy as the crops themselves. Drs Klümper and Qaim have done something to moderate these controversies, too. Though some studies they include were not peer-reviewed, and a few of the early ones did not report sample sizes, limiting their value, the data they used for the meta-analysis—which include conference papers, working papers and book chapters as well as work published in academic journals—may correct for perceived publication bias, the tendency of journals to publish only the most dramatic findings. This large body of evidence enabled the authors to control for possible differences in matters other than whether a crop was modified or not, such as fertiliser use. They also found that who pays for a study does not seem to influence its results.

Dr Klümper and Dr Qaim conclude by expressing a hope that their work “may help to gradually increase public trust in this promising technology”. To judge by the heat generated in Oregon and Colorado, that may take time.



Paris Restaurants and Microwave Meals

Xavier Denamur, who has five bistros in the capital, has infuriated the country’s culinary establishment by revealing trade secrets about practices that he condemns as cheating.

His diatribe comes at a time when French gastronomy is struggling to restore a reputation battered by claims that it has been surpassed by many other countries.

The decline of the once-admired national cuisine prompted the government to pass legislation last year to encourage chefs to use fresh produce. This week ministers admitted that the law had been a flop.

Carole Delga, the commerce minister, said that diners had little confidence in a scheme that was intended to highlight dishes made in the traditional way.

Mr Denamur’s book Et si on se mettait enfin à table? ( And if We Sat Down to Eat at Last) — suggests that they have every reason to be sceptical. He estimates that seven out of ten dishes served in French brasseries, bistros and cafés are factory-made and reheated in the kitchen. “The microwave has become the chef’s best friend,” he says.

Mr Denamur says that French restaurants are cutting corners in a move towards the culinary equivalent of the low-cost airline. A proper boeuf bourguignon, he says, costs €7.50 per person to make – €3.50 for the ingredients and €4 to pay staff.

Most chefs prefer the cheaper option of buying a ready-made boeuf bourguignon from Davigel, or Transgourmet, another company that supplies food to the restaurant trade.

The company catalogues explain how chefs can create an entire menu with their products.

Davigel, which is owned by Nestlé, offers cassoulet, the emblematic dish of southwest France, for purportedly traditional French restaurants. The company also offers a Marrakech lamb tajine for Moroccan restaurants, although the lamb comes from New Zealand, Uruguay or Chile and the dish is cooked in Brittany, according to the small print of the catalogue. Transgourmet sells a Marly vanilla raspberry cake for less than €1 a portion, and a cherry clafoutis for “less than €0.30”. They are priced five or ten times higher on restaurant menus.

MrDenamur says that such tricks are widespread, revealing that a brasserie in central Paris serves frozen profiteroles with industrial ice-cream, while another brasserie in Agen, southwest France, has dehydrated Baba au Rhum.

The fait maison (home-made) label introduced last year by Mrs Delga was meant to combat such practices by highlighting dishes made by the chefs but the initiative was ridiculed when it emerged that restaurants could use frozen beans and industrial pastry and still claim to be producing home-made cooking.

Mrs Delga has now promised to tighten the rules, which she described as “too complex and inspiring little confidence”.

Mr Denamur, who has become a well-known agitator in France, argues that the government’s efforts to lift French gastronomy are doomed unless it cuts the country’s prohibitively high taxes. He says that these force restaurants to produce budget meals, employ staff on the black market and resort to various other manoeuvres.

He admits that he bought alcoholic drinks for his restaurants in supermarkets with his own money for many years, ensuring that the profits from the drinks never appeared on the books.



Genetic Editing

Dan Voytas is a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota. But two days a week he stops studying the fundamentals of DNA engineering and heads to a nearby company called Cellectis Plant Sciences, where he applies them.

His newest creation, described in a plant journal this month, is a Ranger Russet potato that doesn’t accumulate sweet sugars at typical cold storage temperatures. That will let it last longer, and when it’s fried it won’t produce as much acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen.

What’s different about the potato is that it was bred with the help of gene editing, a new kind of technique for altering DNA that plant scientists say is going to be revolutionary for its simplicity and power. The technology could also be a way to engineer plants that avoid the stigma, and the regulations, normally associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In the case of the Ranger Russet, Voytas’s gene-editing technique, known as TALENs, left behind no trace other than a few deleted letters of DNA. The edit disabled a single gene that turns sucrose into glucose and fructose. Without it, Voytas thinks, the potatoes can be stored far longer without loss of quality.

The potato is a prototype of what plant scientists say is a rapidly arriving new generation of genetically modified plants. With gene editing, small companies think they can very quickly develop new crops for a fraction of the typical cost—even in species so far mostly untouched by biotechnology, like avocados, sorghum, and decorative flowers.

Most genetically modified crops that have been grown commercially so far incorporate genes from bacteria to make them produce insecticides or resist weed killers. Public opposition and regulatory requirements make these transgenic plants expensive to develop. That is why nearly all biotech plants are lucrative, big-acreage crops like soy, corn, and cotton and are sold by just a few large companies, like Monsanto and DuPont.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Cellectis that unlike transgenic plants, its potato wouldn’t be regulated. That means instead of being grown in fenced-in test plots and generating folder upon folder of safety data, the Ranger Russet may go quickly to the market. Two years ago the agency reached a similar conclusion when it considered a DNA-edited corn plant developed by Dow AgroSciences, although it isn’t being sold yet.

Scientists say products like the potato are just the start for gene-editing techniques in plants. The same technologies are going to allow far more sophisticated engineering, including manipulation of photosynthesis to make plants grow faster and yield more food. “It’s an enormous opportunity, an unfathomable opportunity,” says Martin Spalding, a plant researcher at Iowa State University.

For now, the techniques are being used to modify plants in more modest ways. “The first wave of this technology is just removing a few base pairs,” says Yinong Yang, a professor of plant pathology at Penn State University, referring to the combinations of DNA letters - A, G, C, and T - that make up a genome. By “knocking out” just the right gene, as researchers did with the potato, it’s possible to give a plant a few valuable properties.

The next step, Yang says, will be to change the DNA letters of plant genes, swapping one plant’s version of a gene for that of another known to offer, say, resistance to disease. Yang says there is a blight-resistant form of rice that differs from commercial species by only a few DNA letters. “I could just change that over to resistance,” he says. “It’s like gene therapy in humans.” He says he’s negotiating a contract to produce the gene-edited rice now.

As for Voytas, this isn’t the first time he has set out to gene-edit plants. A decade ago he started a company called Phytodyne based on an earlier technology, called zinc finger nucleases, but it folded after Dow AgroSciences paid more than $50 million for exclusive rights to use that type of gene editing in plants.

Voytas teamed up with the French biotechnology company Cellectis in 2010 after it offered to install him as science chief of a new plant engineering division. But initial efforts ran into difficulty when another gene-editing system, meganucleases, proved challenging to work with and also got tied up by patent disputes.

Eventually, Voytas returned to the lab and coinvented a new way to edit genes, using specially engineered proteins called TALENs. That technology was used to make Cellectis’s potato, as well as a soybean with improved oil. Since then, Voytas and Cellectis have also worked with a newer technique, called CRISPR (see “Genome Surgery”).

Voytas says the potato took only about a year to create. “If you did it via breeding it would take five to 10 years,” he says.

Altogether, says Luc Mathis, CEO of Cellectis Plant Sciences, developing the potato cost a tenth of what it does to create and bring to market a transgenic plant, like corn or soy. “We will still need to generate some data, but it will not be a huge process,” says Mathis, who continues to meet with regulators to determine what steps remain before the potato can be sold.

Cellectis will move ahead with preliminary planting as soon as warm weather arrives in Minnesota. The first crops will determine whether the potatoes have the commercial benefits seen in greenhouse tests. “We need to check that we can store the potato in the cold,” says Mathis. “Once we have the commercial proof of concept, we can discuss with farmers what the interest level is.”

Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, says about 50 experts, including scientists and lawyers, met in Arizona earlier this year to discuss gene editing and how to orchestrate the industry’s approach to regulators in the United States and abroad. “Anyone who works in any kind of plant engineering is vigorously pursuing these technologies, especially with crops that have complex genomes or that you can’t breed easily,” he says. “There are lots of plants that need solutions.” He says gene editing will allow citrus trees to be modified in ways that would take 150 years with conventional breeding.

Folta says opponents of GMOs were not included in the planning meeting. “To invite people who view things nonscientifically would clog the discussion,” says. “There is no technology they are happy with.”



The Type of Food You Eat

What's causing obesity to go up in the U.S., the U.K., and so much of the rest of the developed world, along with associated diseases like diabetes? If you ask most people, their response will be something like, "People are eating too much and they're more sedentary than they used to be." Researchers are spending a great deal of time trying to determine whether or not this is an accurate assessment and just how much of the blame should be parceled out to diet versus exercise.

In an editorial in the British Medical Journal, a trio of researchers led by Dr. Aseem Malhotra of Frimley Park Hospital in the U.K. argues that the focus on physical activity is wrong. And not only is it wrong, they write, but it's also a convenient way for the companies selling us unhealthy stuff to sidestep culpability. Malhotra and his colleagues write that even over "the past 30 years, as obesity has rocketed, there has been little change in physical activity levels in the Western population" (endnotes replaced with links throughout). It doesn't make sense to blame the obesity crisis on sedentary lifestyles, then — but given how diets have changed in recent decades, it does make sense to look to food, in particular the upward trajectory of carb and sugar intake.

Malhotra and his colleagues also echo an important point that's consistently lost in this discussion: There's really way too much of an emphasis on superficial aspects of weight. Yes, when people are severely overweight (or, for that matter, severely underweight), they're likely to face significant health problems, but there's a rather large gray zone that needs to be taken into account as well. In much the same way some technically overweight people have healthy metabolic markers, "Up to 40% of those with a normal body mass index will harbour metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, which include hypertension, dyslipidaemia, non-alcohol fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease." That suggests that what people are eating is harming them, whether or not this harm is externally visible in the form of obesity.

And yet despite all this, the authors lament, there's an endless focus on exercise and, more generally, calorie counting. They think that people should be paying more attention to where calories come from, and they think that giant food companies are being let off the hook too easily by the idea that if you just exercise a little more, it's okay to indulge your soda habit.

While none of this stuff is clear-cut — there are a huge number of seemingly contradictory findings within the field of nutrition research, like the professor who lost 27 pounds and maintained his good health in general by counting calories on an all-junk-food diet — this is a compelling argument, and one that connects many of the dots of the obesity-crisis mystery.



Pot Edibles

After nearly 20 years on the job, Jim Jeffries, the police chief in LaFollette, Tenn., has seen his share of marijuana seizures — dry green buds stashed in trunks or beneath seats, often double-bagged to smother the distinctive scent.

But these days, Chief Jeffries is on the lookout for something unexpected: lollipops and marshmallows.

Recently his officers pulled over a Chevy Blazer driven by a couple with three children in tow. Inside, the officers discovered 24 pounds of marijuana-laced cookies and small hard candies shaped like gingerbread men, plus a tub of pungent marijuana butter perfect for making more.

The bags of Kraft marshmallows looked innocent enough. But a meat injector was also found in the car. After searching the Internet, Chief Jeffries realized that the marshmallows probably had been infused with the marijuana butter and heat-sealed into their bags.

“This is the first time that we have ever seen marijuana butter or any of this candy containing marijuana in the county,” Chief Jeffries said. “We hope it’s the last time.”

That seems increasingly unlikely. Across the country, law enforcement agencies long accustomed to seizures of bagged, smokable marijuana are now wrestling with a surge in marijuana-infused snacks and confections transported illegally across state lines for resale.

Pot edibles, as they are called, can be much easier to smuggle than marijuana buds: They may resemble candy or home-baked goodies, and often have no telltale smell. And few police officers are trained to think of gummy bears, mints or neon-colored drinks as potential dope.

Some experts worry that smuggled pot edibles will appeal to many consumers, particularly adolescents, who are ill prepared for the deceptively slow high. Impatient novices can easily eat too much too fast, suffering anxiety attacks and symptoms resembling psychosis. Already, young children have eaten laced sweets left within reach.

Many live in states where there has been no public education about responsible consumption of marijuana.

“Citizens in nonlegalization states are far less likely to be receiving those messages, so their risks are probably greater,” said Robert J. MacCoun, a professor of law at Stanford who recently co-wrote an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine urging stronger regulation of pot edibles.

There are no hard numbers for the amount of pot edibles being trafficked interstate, but police departments in a variety of jurisdictions without legal sales report seizing increasing amounts in the past year. The quantities suggest the products are intended to supply a growing demand, law enforcement officials say.

In February, Missouri troopers confiscated 400 pounds of commercially made marijuana chocolate, including Liquid Gold bars, hidden in boxes in an Infiniti QX60. The driver was arrested on suspicion of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.

In New Jersey, which has medical dispensaries where pot edibles cannot be sold, the state police last month seized 80 pounds of homemade marijuana sweets from the car of a Brooklyn man. In July, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs confiscated roughly 40 pounds of commercial marijuana products in one seizure, including taffylike Cheeba Chews and bottles of cannabis lemonade.

“There’s no doubt there’s a growing market for edible marijuana products,” said Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma bureau.

In states where marijuana remains illegal, some entrepreneurs have begun cooking large batches of pot edibles for sale. In February, an illegal bakery making marijuana brownies and cookies in an industrial-size oven was shut down in Warren County, Ohio.

The popularity of confections laced with marijuana has caught many health officials by surprise. Pot edibles took off in 2014, the first year of recreational sales in Colorado, when nearly five million individual items were sold to patients and adult users.

Demand in Colorado and Washington State has spawned a stunning assortment of snacks and sweets, from Mondo’s sugar-free vegan bars to Dixie Edibles’ white chocolate peppermint squares.

Today consumers 21 and older can legally buy pot edibles in those two states; soon adults in Oregon and Alaska will join them. Pot edibles are available to medical users in at least a half dozen of the 23 states with medical marijuana programs.

Edibles make sense for marijuana entrepreneurs. In the past, marijuana buds were sold, and the rest of the plant was usually discarded. But with an extraction machine, makers of edible products can use the entire plant.

“In a world where THC becomes inexpensive, you would like to differentiate your product from other people’s products in ways that allow you to maintain a higher profit margin,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a co-author of “Marijuana Legalization,” who has studied black markets for cocaine and marijuana. “Edibles offer some opportunities for that.”

Buyers may not realize that the psychoactive effects of eating marijuana, which are largely due to a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, are much more unpredictable than smoking it. An edible can take one to three hours to produce its maximal high, while smoking takes minutes. Inexperienced consumers easily eat too much, winding up severely impaired.

Moreover, the effects of consumption can vary dramatically for each person from day to day, depending on what else is in the stomach, said Kari L. Franson, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Colorado. “Compare that to smoking — within minutes you have a maximum effect,” she said. “It’s much easier to control.”

Law enforcement officials say it is not yet clear how smugglers are laying hands on large quantities of prepackaged pot edibles. Some may obtain them from medical dispensaries. The Illinois state police charged a man in Kane County, Ill., with cannabis trafficking last year after discovering that 42 pounds of marijuana-infused chocolate had been sent to his home.

The chocolate was traced to a medical dispensary in California. Officers declined to pursue charges against the dispensary, saying its staff had done nothing wrong.

The manufacturers themselves say they receive constant requests for out-of-state shipments.

James Howler, the chief executive of Cheeba Chews, based in Denver, said his team fields emails from people nationwide — from epilepsy patients in Iowa to a retired mechanic in Florida, all of whom would rather snack on marijuana than smoke it.

“The needs and curiosity from around the country can be overwhelming,” he said. Still, Mr. Howler said, he declines them all. “It is highly illegal, and stupid to think we would risk everything,” he said.

Until last year, Sgt. Jerry King, who works for a drug task force in Alabama, had never seen pot edibles in the mail. In February, postal inspectors flagged a package, and the task force seized roughly 87 pounds of smokable marijuana and 50 packages of marijuana candies.

“It’s just now gaining in popularity,” he said of pot edibles in North Alabama. “We’ll try to stay on top of it.”



The Cholesterol Myth

If you are reading this before breakfast, please consider having an egg. Any day now, the US government will officially accept the advice to drop cholesterol from its list of “nutrients of concern” altogether. It wants also to “de-emphasise” saturated fat, given “the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease”.

This is a mighty U-turn, albeit hedged about in caveats, and long overdue. The evidence has been building for years that eating cholesterol does not cause high blood cholesterol. A 2013 review by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology found “no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum [blood] cholesterol”.

Cholesterol is not some vile poison but an essential ingredient of life, which makes animal cell membranes flexible and is the raw material for making hormones, like testosterone and oestrogen. Your liver manufactures most of the cholesterol found in your blood from scratch, and adjusts for what you ingest, which is why diet does not determine blood cholesterol levels. Lowering blood cholesterol by changing diet is all but impossible.

Nor is there any good evidence that high blood cholesterol causes atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease or shorter life. It is not even a risk factor in people who have already had heart attacks. In elderly people — ie, those who have the most heart attacks — the lower your blood cholesterol, the greater your risk of death. Likewise in children.

From the very first, the studies that linked the ingestion of cholesterol and saturated animal fats to cardiovascular disease were not just flawed, but tinged with scandal.

In the 1950s, an upsurge in heart disease in American men (probably caused mostly by smoking) led the physiologist Ancel Keys to guess that dietary cholesterol was to blame. When that seemed not to fit, he switched to saturated fat as a cause of high blood cholesterol. To make his case he did things like leave out contradictory data, shift points on graphs and skate over inconvenient facts. He then got big charities and state agencies on side and bullied his critics into silence.

His most famous study, the sevencountry study, started out much larger; he dropped 16 countries from the sample to get a significant correlation. Add them back in and it vanishes. Hidden in his data is the fact that people in Corfu and Crete (in the same country) ate the same amounts of saturated fats, but the Cretans died 17 times more frequently of heart attacks.

In the 1970s, the famous Framingham Heart Study stumbled on the fact that people with high cholesterol over the age of 47 (long before most people have heart attacks) lived longer than those with low cholesterol, and that those whose cholesterol dropped faced higher risk of death. But the consensus ignored this and sailed on.

If challenged to show evidence for low-cholesterol advice, the medical and scientific profession has tended to argue from authority — by pointing to WHO guidelines or other such official compendia, and say “check the references in there”. But those references lead back to Keys and Framingham and other such dodgy dossiers. Thus does bad science get laundered into dogma. “One of the great commandments of science is ‘Mistrust arguments from authority’,” said Carl Sagan.

Eventually, the medical profession began to distinguish between cholesterol and the proteins that carried it, with a distinction emerging between “good” high-density lipoproteins, and “bad” low-density ones. The fatty plaques in arteries are made partly of cholesterol, true, but they form on scars and irregularities caused by other problems: smoking, infections, damage, age. The lipoproteins and cholesterol are part of the repair kit. You don’t blame a fire engine for a fire. We’ve confused effect with cause.

The battle is not over. The medics and scientists who have been insisting for 20 years that the cholesterol emperor has no clothes, and that low-carb, high-fat diets are safer, have been ostracised as quacks and flat-earthers for so long that the habit will die hard. People such as Uffe Ravnskov in Sweden, author of Ignore the Awkward: How the Cholesterol Myths are Kept Alive and Malcolm Kendrick, a GP in Macclesfield, author of The Great Cholesterol Con and Doctoring Data, will not soon be welcomed back into the fold. A scientific consensus can be very intolerant of heretics.

Nonetheless, the medical establishment here too is tiptoeing away from its previous advice to avoid eating cholesterol and saturated fat. It is covering the retreat with a smokescreen, redirecting its fire on trans fats (with more justification), or on sugar. That’s what lies behind all this talk about the dangers of sugar these days — a huge paradigm shift away from the low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. I am not about to say the advice about sugar will also prove wrong.

Indeed, the evidence that insisting on low-fat diets caused people to eat more carbohydrates, and that led to the explosion in obesity and diabetes, looks pretty strong — so far. After all, the main route by which the body lays down fat is to manufacture it from excess sugar in the liver. But why did carbohydrate consumption start to increase so rapidly in the 1960s? At least partly because of the advice to avoid meat and cheese. Obesity and diabetes are the price we have paid for getting fat and cholesterol so wrong.

How about a full, drains-up inquiry into how the medical and scientific profession made such an epic blunder and caused so much misery to people? Consider not just the damage that was done to people’s lives by faulty advice, but to the livelihoods of dairy and beef farmers and egg producers (I declare an interest as a very small producer of free-range eggs). Which has more sugar: an apple or an egg?

But what about statins? In men they lower cholesterol and they prevent heart disease. True, but the connection is not necessarily causal. Statins do a lot of other things, including reducing inflammation, which may be why they deter heart attacks. There are statin sceptics, too, who think the side-effects of taking them are not worth it, and that far too much of the evidence in favour of them comes from the pharmaceutical industry.

We like to think clinging stubbornly to dogmas was a habit of doctors in past centuries, but it still goes on. Medicine needs to get better at changing its mind.



Fake Allergy Tests

ALLERGY and food intolerance tests that have no scientific basis are being used to warn people they may be sensitive to more than 100 different foods, ranging from chocolate to pumpkins, an investigation has revealed.

The tests, which cost up to £95 and are available in high street stores and clinics across Britain, use various methods to identify food intolerances. Doctors say such tests have no scientific validity and warn that they could lead to malnutrition.

The Good Thinking Society, a charity that focuses on pseudoscience, arranged a series of allergy tests for a member of its investigation team.

The investigator, who has no known food allergies, visited a nutritional expert at a consulting room in a NutriCentre store in Horwich, Greater Manchester, and was tested with an Asyra machine, which is said to contain “digitally encoded” information on mental, physiological and emotional factors. He was asked to hold two brass cylinders to record the response of his body to electromagnetic signals.

Potential sensitivities to 103 foods were highlighted by the machine, including hot chocolate, bananas, barley, hops, lettuce, peanuts, pumpkins, strawberries and prunes. The same investigator then went to a branch of Herbal Inn, a Chinese medicine treatment and product company, in Kensington, west London, where a sample of his hair was taken.

He was subsequently sent results that said beer, cider, wine and gin were a “possible allergen/trigger” along with advice to eliminate them from his diet for up to six months. The investigator arranged a second test with another Herbal Inn branch in Blackburn, Lancashire. This time, he was given the all-clear on alcohol but was found to have potential adverse reactions to nuts, coffee, leeks, lemons and limes. None of these foods had been identified as a problem in the previous test.

Michael Marshall, project director of the Good Thinking Society, said: “The allergy tests that we investigated simply do not work and the underlying methodologies behind them are pseudoscientific and often nonsensical.”

Reported instances of allergies and food intolerances are on the increase but earlier this month senior doctors warned that ineffective allergy tests meant large numbers of people wrongly considered they were allergic to foods.

Dr Adam Fox, a consultant children’s allergist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said tests involving hair sampling or electromagnetic waves had no scientific validity. “There is a danger of over-diagnosing allergies that are not there and failing to diagnose genuine allergies,” he said.

Last week, a Sunday Times reporter arranged allergy tests in three clinics, complaining of bloating and fatigue.

At the first clinic, Newlands Park Natural Healthcare Centre in Sydenham, south London, she was subjected to electronic screening and muscular and physiological tests, known as kinesiology. During the £90 consultation, her body was also blown with a hairdryer, which “would help reduce any harmful effects from electromagnetic fields”. She was told she had no food allergies.

The reporter, who has no known food allergies or intolerances, also visited the Eastbourne Clinic of Natural Medicine in East Sussex, where she lay on a treatment bed while vials containing microscopic amounts of foodstuffs were placed on her body. She was “potentially sensitive” to wheat, dairy products, white wine, potatoes, tomatoes and oranges and advised to avoid dairy products as part of a diagnostic elimination diet.

Another consultation, costing £65, was conducted using an Asyra machine at Your Empowered Self, in Byfleet, Surrey. The reporter was told there was no sensitivity to wine, potatoes, tomatoes or oranges — flagged up as problems in Eastbourne — but was advised to avoid or reduce eating foods including parsley, sardines and sugar.



Plenish Cooking Oil

For 37 years - since 1977 - breaded and fried white mushrooms have been a favorite in the food court at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Between that and other mushroom goodies, including cream of mushroom soup and marinated mushroom salad, visitors annually eat 3.5 tons of mushrooms at the show, which will run Jan. 10 to 17 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.

This year, things will be a little different.

The cooks in the mushroom area will be using a new oil that proponents say tastes better than other oils, lasts longer (meaning fewer cooking stoppages for clean-outs), and is more healthful. Nearby, the state potato growers will be cooking French fries in the new oil. The Dairymen's Association will fry its cheese cubes in it. Also in the oil: deep-fried veggies, chicken breasts, nuggets, and wings.

Made by DuPont Pioneer from genetically modified soybeans, the new oil may have the potential to shift, at least a little, the debate over foods made from genetically-modified organisms. Until now, the main beneficiaries of GMO crops have been farmers, who get new methods of weed and pest control. The new oil directly benefits consumers.

Called Plenish, it has zero trans fat, which is a double whammy for heart health because it raises your "bad" cholesterol and lowers your "good" kind. Plenish also has 20 percent less saturated fat - another "bad" cholesterol booster - than conventional soy oil. And, like olive oil, it is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

But what ultimately sold Gale Ferranto is the flavor. Or, rather, the lack of one. "You can taste the mushrooms, not the oil," said Ferranto, president of Buona Foods, the mushroom company in tiny Landenberg, southern Chester County, that is managing the food court's mushroom section.

The oil, introduced to the restaurant and food industries several years ago, has caught on slowly and, so far at least, is not available in supermarkets.

An early adopter, not surprisingly, was the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington. Executive chef Kevin Miller said the kitchen uses the oil not just in the fryers, where it gives "a cleaner taste and a nice, crisp crust." Unless he specifically wants the taste of olive oil in a salad dressing, Miller said, he'll use Plenish. Because it has a higher smoke point, the kitchen uses it for sautéing, too. "We really like the oil," Miller said. "We like what it does for us."

If you go to the Farm Show (, look for informational signage in the food court - and, not far away in the Today's Agriculture area, an exhibit with the new soybeans in various growth stages.

Susan Knowlton, a senior research manager at DuPont in Wilmington who has worked on the project for years, calls it "the reinvention of soybean oil." As concerns grew about trans fats, she told reporters at a company event in November, "we could see this coming - the implications of cardiovascular risk."

Sure enough, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required trans fat to be included on Nutrition Facts labels starting in 2006. New York City soon acted to eliminate it from most restaurants, followed swiftly by Philadelphia and the state of California. Trans fats began a steep decline.

Trans fats are created when oils are hydrogenated - treated with hydrogen - to extend the shelf life of products they're used in. But by turning off a particular gene in the soybean plant, DuPont Pioneer made a soybean with a higher concentration of oleic acids, which are more stable. The oil from them, called high oleic oil, doesn't have to be hydrogenated.

The new oil could have wide implications. Soybean oil represents about 60 percent of all oil consumed in the United States today. It is used in commercial fryers and in baking.

Plenish - as well as a similar product in the Monsanto pipeline - also is seen as a boon for soy farmers. Chester County's Bill Beam normally grows about 1,200 acres of soybeans near Elverson. Last summer, he planted 25 acres in Plenish beans. They grew just the same as conventional beans, he said, but he sold them for 50 cents more per bushel. Currently, a bushel of conventional beans sells for about $10.50.



Fasting Mimicking Diet

“Pseudo fasting” for five days each month could be enough to slow the ageing process and cut people’s risk of cancer and heart disease, a pilot study suggests. The “fasting mimicking” diet — FMD for short — involves eating about two fifths of your normal daily allowance for five consecutive days out of every 30 in such a way as to trick the body into thinking it is being starved.

Scientists have long known that drastically cutting back on calorie intake at regular intervals can lead to weight loss as well as lower blood pressure and the warning signs for heart disease and other conditions. This theory underpins popular fads such as the 5:2 diet pursued by George Osborne, the chancellor, and the pop star Jennifer Lopez.

Getting people to stick to fasting for several days, however, is not easy. An international team of researchers reasoned that following a diet that contained significantly fewer calories and a high proportion of fat over a period of several days would have a similar effect and be much easier to persevere with.

They put 19 volunteers with an average age of 42 on the FMD diet for three months, while another 19 ate the same diet as they usually would.

The pseudo-fasters ate a largely plant-based diet composed of about 12 per cent protein, 42 per cent carbohydrates and 45 per cent fat. Its highlights included vegetable soups, energy bars, energy drinks, crisps, camomile tea and vegetable formula tablets.

By the end of the trial there were several biological indicators that the FMD dieters had aged more slowly than the control group, including lower levels of blood glucose and inflammation. They also lost an average of 3 per cent of their body weight.

Writing in the journal Cell Metabolism, the researchers also suggested that cycles of FMD might increase tissue-regenerating stem cells in humans.

“This study indicates that FMD cycles induce long-lasting beneficial and rejuvenating effects on many tissues, including those of the endocrine [hormonal], immune and nervous systems in mice and markers for diseases and regeneration in humans,” they wrote.

Valter Longo, one of the senior authors and a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said the results would need to be confirmed by a larger experiment and he would now apply for permission to carry out a full clinical trial.

Lynne Cox, associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the study, said: “For many years, caloric restriction — cutting out 30 to 40 per cent of your calories every day — has looked the best bet for improving health outcomes during ageing, but this new diet appears much easier to stick to.”



GM Edited Pigs

Genetically engineered pigs that could be resistant to a deadly viral infection will go on trial in Britain this autumn.

Scientists have taken advantage of a breakthrough in gene-editing to tweak a single fragment of DNA in the hope that the pigs, of the breed large white, will become some of the first commercially viable GM livestock to be produced in the UK.

The piglets have been modified to give them greater resistance to African swine fever, which has spread into several of Britain’s east European trading partners, including Poland.

This year 12 of the animals will be taken to a high-security laboratory in the south of England and infected with the virus to test whether they cope with it better than “un-edited” pigs. The farm where they are being bred, near Edinburgh, is also home to fluorescent pigs that have been engineered to have greater immunity to swine flu.

The project is led by Bruce Whitelaw, professor of developmental biology at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, which cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996. “We have used a technique that changes a single letter in the pigs’ genetic code to speed up a process that is already occurring in nature,” he said.

Unlike most GM techniques, which involve modifying large numbers of skin cells taken from the animals, Roslin’s approach uses molecular “scissors” to alter the DNA in a fertilised egg with much greater precision.

African swine fever provokes an immune response in ordinary pigs that is far more dangerous than the virus itself, leading to haemorrhaging, breathing problems and often coma then death.

By cutting out a scrap of a gene called RELA that controls this immune reaction, the Roslin scientists hope to make the pigs respond like warthogs, which are more resistant to the swine fever.

Professor Whitelaw said the method would answer anti-GM campaigners’ criticisms. “There are no markers, no vectors,” he told The Guardian. “People are absolutely not going to want to eat animals with fluorescent snouts.”

If the trials succeed, Professor Whitelaw plans to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration early next year for a commercial licence. He said he expected that the process would take between five and ten years.

“We need these animals to deliver something that could be a product,” he said. “If these pigs show resilience, we will go the regulators. The limitations are no longer technical, they’re legal.”




You may feel smug as you pass up a soft drink for a ginger and apple juice that you whipped up at home. However, the rising popularity of juicers poses an unseen threat to public health, experts have warned.

Nutritionists insist home-made juice is loaded with sugar.

Scientists say that we often underestimate the quantity of sugar in juiced drinks and that despite the success of books promoting them, such as that by the food blogger Ella Woodward, once food has been through a juicer it becomes considerably less worthy than the ingredients list may make it appear.

The problem is that when fruit is put through a juicer, the pulp (or fibre) is separated from the juice and discarded. It still retains all its sugars but has lost the fibre that is crucial to regulating the absorption of natural sugars in the body and slowing their digestion. “The public need to be aware that any nutritional benefits of fruit juice are vastly outweighed by the staggering amount of liquid sugar it contains,” said Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist based in London. “A standard glass can contain well above over the maximum daily limit recommended by the World Health Organisation of six teaspoons.

“Consumption of fruit juice has been strongly linked to increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is now at an all-time high in the UK. In my view, fruit juice represents a significant health hazard.”

Nutritionists have previously warned that the juicing industry was selling its products as healthy, using sleight of hand. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, told the Chicago Tribune: “The fruit juice industry has essentially taken the ‘apple-a-day’ mentality and used it to sell fruit juices as healthy.” He pointed out that while in normal life we would eat two oranges and be full, with juicers we could eat six and not have our appetite affected in any appreciable way.

Even so, juicing continues to make people’s fortunes. Jason Vale, also known as the Juice Master, has been called the “Jamie Oliver of juicing”. He claims that his books, among them 7lbs in 7 days: The Juice Master Diet, have sold 3 million copies — and that the wisdom contained in them helped him to beat psoriasis, eczema, asthma, hay fever and obesity. Using a standard kitchen blender to blend fruit rather than juice it is recommended as a healthier choice because the fibre is retained in the process. Nutritionists also recommend creating juices made predominantly of vegetables because they contain less sugar.

Action on Sugar, a campaign group against high sugar consumption, said it believed the juicing craze could be contributing to a rise in diabetes and pre-diabetes “particularly if people are drinking more juice as opposed to smoothies, which contain fibre too and therefore may be less of a problem”.

However, Thomas Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, said that, at least for now, Britain’s juicers will be saved by the one true weapon of all slaves to fashion: youth. “Obesity is the reason for the increase in type 2 diabetes and it is affecting mainly people in their late fifties and sixties,” he said, “whereas the juice consuming population tends to be a younger age group.”



Fish Oil From GM Plants

Fish oil has been grown successfully on a British farm in a scientific breakthrough that could reduce the plundering of the oceans.

A field trial in Hertfordshire has demonstrated that plants can be genetically modified to reproduce the nutrients found in oily fish that protect against heart disease and help infant brain development.

Scientists genetically modified camelina, an oilseed plant known as “false flax”, to produce seeds containing the omega-3 fatty acids present in salmon, mackerel and herring.

The trial at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden showed that the plants were able to produce useful amounts of fish oil without affecting their yield. If the results are confirmed in further trials, the camelina plants could be grown on millions of acres around the world to supply fish farms with fish oil.

Fish farms consume huge quantities of fish oil from small wild fish such as anchovies. The expansion of these farms is a major reason why fish stocks are declining. In 2011, about 80 per cent of the one million tonnes of fish oil produced globally from the seas went to fish farms. It takes up to 5kg of wild fish to produce 1kg of farmed salmon.

Professor Johnathan Napier, who is leading the publicly funded trial, said that the high cost of fish oil meant that fish farms had halved their use of it, so the fish they produced had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. He said that humans would be unlikely to consume GM camelina seeds directly but would eat farmed fish fed on them.

Professor Napier said: “Fish farming is an expanding industry which, when combined with the increased global population, has an ever-increasing demand for fish oils. So there is great interest and need in finding an alternative source of these important fatty acids.”

Chile, Canada and the northern states of the US are among the places where GM camelina is most likely to be grown commercially, but five to seven years of research is required first.

The next stage of the research will involve testing different strains at locations around the world and comparing them with conventional camelina. Although some plants, such as flax, produce omega-3 oils these are of a “short-chain” strain that do not have the same properties as the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The Rothamsted scientists modified the camelina plants by adding synthetic genes based on those found in marine algae that are involved in the production of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Only the seeds of the camelina plant contain EPA and DHA. Other parts of the plant, including the stem and leaves, are unaffected.



Anti-GM Fraud

The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.

1 They Want You to Be Overwhelmed

Is genetically engineered food dangerous? Many people seem to think it is. In the past five years, companies have submitted more than 27,000 products to the Non-GMO Project, which certifies goods that are free of genetically modified organisms. Last year, sales of such products nearly tripled. Whole Foods will soon require labels on all GMOs in its stores. Abbott, the company that makes Similac baby formula, has created a non-GMO version to give parents “peace of mind.” Trader Joe’s has sworn off GMOs. So has Chipotle.

Some environmentalists and public interest groups want to go further. Hundreds of organizations, including Consumers Union, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, are demanding “mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.” Since 2013, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws to require GMO labels. Massachusetts could be next.

The central premise of these laws—and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food—is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

The deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

If you’re like me, you don’t really want to wade into this issue. It’s too big, technical, and confusing. But come with me, just this once. I want to take you backstage, behind those blanket assurances about the safety of genetic engineering. I want to take you down into the details of four GMO fights, because that’s where you’ll find truth. You’ll come to the last curtain, the one that hides the reality of the anti-GMO movement. And you’ll see what’s behind it.

2 The Papaya Triumph

Twenty years ago Hawaiian papaya farmers were in trouble. Ringspot virus, transmitted by insects, was destroying the crop. Farmers tried everything to stop the virus: selective breeding, crop rotation, quarantine. Nothing worked. But one scientist had a different idea. What if he could transfer a gene from a harmless part of the virus, known as the coat protein, to the papaya’s DNA? Would the GE papaya be immune to the virus?

The scientist, Dennis Gonsalves of Cornell University, got the idea, in part, from Monsanto. But Monsanto wasn’t interested in papaya. Although papaya is an important staple in the developing world, it isn’t a big moneymaker like soybeans or cotton. So Monsanto and two other companies licensed the technology to an association of Hawaiian farmers. The licenses were free but restricted to Hawaii. The association provided the seeds to farmers for free, and later at cost.

Today the GE papaya is a triumph. It saved the industry. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The papaya, having defeated the virus, barely survived a campaign to purge GE crops from Hawaii. The story of that campaign teaches a hard lesson: No matter how long a GMO is eaten without harming anyone, and no matter how many studies are done to demonstrate its safety, there will always be skeptics who warn of unknown risks.

In 1996 and 1997, three federal agencies approved the GE papaya. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported “no deleterious effects on plants, nontarget organisms, or the environment” in field trials. The Environmental Protection Agency pointed out that people had been eating the virus for years in infected papaya. “Entire infectious particles of Papaya Ringspot Virus, including the coat protein component, are found in the fruit, leaves and stems of most plants,” the EPA observed. The agency cited the long history of mammalian consumption of the entire plant virus particle in foods, without causing any deleterious human health effects. Virus-infected plants currently are and have always been a part of both the human and domestic animal food supply and there have been no findings which indicate that plant viruses are toxic to humans and other vertebrates. Further, plant viruses are unable to replicate in mammals or other vertebrates, thereby eliminating the possibility of human infection.

These arguments didn’t satisfy everyone. In 1999, a year after the new papaya seeds were released to farmers, critics said the viral gene might interact with DNA from other viruses to create more dangerous pathogens. In 2000, vandals destroyed papaya trees and other biotech plants at a University of Hawaii research facility, calling the plants “genetic pollution.” In 2001 the U.S. Public Interest Research Group identified Hawaii as the state most commonly used for outdoor GE crop tests, and it called for a nationwide moratorium on such tests. “The science of genetic engineering is radical and new,” said U.S. PIRG, and GE crops had “not been properly tested for human health or environmental impact.”

A Dutch study published in December 2002 seemed to vindicate this anxiety. According to the paper, a short stretch of the ringspot virus coat protein, now incorporated in the GE papaya, matched a sequence in an allergenic protein made by worms. The resemblance was only partial, and, as the authors noted, it didn’t show that the protein triggered allergies, much less that the papaya did so. But anti-GMO activists didn’t wait. The Institute of Science in Society published a “Biosafety Alert” titled “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” Greenpeace flagged the Dutch study and warned that “the interaction of GE papaya with other viruses … can produce new strains of viruses.” The organization accused the papaya’s developers of “playing with nature.”

Some of these early alarms were disconcerting. But scientifically, they made no sense. Start with the distinction between “nature” and “genetic pollution.” Nature had invented the ringspot virus. Millions of people had eaten it without any reports of harm. And breeders had been tinkering with nature for millennia.

Anti-GMO activists decried genetic engineering as imprecise and random. They ignored the far greater randomness of mutation in nature and the far greater imprecision of traditional breeding. Furthermore, after five years of commercial sale and consumption, there was no sign that GE papayas had hurt anyone. But the alarmists continued to fret about unforeseen interactions and doomsday mutations, ignoring research that didn’t bear out these fantasies.

Take the “Allergenic GM Papaya Scandal.” The protein made by the papaya’s new gene consisted of about 280 amino acids. Out of that 280, the number of consecutive amino acids it shared with a putative allergen was six. By this standard, a study found that 41 of 50 randomly selected proteins in ordinary corn would also have to be declared allergenic. But GMO opponents ignored this study. They also ignored a second paper, which concluded that the putative worm allergen used in the papaya comparison was not, in fact, intrinsically allergenic.

Years passed, people ate papayas, and nothing bad happened. But the activists wouldn’t relent. In 2004, Greenpeace vandals tore up a GE papaya orchard in Thailand, calling the plant a “time bomb” and claiming that it had devastated farmers in Hawaii. In 2006, Greenpeace issued another report condemning the fruit. In reality, the source of farmers’ troubles was Greenpeace itself. The organization was working to block regulatory approval and sales of the GE papaya—and then blaming the papaya for farmers’ financial woes.

From 2006 to 2010, USDA scientists, prodded by Japanese regulators, subjected the papaya to several additional studies. They verified that its new protein had no genetic sequence in common with any known allergen, using the common standard of eight consecutive amino acids rather than six. They demonstrated that the protein, unlike allergens, broke down in seconds in gastric fluid. They found that conventional virus-infected papayas, which people had been eating all along, had eight times as much viral protein as the GE papaya. In May 2009, after a decade of scrutiny, Japan’s Food Safety Commission approved the GE papaya. Two years later, after resolving environmental questions, Japan opened its market to the fruit.

Chinese researchers performed additional tests. For four weeks they fed GE papayas to a group of rats. Meanwhile, they fed conventional papayas to another group of rats. The study found no resulting differences between the rats. It confirmed that coat protein fragments dissolved quickly in gastric fluid and left no detectable traces in organs.

By this point the GE papaya had been investigated and eaten for 15 years. GMO skeptics had two choices. They could acknowledge that their nightmares hadn’t come true. Or they could reject the evidence and cling to their faith in a GMO apocalypse.

That dilemma split the anti-GMO camp in 2013, when the Hawaii County Council, which governed Hawaii’s largest island, considered legislation to ban GE crops. The council’s hearings, preserved on video by Occupy Hawaii (which favored the proposed ban), document a yearlong struggle between ideology and science. As council members heard testimony and studied the issue, they learned that the GE papaya didn’t fit GMO stereotypes. It had been created by public-sector scientists, not by a corporation. It had saved a beloved crop. It had passed extensive scrutiny in Japan and the U.S. It didn’t cross-pollinate nearby fields. It also reduced pesticide use, because farmers no longer had to exterminate the aphids that spread the virus.

One council member, Margaret Wille, yielded to the evidence. Wille was Hawaii’s leading anti-GMO politician. She had introduced the proposed GMO ban. But after listening to the arguments, she exempted the GE papaya from her bill, noting that it was embedded in local agriculture and had been vetted in safety and cross-pollination tests. In effect, she acknowledged two things. First, the legitimate worries of biotech critics, such as pesticide use and corporate control of agriculture, didn’t apply to all GE crops. And second, with the passage of time, novelties became conventional.

Other antagonists held their ground. Chief among them was Jeffrey Smith, the world’s most prolific anti-GMO activist. In September 2013, Smith was given 45 minutes to testify before the council as an expert witness, though he had no formal scientific training. (When he was asked whether he should be addressed as Dr. Smith, he sidestepped the question by answering, “No, Jeffrey’s fine.”) Smith told the council that RNA from the GE papaya might disrupt genes in people and that proteins from the papaya might interfere with human immunity, leading to HIV and hepatitis. He also said the protein might cause cancer.

To support his testimony, Smith cited a March 2013 paper about regulation of GE crops. He said the paper “showed that the evaluation of this technology is sorely inadequate to protect against environmental problems and human health problems. And the papaya was one example cited in that study.” But the paper made no claim about papayas. It simply listed them in a table of GE crops, alongside a theoretical critique of the technology.

Smith told the council that “there hasn’t been any animal feeding studies on the papaya.” Hector Valenzuela, a University of Hawaii crop specialist who also testified as an expert, said the same thing: that scientists hadn’t “conducted a single study” to assess the safety of GE papaya. Neither man mentioned the Chinese papaya feeding study in rats—published two months before the theoretical paper Smith had cited—which had found none of the harms Smith alleged.

To explain why scientific organizations and regulatory agencies had declared GE foods safe, the anti-GMO witnesses offered conspiracy theories. They said the Food and Drug Administration had been captured by Monsanto. So had the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon detailed the safety evidence behind the GE papaya, incredulous council members dismissed her article as a “skewed” account by “the political powers that be.”

As for Japan’s approval of the papaya, Valenzuela advised the council to look at U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks. He said the cables showed “the lengths that the State Department goes to twist arms behind the scenes.” This was a clear insinuation that U.S. officials had coerced Japan’s decision. Smith mentioned the cables, too. But the cables showed no conspiracy. Nearly 6,000 of the leaked cables had been sent from U.S. embassies and consulates in Japan. They covered the years 2005 to 2010, during which Japanese regulators had debated and approved the GE papaya. Food & Water Watch, an environmental group, had searched the cables for references to pressure or lobbying by U.S. officials on behalf of GMOs. The group’s report, issued in May 2013, cited no cables that indicated any such activity in Japan.

No allegation was too far-fetched for the anti-GMO witnesses, including several who called themselves experts. They said GMOs were especially dangerous to dark-skinned people. They suggested that vaccines were harmful, too. They said GE flowers should be banned because children might eat them.

What they wouldn’t say, regardless of the evidence, was that the GE papaya was safe. Brenda Ford, a council member and sponsor of another anti-GMO bill, told her colleagues that they didn’t have to answer that question, even when they were directly asked. Ford described genetic engineering as “random hits” on chromosomes. She said the science was still “in its infancy.” Smith, in his testimony, suggested that gene transfer in agriculture should be studied for 50 to 150 years before allowing its use outdoors.

In the end, the papaya survived. Ford’s bill died. Wille’s bill was signed into law but was tied up in court. The new law makes an exception for papayas. But GMO labels don’t. They don’t tell you that the fruit you’re looking at in your grocery store was engineered to need fewer pesticides, not more. They don’t tell you about all the research that went into checking its safety. They don’t tell you that people have been eating it with no ill effects for more than 15 years. They don’t tell you that when you buy it, your money goes to Hawaiian farmers, not to Monsanto.

Some people, to this day, believe GE papayas are dangerous. They want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.

3 Organics Are Not Safer

In 1901 a Japanese biologist discovered that a strain of bacteria was killing his country’s silkworms. Scientists gave the bacteria a name: Bacillus thuringiensis. It turned out to be handy for protecting crops from insects. Farmers and environmentalists loved it. It was natural, effective, and harmless to vertebrates.

In the mid-1980s, Belgian researchers found a better way to produce the insecticide. They put a gene from the bacteria into tobacco plants. When bugs tried to eat the plants, they died. Now farmers wouldn’t need the bacteria. Plants that had the new gene, known as Bt, could produce the insecticidal protein on their own.

Environmentalists flipped. What upset them wasn’t the insecticide but the genetic engineering. Thus began the strange backlash against Bt crops. A protein that everyone had previously agreed was innocuous suddenly became a menace. To many critics of biotechnology, the long history of safe Bt use was irrelevant. What mattered was that Bt was now a GMO. And GMOs were evil.

In 1995 the EPA approved Bt potatoes, corn, and cotton. The agency noted that the toxin produced by these crops was “identical to that produced naturally in the bacterium” and “affects insects when ingested, but not mammals.” But opponents weren’t mollified. In 1999 a coalition led by Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network, and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements sued the EPA to revoke its approvals. The suit said Bt crops might create insecticide-resistant insects and cause “direct harm to non-target organisms.”

The coalition claimed to speak for environmental caution. But its caution was curiously selective. Thirty of the 34 farmers who were identified in the lawsuit as victims and plaintiffs affirmed that they sprayed Bt on their own crops. Fourteen of the 16 farming organizations listed as plaintiffs said they had members who used Bt spray. One plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, was a “supplier of organic fertilizers and pest controls” whose business “consists of selling foliar Bt products to conventional apple growers.” Another was “one of the largest suppliers of beneficial insects and natural organisms designed to control agricultural pests,” including “several Bt products.”

Greenpeace and its partners weren’t fighting the Bt industry. They were protecting it. They were trying to convince the public that the Bt protein was dangerous when produced by plants but perfectly safe when produced by bacteria and sprayed by farmers.

The anti-GMO lobby says Bt crops are worse than Bt sprays, in part because Bt crops have too much of the bacterial toxin. In 2007, for instance, Greenpeace promoted a court petition to stop field trials of Bt eggplant in India. The petition told the country’s highest court, “The Bt toxin in GM crops is 1,000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays.” But Greenpeace’s internal research belied that statement. A 2002 Greenpeace report, based on Chinese lab tests, found that the toxin level in Bt crops was severely “limited.” In 2006, when Greenpeace investigators examined Bt corn in Germany and Spain, they got a surprise: “The plants sampled showed in general very low Bt concentrations.”

An honest environmental organization, having discovered these low concentrations, might have reconsidered its opposition to Bt crops. But Greenpeace simply changed its rationale. Having argued in its 1999 lawsuit that Bt crops produced too much toxin, Greenpeace now reversed itself. In its report on the German and Spanish corn, the organization complained that Bt crops produced too little toxin to be effective. It argued, in essence, that the Bt in transgenic crops was unsafe for humans but insufficient to kill bugs.

Anti-GMO activists also claim that the insecticidal protein is “activated” in Bt crops but not in Bt sprays, and that this makes Bt crops more dangerous to people. That’s misleading. “Activation” just means that the protein is truncated, which helps it bind to the guts of insects. And each Bt plant is different. A global database of GE crops, maintained by the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment, shows that some Bt proteins are fully truncated while others are partially truncated. Even the fully truncated proteins are just “semi-activated,” according to a technical assessment that was sent to Greenpeace by its own consultants 15 years ago. Unless you’re a bug, Bt isn’t active.

In its 1999 lawsuit, Greenpeace said Bt crops were dangerous because their toxins were “not readily degraded in the environment.” The organization and its allies have repeated this allegation many times since. But when it’s convenient, Greenpeace says the opposite. Its 2006 petition to block Bt crops in New Zealand speculated that the concentration of toxin in Bt cotton might be too low “because the Bt protein is degraded, linked to heat stress.” The petition added that the plant’s defense mechanisms “may also reduce the insecticidal activity of Bt.”

In fact, the 2006 petition suggested that the low concentration of Bt in Indian cotton was allowing insects to flourish, leading to crop losses, and causing farmers to fall into debt and kill themselves. The suicide allegation was just another anti-GMO fiction. But it allowed Greenpeace to claim that the Bt in transgenic crops was killing people in two ways: by being more persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays, and by being less persistent and potent than the Bt in sprays.

The strangest part of the case against Bt crops is the putative evidence of harm. Numerous studies have found that Bt is one of the world’s safest pesticides. Still, if you run enough experiments on any pesticide, a few will produce correlations that look worrisome. But that’s just the first step in challenging a scientific consensus. Experts then debate whether the correlations are causal and whether the effects are important. They ask for better, controlled experiments to validate the pattern. That’s where the case against Bt crops and other GMOs has repeatedly failed.

But that isn’t what’s strange. What’s strange is that so much of the ostensible evidence against Bt crops is, at best, evidence against Bt sprays.

You can think you’re eating less Bt, when in fact you’re eating more.

In its 2006 petition to regulators in New Zealand, Greenpeace argued that Bt crops, by applying evolutionary pressure, would generate Bt-resistant insects, thereby depriving organic farmers of their rightful “use of Bt as a pesticide.” The petition also warned that the “Bt toxin can persist in soils for over 200 days” and that this “could cause problems for non-target organisms and the health of the soil ecosystem.” But two of the three experiments cited as evidence for the soil warning weren’t done with Bt crops. They were done with DiPel, a commercial Bt spray compound. Greenpeace was asking New Zealand to protect Bt spray from Bt crops based on studies that, if anything, indicted Bt spray.

The 2007 petition against Bt eggplant in India repeated this fallacy. “The natural bacterium Bt is very important in advanced organic agriculture,” said the petition. For this reason, it argued, the evolution of Bt-resistant insects due to Bt crops “would be a serious threat to many types of agriculture on which a country such as India inevitably & rightly relies.” But an addendum to the petition cited, as evidence of Bt’s perils, studies that were done with Javelin, Foray, and VectoBac—three Bt spray compounds.

This paradox pervades the anti-GMO movement: alarmism about any possibility of harm from Bt crops, coupled with relentless flacking for the Bt spray industry. “Farmers have always used Bt sparingly and usually as a last resort,” says the Organic Consumers Association. But that doesn’t square with the product literature for commercial Bt sprays. One brochure recommends “motorized boom sprayers” and says “aerial applications are also commonplace in many crops.” Another explains that “many avocado orchards are sprayed by helicopter.” Saturation is a point of emphasis: “Sprays should thoroughly cover all plant surfaces, even the undersides of leaves.”

Greenpeace says you needn’t worry, because “Bt proteins from natural Bt sprays degrade” within two weeks. But this is a false assurance, because farmers compensate for the degradation by reapplying the spray. A typical brochure recommends reapplication “every 5-7 days.” That’s plenty of time to get the toxin to your mouth, since the product literature tells growers that “ripe fruit can be picked and eaten the same day that it is sprayed.” In YouTube videos, organic farmers deliver the same instructions: You should spray your vegetables with Bt every four days, coating each surface, and you can eat the food right after you spray it.

Bt sprays, unlike Bt crops, include live bacteria, which can multiply in food. Several years ago researchers examined vegetables for sale in Denmark. They found 23 strains of Bt identical to the kind used in commercial sprays. In China a similar study of milk, ice cream, and green tea beverages found 19 Bt strains, five of them identical to the kind used in sprays. In Canada nasal swabs of people living inside and outside zones where Bt was being applied found the bacteria in 17 percent of samples taken before crops were sprayed, as well as 36 percent to 47 percent of samples taken afterward.

Nobody monitors how much Bt is applied worldwide. Last fall the Wall Street Journal estimated that annual sales of biopesticides were roughly $2 billion. Bt has been said to account for 57 percent to 90 percent of that market. In 2001, Bt was reportedly applied in the U.S. to more than 40 percent of tomatoes and 60 percent of brassica crops, which include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Since then, biopesticide sales have risen substantially. In Europe the annual growth rate since 2000 has been nearly 17 percent. Every market analysis predicts that biopesticides will grow at a much faster rate than the overall insecticide market, in part because governments are promoting them. The Journal projects that by 2020, 10 percent of global pesticide sales will be Bt and other biological formulas.

One result of this paradox—GMOs under attack, while biopesticides flourish—is that you can think you’re eating less Bt, when in fact you’re eating more. Suppose you live in Germany. According to a 2014 congressional research report, Germany has some of the world’s strictest GMO policies. It requires labels, discourages GMO cultivation, and has prohibited even some crops approved by the European Union. But U.N. data show that during the most recent 10-year reporting period, for every 1,000 hectares of arable German land, an annual average of 125 metric tons of biological and botanical pesticides (the category that includes Bt) were sold for agricultural use in crops and seeds. That works out to more than 100 pounds per acre per year. By comparison, no Bt corn variety produces more than 4 pounds of toxin per acre.

And guess who’s selling all that Bt: the same companies Greenpeace condemns for peddling chemical pesticides and GMOs. Since 2012 the top four companies on Greenpeace’s list of global pesticide villains—Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF—have spent about $2 billion to move into the biopesticide market. Another agrochemical giant, DuPont, has invested $6 billion. If you’re boycotting GMOs or buying organic to escape Bt and fight corporate agriculture, think again. Monsanto is one step ahead of you.

Anti-GMO zealots refuse to face the truth about Bt. Two years ago the Organic Consumers Association and its allied website GreenMedInfo published the headline “New Study Links GMO Food to Leukemia.” Today that headline remains uncorrected, even though the study was done with Bt spore crystals, which are components of Bt spray, not Bt crops. (The study is a mess. Most of what was fed to the test animals wasn’t Bt toxin, and the write-up, for undisclosed reasons, was withdrawn from an established journal and published instead in a journal that had never before existed.) Meanwhile, last year, Greenpeace published a catalog of “exemplary” agriculture, in which it celebrated a Spanish farm where “the use of Bacillus thuringiensis is being expanded to a greater cultivated surface area.” Both organizations encourage you to buy organic, neglecting to mention the dozens of Bt insecticides approved for use in organic agriculture.

GMO labels won’t clear this up. They won’t tell you whether there’s Bt in your food. They’ll only give you the illusion that you’ve escaped it. That’s one lesson of the Non-GMO Project, whose voluntary labels purport to give you an “informed choice” about what’s in your food. Earlier this year, Slate interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman contacted the manufacturers of 15 corn products bearing the Non-GMO Project label. They asked each company whether its product included any ingredients sprayed with biopesticides. Five companies didn’t reply. Two told us, falsely, that their organic certification meant they didn’t use pesticides or anything that could be harmful. One sent us weasel words and repeated them when we pressed for a clearer answer. Another told us it adhered to legal limits. Three confessed that they didn’t know. None of the manufacturers could give us a clear assurance that its product hadn’t been exposed to Bt.

That’s the fundamental flaw in the anti-GMO movement. It only pretends to inform you. When you push past its dogmas and examine the evidence, you realize that the movement’s fixation on genetic engineering has been an enormous mistake. The principles it claims to stand for—environmental protection, public health, community agriculture—are better served by considering the facts of each case than by treating GMOs, categorically, as a proxy for all that’s wrong with the world. That’s the truth, in all its messy complexity. Too bad it won’t fit on a label.

4 A Humanitarian Project Zealots Hate

Right now, across the world, a quarter of a billion preschool-age children are suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Every year, 250,000 to 500,000 of these kids go blind. Within a year, half of the blinded children will die. Much of the affliction is in Southeast Asia, where people rely on rice for their nutrition. Rice doesn’t have enough beta carotene—the compound that, when digested, produces vitamin A.

Twenty-five years ago, a team of scientists, led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, set out to solve this problem. Their plan was to engineer a new kind of rice that would make beta carotene.

The idea sounded crazy. But to Potrykus it made more sense than what some governments were already doing: giving each person two high-dose vitamin A pills a year. Wouldn’t it be smarter to embed beta carotene in the region’s staple crop? That way, people could grow the nutrient and eat it every day, instead of relying on occasional handouts. This was a sustainable solution. It would use biotechnology to prevent suffering, disability, and death.

In 1999, Potrykus and his colleagues achieved their first breakthrough. By transferring genes from daffodils and bacteria, they created the world’s first beta carotene rice. The yellow grains became known as “Golden Rice.” President Clinton celebrated the achievement and urged GMO skeptics to do the same. He acknowledged that genetic engineering “tends to be treated as an issue of the interest of the agribusiness companies, and earning big profits, against food safety.” But in the case of vitamin A deficiency, the greater risk to health lay in doing nothing. “If we could get more of this Golden Rice … out to the develop[ing] world,” said Clinton, “it could save 40,000 lives a day.”

Anti-GMO groups were confounded. This humanitarian project undermined their usual objections to genetic engineering. In 2001, Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace’s anti-GMO coordinator, appeared with Potrykus at a press conference in France. Haerlin conceded that Golden Rice served “a good purpose” and posed “a moral challenge to our position.” Greenpeace couldn’t dismiss the rice as poison. So it opposed the project on technical grounds: Golden Rice didn’t produce enough beta carotene.

The better approach, according to biotechnology critics, was to help people cultivate home gardens full of beans, pumpkins, and other crops rich in Vitamin A. Where that wasn’t feasible or sufficient, Greenpeace recommended supplementation (distributing vitamin A pills) or food fortification, by mixing vitamin A into centrally processed ingredients such as sugar, flour, and margarine.

Greenpeace was right about Golden Rice. At the time, the rice didn’t provide enough beta carotene to cure vitamin A deficiency. But neither did the alternatives. Gordon Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which was funding the project, explained some of the difficulties in a 2001 letter to Greenpeace:

Complete balanced diets are the best solution, but the poorer families are, the less likely it is that their children will receive a balanced diet and the more likely they will be dependent on cheap food staples such as rice. This is particularly true in the dry seasons when fruits and vegetables are in short supply and expensive.

Conway echoed the skepticism of UNICEF nutritionists, who doubted that plants native to the afflicted countries could deliver enough digestible beta carotene. To Potrykus, the notion of home gardens for everyone—Let them eat carrot cake—reeked of Western ignorance. “There are hundreds of millions of landless poor,” Potrykus pointed out. “They don’t have a house to lean the fruit tree against.”

Potrykus and Conway wanted to try everything to alleviate vitamin A deficiency: diversification, fortification, supplementation, and Golden Rice. But the anti-GMO groups refused. They called Golden Rice a “Trojan horse” for genetic engineering. They doubled down on their double standards. They claimed that people in the afflicted countries wouldn’t eat yellow rice, yet somehow could be taught to grow unfamiliar vegetables. They portrayed Golden Rice as a financial scheme, but then—after Potrykus made clear that it would be given to poor farmers for free—objected that free distribution would lead to genetic contamination of local crops. Some anti-GMO groups said the rice should be abandoned because it was tied up in 70 patents. Others said the claim of 70 patents was a fiction devised by the project’s leaders to justify their collaboration with AstraZeneca, a global corporation.

While critics tried to block the project, Potrykus and his colleagues worked to improve the rice. By 2003 they had developed plants with eight times as much beta carotene as the original version. In 2005 they unveiled a line that had 20 times as much beta carotene as the original. GMO critics could no longer dismiss Golden Rice as inadequate. So they reversed course. Now that the rice produced plenty of beta carotene, anti-GMO activists claimed that beta carotene and vitamin A were dangerous.

In 2001, Friends of the Earth had scoffed that Golden Rice would “do little to ameliorate VAD [vitamin A deficiency] because it produces so little beta-carotene.” By November 2004 the group had changed its tune. Crops that yielded beta carotene could “cause direct toxicity or abnormal embryonic development,” it asserted. Another anti-GMO lobby, the Institute of Science in Society, documented its own shift in a 2006 report:

ISIS critically reviewed golden rice in 2000. Among the observations was that the rice produced too little beta-carotene to relieve the existing dietary deficiency. Since then, golden rice strains have been improved, but still fall short of relieving dietary deficiency. On the other hand, increasing the level of beta-carotene may cause vitamin A overdose to those [whose] diets provide adequate amounts of the vitamin. In fact, both vitamin A deficiency and supplementation may cause birth defects.

To support the new alarmism, David Schubert, an anti-GMO activist and neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, drafted a paper on the ostensible perils of boosting vitamin A. In 2008 he got it published in the Journal of Medicinal Food. In the article he noted that beta carotene and dozens of related compounds, known as carotenoids, could produce other compounds, called retinoids, which included vitamin A. He declared that all retinoids “are likely to be teratogenic”—prone to causing birth defects—and, therefore, “extensive safety testing should be required before the introduction of golden rice.”

David Schubert gave opponents of Golden Rice what they needed: the illusion of scientific support.

Schubert systematically distorted the evidence. To suggest that Golden Rice might be toxic, he cited a study that had been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994. Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer. Furthermore, he claimed that a 2004 report by the National Research Council said genetic engineering had “a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods.” In reality, the NRC report said genetic engineering has a higher probability of producing unanticipated changes than some genetic modification methods, such as narrow crosses, and a lower probability than others, such as radiation mutagenesis. Therefore, the nature of the compositional change merits greater consideration than the method used to achieve the change.

By omitting the second half of the sentence—“and a lower probability than others”—Schubert made the NRC report appear to raise alarms about GMOs, when in fact the report had explained why alarmism about GMOs was wrongheaded.

Schubert gave opponents of Golden Rice what they needed: the illusion of scientific support. Every anti-GMO lobby cited his paper. The movement’s new position, as expressed by Ban GM Food, was that “Golden Rice is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, and studies show that some retinoids derived from beta carotene are toxic and cause birth defects.”

But the new position, like the old one, relied on double standards. To begin with, every green plant produces carotenoids. For years, anti-GMO groups had argued that instead of eating Golden Rice, people should grow other plants rich in beta carotene. They had also encouraged the use of selective breeding to increase carotenoid levels. If carotenoids were toxic, wouldn’t these plants deliver the same poison?

GMO critics didn’t seem to care how much beta carotene people ate, as long as the food wasn’t genetically engineered. They demanded extra safety tests on Golden Rice, on the grounds that “large doses of beta-carotene can have negative health effects.” But they shrugged off such vigilance in the case of home gardens, saying it was “not necessary to count the amount” of each vitamin consumed. They also advocated the mass administration of vitamin A through high-dose capsules and chemical manipulation of the food supply. By their own alarmist standards—which, fortunately, were unwarranted—this would have been reckless. The human body derives from beta carotene sources, such as Golden Rice, only as much vitamin A as it needs.

In the context of GMOs, Greenpeace claimed to stand for freedom. Its 2009 statement “Hands off our rice!” said “keeping rice GE-free” was an issue of “consumer choice” and “human rights.” The statement complained that GE rice was “controlled by multinational corporations and governments” and “severely limits the choice of food we can eat.” But as long as GMOs weren’t involved, Greenpeace was all for corporate and government control. It lauded the distribution of vitamin A and beta carotene capsules in “mass immunization campaigns.” It praised health officials and food-processing companies for putting vitamin A and beta carotene in sugar, margarine, and biscuits. It suggested that governments could “make fortification compulsory.”

In the Philippines, where Greenpeace was fighting to block field trials of Golden Rice, its hypocrisy was egregious. “It is irresponsible to impose GE 'Golden' rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it,” Greenpeace declared. But just below that pronouncement, Greenpeace recommended “vitamin A supplementation and vitamin fortification of foods as successfully implemented in the Philippines.” Under Philippine law, beta carotene and vitamin A had to be added to sugar, flour, and cooking oil prior to distribution. The government administered capsules to preschoolers twice a year, and to some pregnant women for 28 consecutive days. If Greenpeace seriously believed that retinoids caused birth defects and should be a matter of personal choice, it would never have endorsed these programs.

Despite this, the anti-GMO lobby went ballistic when scientists fed Golden Rice to 24 children during clinical trials in China. The trials, conducted in 2008, were designed to measure how much vitamin A the rice could generate in people who suffered from vitamin A deficiency. One group of kids was given Golden Rice, a second group was given beta carotene capsules, and a third was given spinach. The researchers found that a single serving of Golden Rice, cooked from 50 grams of grains, could supply 60 percent of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A. In a separate study, they found that an adult-sized serving could do the same for adults. Golden Rice was as good as capsules, and better than spinach, at delivering vitamin A.

When Greenpeace found out about the trials, it enlisted the Chinese government to stop them. It accused the researchers of using the kids as “guinea pigs.” In a letter to Tufts University, which was responsible for the trials, Schubert and 20 other anti-GMO scientists protested:

Our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.

In these circumstances the use of human subjects (including children who are already suffering illness as a result of Vitamin A deficiency) for GM feeding experiments is completely unacceptable.

For all the scare talk about beta carotene, Schubert and his colleagues never mentioned the kids who were given beta carotene capsules in the studies. Nor did Greenpeace. Their sole concern was the rice.

Supporters of Golden Rice were baffled. In a letter to the Daily Mail, six scientists wrote, “The experiments were no more dangerous than feeding the children a small carrot since the levels of beta-carotene and related compounds in Golden Rice are similar.” But anti-GMO groups were determined to discredit the studies. They discovered that although the consent forms given to the children’s parents said Golden Rice “makes beta carotene,” the forms didn’t specify that this had been achieved through gene transfer.

Greenpeace was outraged. Its press release titled “Greenpeace alarmed at US-backed GMO experiments on children” quoted a Greenpeace official in Asia: “The next ‘golden rice’ guinea pigs might be Filipino children. Should we allow ourselves to be subjects in a human experiment?” In another press release, Greenpeace questioned whether the Chinese parents were “properly informed of the risks.” Yet in the same statements, Greenpeace praised the Philippines for administering vitamin A to pregnant women and for putting beta carotene in the food supply.

Eventually, Tufts commissioned three reviews of the clinical trials. Two were internal; the third was external. The findings, released in 2013, confirmed that the reviews had “identified concerns” about “inadequate explanation of the genetically-modified nature of Golden Rice.” But the more important verdict was that “the study data were validated and no health or safety concerns were identified.” The university explained:

These multiple reviews found no concerns related to the integrity of the study data, the accuracy of the research results or the safety of the research subjects. In fact, the study indicated that a single serving of the test product, Golden Rice, could provide greater than 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in these children, which could significantly improve health outcomes if adopted as a dietary regimen.

This verdict didn’t suit opponents of Golden Rice. So they ignored it. For 16 years they’ve ignored every fact or finding that doesn’t fit their story. Their enmity is unappeasable; their alarmism is unfalsifiable. Take the question of allergies. In 2006, scientists found no allergens among the proteins in Golden Rice. The critics refused to accept this finding. They demanded additional tests. They said climate change could undermine the rice’s “genetic stability.” They claimed that unforeseen environmental interactions could cause unintended changes in the rice after several generations, and therefore, regulators should indefinitely delay its approval.

The critics openly advocate unattainable standards. ISIS says the “instability of transgenic lines” makes “proper safety assessment well nigh impossible.” Greenpeace says of Golden Rice:

It would not be a surprise if additional unexpected changes in the plant occurred, posing new risks to the environment or human health. … However, it is virtually impossible to look for unexpected effects—by definition, one cannot know what these effects might be, or where to look for them!

And these standards apply only to GMOs. They don’t apply to alternatives favored by the anti-GMO movement. Three years ago Greenpeace recommended marker-assisted selection—essentially, breeding guided by genetic analysis—as a better way to increase levels of beta carotene and other nutrients. One argument quoted in the Greenpeace report was that genetic engineering caused “unpredictable integration sites, copy numbers and often spontaneous rearrangements and losses”—in short, that it screwed up the DNA of the altered organism. Shortly afterward, a study found that Greenpeace had it backward: In rice, marker-assisted selection caused more genetic and functional disruption than genetic engineering did. Nevertheless, Greenpeace continues to claim that genetic engineering, unlike marker-assisted selection, creates “novel traits with novel hazards.”

There are other criticisms of GMOs, and one of them is worth your attention.

There’s no end to the arguments and demands of anti-GMO watchdogs. They want more studies—“systematic trials with different cooking processes”—to see how much vitamin A the rice delivers. They want studies to assess how much beta carotene the rice loses when stored at various temperatures. If the rice delivers enough vitamin A, they say that’s a problem, too, because people won’t feel the need to eat other plants and will consequently develop other kinds of malnutrition. They claim that criminals will counterfeit the rice, using yellow spices or naturally yellow grains, so people will think they’re getting vitamin A when they aren’t.

Sixteen years after it was invented, Golden Rice still isn’t commercially available. Two years ago anti-GMO activists destroyed a field trial of the rice in the Philippines. Last year they filed a petition to block all field tests and feeding studies. Greenpeace boasted, “After more than 10 years of research ‘Golden’ Rice is nowhere near its promise to address Vitamin A Deficiency.” And a million more kids are dead.

5 A Legitimate Concern

Up to this point, we’ve been focusing on health concerns about GMOs. The stories of papaya, Bt, and Golden Rice demonstrate, in several ways, that these concerns are unfounded. One thing we’ve learned is that fear of GMOs is unfalsifiable. Hundreds of studies have been done, and tons of GE food have been eaten. No amount of evidence will convince the doomsayers that GMOs are safe. You can’t live your life clinging to such unappeasable fear. Let it go.

Another thing we’ve learned is that it makes no sense to avoid GMOs based on standards that nobody applies to non-GMO food. Yes, it’s conceivable that you could overdose on vitamin A or ingest a viral or insecticidal protein from eating fruits, grains, or vegetables. But GMOs don’t make any of these scenarios more likely or more dangerous. In fact, if you look at illness or direct fatalities—or at correlations between food sales and disease trends, which anti-GMO activists like to do—you can make a better case against organic food than against GMOs.

A third lesson is that GMO segregation, in the form of labels or GMO-free restaurants, is misguided. GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.

The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy. And companies like Chipotle, with their non-GMO marketing campaigns, are playing along.

But safety isn’t the only concern that’s been raised about GMOs. There are other criticisms, and one of them is worth your attention. It addresses the world’s most common agricultural application of genetic engineering: herbicide tolerance.

Three-quarters of the corn and cotton grown in this country is engineered to resist insects. These crops have the bacterial Bt gene, which makes them lethal to bugs that eat them. Slightly more than that, about 80 percent to 85 percent of corn and cotton, is engineered to withstand weed-killing chemicals, especially glyphosate, which is sold as Roundup. (The two traits are usually packaged together.) The percentages are similar for soy. Worldwide, insect-resistant crops are grown on about 50 percent of the land allotted to GMOs, while herbicide-tolerant crops are grown on more than 80 percent.

Both applications are considered pesticidal, because weeds, like bugs, are pests. And this is crucial to understanding the debate over whether GMOs, as a whole, have raised or lowered the level of pesticide use. One study, published in 2012 by Charles Benbrook, the most sensible critic of GMOs, calculates that GMOs increased pesticide use in the United States by 7 percent. An international analysis of multiple studies, published last year, calculates that GMOs decreased pesticide use by 37 percent. But the two assessments agree on a fundamental distinction: While bug-resistant GMOs have led to lower use of insecticides, herbicide-tolerant GMOs have led to higher use of weedkillers.

Two factors seem to account for the herbicide increase. One is direct: If your crops are engineered to withstand Roundup, you can spray it profusely without killing them. The other factor is indirect: When every farmer sprays Roundup, weeds adapt to a Roundup-saturated world. They evolve to survive. To kill these herbicide-resistant strains, farmers spray more weedkillers. It’s an arms race.

Despite an ongoing debate about the effects of glyphosate, experts agree that it’s relatively benign. Benbrook has called it one of the safest herbicides on the market. He concludes: “In light of its generally favorable environmental and toxicological properties, especially compared to some of the herbicides displaced by glyphosate, the dramatic increase in glyphosate use has likely not markedly increased human health risks.”

But the arms race could change that. As weeds evolve to withstand Roundup, farmers are deploying other, more worrisome herbicides. And companies are engineering crops to withstand these herbicides so that farmers can spray them freely.

Chipotle complains that GMOs “produce pesticides” and “create herbicide resistant super-weeds.” The company says Benbrook’s study showed that “pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of GMO cultivation.” (Chipotle, unlike Benbrook and other experts, uses the term pesticide to mean insecticide.) But this is misleading in two ways. First, by pooling the data, Chipotle has hidden half of what Benbrook found: that Bt crops reduced insecticide use and thereby, in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, reduced the combined use of pest-killing chemicals. And second, the problem that’s driving the herbicide arms race isn’t genetic engineering. It’s monoculture.

Everyone who has studied the problem carefully—Benbrook, the USDA, the National Research Council—comes to the same conclusion: By relying too much on one method of weed control, we’ve helped weeds evolve to defeat it. To confound evolution, you have to make evolutionary pressures less predictable. That means switching herbicides so weeds that develop resistance to one herbicide will be killed by another. It also means alternating crops, so weeds have to compete with different plants and grow under different tilling, watering, and harvest conditions. Industry and regulators, belatedly, are beginning to address this problem. As part of its product approval and renewal process, the EPA, backed by the USDA, is requiring producers of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant crops to monitor and report use of their chemicals, work with farmers to control excessive use, and promote non-herbicidal weed control methods.

GMOs are part of the problem. Herbicide-tolerant crops let farmers spray weedkillers more often and more thoroughly without harming their crops. It’s no accident that Monsanto, which sells Roundup-ready seeds, also sells Roundup. But GMOs didn’t invent monoculture, and banning them won’t make it go away. Farmers have been cultivating homogeneity for millennia. Roundup has been used for more than 40 years.

Chipotle illustrates the folly of renouncing GMOs in the name of herbicide control. According to its new policy, “All corn-based ingredients in Chipotle’s food that formerly may have been genetically modified have been removed or replaced with non-GMO versions, while all soy-derived ingredients that may have been genetically modified were replaced with alternatives, such as rice bran oil and sunflower oil.”

But shifting to sunflower oil is demonstrably counterproductive. As NPR’s Dan Charles points out, “many sunflower varieties, while not genetically modified, also are herbicide-tolerant. They were bred to tolerate a class of herbicides called ALS inhibitors. And since farmers start[ed] relying on those herbicides, many weeds have evolved resistance to them. In fact, many more weeds have become resistant to ALS inhibitors than to glyphosate.”

That’s just one example of how tricky it is to assess the effects of swearing off GMOs. Roundup isn’t the only herbicide, genetic engineering isn’t the only technology that creates herbicide tolerance, and your health (which is no more likely to be affected by a given herbicide in GE food than in non-GE food) is just one of many factors to consider. To judge the environmental wisdom of switching from a GMO to a non-GMO product, you’d have to know which pesticides each product involves and how those pesticides affect species that live where the crops are grown. None of that is on the label.

You’d also have to consider the environmental benefits of agricultural efficiency. By making cropland more productive, with less output lost to weeds and insects, GMOs reduce the amount of land that has to be farmed and the amount of water that’s wasted. Herbicide-tolerant crops even mitigate climate change by reducing the need to till fields, which erodes soil and releases greenhouse gases.

The more you learn about herbicide resistance, the more you come to understand how complicated the truth about GMOs is. First you discover that they aren’t evil. Then you learn that they aren’t perfectly innocent. Then you realize that nothing is perfectly innocent. Pesticide vs. pesticide, technology vs. technology, risk vs. risk—it’s all relative. The best you can do is measure each practice against the alternatives. The least you can do is look past a three-letter label. 6 Better GMOs

Twenty years after the debut of genetically engineered food, it’s a travesty that the technology’s commercial applications are still so focused on old-fashioned weedkillers. Greenpeace and Chipotle think the logical response to this travesty is to purge GMOs. They’re exactly wrong. The relentless efforts of Luddites to block testing, regulatory approval, and commercial development of GMOs are major reasons why more advanced GE products, such as Golden Rice, are still unavailable. The best way to break the herbicide industry’s grip on genetic engineering is to support the technology and push it forward, by telling policymakers, food manufacturers, and seed companies that you want better GMOs. The USDA’s catalog of recently engineered plants shows plenty of worthwhile options. The list includes drought-tolerant corn, virus-resistant plums, non-browning apples, potatoes with fewer natural toxins, and soybeans that produce less saturated fat. A recent global inventory by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization discusses other projects in the pipeline: virus-resistant beans, heat-tolerant sugarcane, salt-tolerant wheat, disease-resistant cassava, high-iron rice, and cotton that requires less nitrogen fertilizer. Skim the news, and you’ll find scientists at work on more ambitious ideas: high-calcium carrots, antioxidant tomatoes, nonallergenic nuts, bacteria-resistant oranges, water-conserving wheat, corn and cassava loaded with extra nutrients, and a flaxlike plant that produces the healthy oil formerly available only in fish.

That’s what genetic engineering can do for health and for our planet. The reason it hasn’t is that we’ve been stuck in a stupid, wasteful fight over GMOs. On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public. The only way to end this fight is to educate ourselves and make it clear to everyone—European governments, trend-setting grocers, fad-hopping restaurant chains, research universities, and biotechnology investors—that we’re ready, as voters and consumers, to embrace nutritious, environmentally friendly food, no matter where it got its genes. We want our GMOs. Now, show us what you can do.






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