poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie


Food Assurance (Do you know what you’re really eating?)

Greetings from Taiwan!  The main reason for my visit is to see my family, but a major fringe benefit is the food. (For previous posts/photos, see here.)  So you can imagine my dismay when, upon arriving in Taipei last week, my brother-in-law asked, “Have you heard about all of the food problems?”  I responded that I hadn’t, and he told me first about several Taiwanese companies selling olive oil diluted largely with cottonseed oil.  To make the oil look green, they also added copper chlorophyllin, a controlled coloring agent.  The other major story came out last week, when Business Weekly performed an independent test of Taiwanese milk and reported that an alarming amount of drug, hormonal, and chemical residues were found in a majority of Taiwanese milk.  (However, there have also been subsequent charges of defamation/exaggeration against Business Weekly.)  I was shocked, mostly because while I’ve come to expect food quality issues from Chinese products (e.g., here and here), I’ve always had higher expectations from Taiwanese food.

Although I was surprised about the olive oil and milk, I also didn’t think too much about it since I don’t consume a lot of either while in Taipei.  However, it struck a little closer to home yesterday, as my mom told me about a bunch of other recent scares: tapioca flour (used to make all sorts of food, including boba pearls for bubble tea), contaminated flour and starch, and peanuts have all been questionably or unsafely processed.  For the first time in my life, I’m worried more about consuming safe ingredients as opposed to gastrointestinal bacteria or parasites.  It got me thinking about food assurance, a.k.a., do I really know what I’m eating?  Not only is processed food less healthy for you, but it’s becoming more mysterious (and therefore dangerous) where and how it was processed.  My brother-in-law made a good point in our conversation the other night when he said that food in Taiwan is too inexpensive, and forces/incentivizes companies to cut corners where they can.  On the other hand, the olive oil scandal was rooted in taking advantage of consumers in a different way, by selling fake products at a high price point to convince people of the quality of their products.  Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I feel like this is just a harbinger of things to come — not just in Taiwan, but globally.  As we keep expecting to pay less (or the same) for diminishing food supplies that require more energy to produce and export, the more we will see incidents like these.

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Book review: Tomatoland

Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland has been on my “To Read” list ever since it came out last summer. I first got a glimpse of Estabrook’s talent for investigative journalism when I read his piece on Kobe beef (“Raising the Steaks”). His writing piqued my interest, and a subsequent Google search led me to his blog Politics of the Plate, where he writes about the political and environmental consequences of our food production system. It was there that I first read about tomato farming in Florida. The article, “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes”, is what laid the foundation for the book Tomatoland. So when Estabrook came to San Francisco last summer and was part of a round-table discussion at CUESA, TC and I attended. We learned a lot, not just about tomatoes, but about the farming industry in general from local, organic farmers and from a workers’ rights advocate.

So why did it take me so long to read this book? Well, the short answer is: I’m cheap. I wanted to get it from the library, so I ended up waiting months for the one copy in the entire Oakland Public Library System. Fortunately, it was worth the wait. Tomatoland is a fast read, and an engaging and thoroughly researched collection of essays. It focuses not only on food politics, but also on food science, anthropology, and the future of tomato production in the United States. Estabrook does a great job painting each person in the book as real individuals, not as caricatures.  I won’t lie — there are plenty of depressing stories in this book. You will most likely come away never wanting to eat a winter tomato from Florida ever again. However, Estabrook doesn’t just leave you with a laundry list of problems; he also gives readers hope. For instance, there’s a chapter that’s dedicated to the people who are actively making a difference. I really value that aspect of the book because I think that it’s relatively easy to write a doomsday book, but it’s much harder to research, analyze, and communicate what the solutions to those problems might be.

I’ll conclude with two general impressions from Tomatoland:

1. The commodification of agricultural products is one of the major problems with our current food system. Case in point: Florida tomatoes are not grown for taste, but rather for uniformity of size and ability to withstand harsh conditions, so that they can be packed and shipped easier. For some reason, many of us will eat winter tomatoes, even though they taste like nothing (or worse, mush), just to have something red on our salads and sandwiches. The demand for year-round tomatoes has also resulted in farming practices that resemble chemical warfare (e.g., the average farmer uses over 100 chemicals to grow Florida tomatoes), as well as forcing workers into modern-day slavery. The one piece of good news is that, as farmers’ market heirloom tomatoes are rising in popularity, American consumers are realizing (and demanding) fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes that might look a little weird but are way more tasty than their conventionally grown cousins. Let’s hope that this trend continues, not just for tomatoes but for all of our produce.

2. Chemicals aren’t just bad for you and the earth, but they’re very harmful to farm workers. For a long time, the reason I bought organic food was because I didn’t want to expose my body to any unnecessary chemicals. I also didn’t like the effect of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers on our environment. What I failed to consider, and what I credit this book for reminding me, is that due to unsafe practices, the workers who grow and pick our produce are highest at risk for exposure to toxic chemicals. The horrifying story of these babies born to 3 women who worked the tomato fields during their pregnancies should be enough to make everyone consider buying pesticide-free produce.

So, as it turns out, buying “local, seasonal, organic (pesticide-free)” isn’t just good for you and good for the earth, but it’s also good for the people growing the food. Sounds like a win-win-win to me!


Double book review: The China Study and In Defense of Food

Welcome to the poor scientist’s book club. The last “book club” was one of my first posts (over 3 years ago!!), in which I discussed my thoughts on The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’m happy to say it’s one of my top posts, but I’m unhappy to report that most of the hits are from Google searches for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma cliff notes.” I just have one thing to say to those people: Cheaters, get off my blog!!

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah. I read two books about food this year: The China Study by the father/son team T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. Since both books have been around long enough to garner significant press (China was published in 2006, Defense in 2008), I won’t go into serious depth about either. Instead, I’ll give a brief synopsis and present my general thoughts. Ready? Let’s go!

I’ll be honest: I never had any intention of reading The China Study. But I was over at TC’s with nothing to do, so I perused his bookshelf and was intrigued by the title. Was it about Chinese people? Well, sort of. It’s actually about a huge nutritional study done in China in the 1980s examining the link between diet and disease. What the authors found (and what is at the heart of the book) is that there was a significant link between animal protein and cancer. Later on, the authors state the case for the links between animal protein and numerous other diseases, such as  diabetes, heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and even dementia. I admit, I was skeptical about this connection, partially because: 1. I love meat, eggs, and dairy, and I don’t want to give them up; and 2. How is it possible that animal protein could cause all of these diseases when we’re “made” to eat meat and have for a long, long time? Well, the answer to the second question is better answered, I think, in In Defense of Food, but before I move on, I wanted to list some of my pros and cons of The China Study:

– T. Colin Campbell is a renowned, well-respected nutritional research scientist who does a great job explaining the ins-and-outs of research, and why most nutritional studies don’t cut it due to their reductionist approach.
– Instead of writing in a pop/soft science style, the Campbells build their case with real data and every chapter is laden with references to peer-reviewed journal articles.
– Despite my initial skepticism, I was convinced by the end of the book that animal protein is harmful and that I should eat less of it. It makes sense that animal protein, which is a super efficient/high quality form of protein, could also be deleterious when consumed in large amounts.
– The authors raise interesting points about food marketing (e.g., “Got Milk?”), which is so insidious, we don’t even realize we’re being marketed to. There’s also a compelling argument about how the meat and dairy industries basically buy their way into our government’s nutritional recommendations. You really won’t look at a food pyramid (or a food plate) the same way again after this book.

– I think the book is a tad extreme in its advocacy for veganism. While I think the average American consumes way too much animal protein, I’m not sure everyone should become a vegan.
– While they do a good, thorough job building their case for the link between animal protein and cancer, it gets a little redundant when they give the same treatment to every single disease mentioned in the book. By the time I got to Chapter 10 (Wide-ranging effects: bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases), I was yelling at the book, “I get it already! Animal protein is the worst! ” Just saying, it could’ve used a heavier-handed editor. (On that note, I REALLY recommend the documentary Forks Over Knives, which lays out all of the salient points without the drudgery.)

My take-home message: We’ve been told that meat, dairy, and eggs are super nutritious and that we can’t live without them. Well, all you have to do is look at a vegan and know that that is not true. The real problem is that we’re all eating too much animal protein… which brings me to my next point.

It took me a LONG time to recover from The Omnivore’s Dilemma (TOD). While I had heard great things about Michael Pollan’s next book, In Defense of Food (IDOF), I was not ready to read it until recently. Whereas TOD makes you feel hopeless about food, IDOF makes you feel hopeful. Its simple and straightforward mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) is refreshing. It was also a nice follow-up to The China Study, since IDOF also talks about “nutrionism” (not to be confused with rigorous, holistic, nutritional science), the faulty science that often undermines our understanding of nutrition, and how we as a society blindly follow the latest nutrition trend, whether it’s valid or not.

– See above.
– Simple, easy to remember things such as: Good, nutritious food will eventually rot, so you probably do not want to eat anything that refuses to grow mold. Generally, the less processed a food is, the better it is for you. Don’t buy any foods claiming health benefits on the label. Look at ingredient lists, not nutritional information, for the nutritional value of the food product.

– Nothing glaring. Sorry.

My take-home message: Read this book! It’s a quick, enjoyable read and I’m certain it will change your outlook (and grocery purchases) for the better.

To tie it all together, I think that both books have been extremely valuable in shaping my views on what to eat and what not to eat. While I’m not going  to become vegan anytime soon, I have cut back significantly on my intake of animal protein. I was already cutting back meat consumption due to my environmental and ethical concerns, but the idea that I can significantly cut my risk of developing cancer, heart disease, etc. is also very attractive.  Not to mention, eating meat is expensive (as it should be), making vegetarianism more budget-friendly. It’s hard to reject processed foods that are so easy to prepare and cheap, but I’m striving towards making whole foods a central part of my diet.

Anyway, those are my two cents. If anyone out there has read either or both of these books, I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts. Leave your comments below!