Copi-licious? Rebranding an Invasive Species

Copi-licious? Rebranding an Invasive Species

renamed invasive species

Invasive species have long been a problem all over our increasingly connected planet. However, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is using a particularly modern strategy – P.R. – in an attempt to curb the presence of non-native carp in the state’s waterways. The four carp subspecies in question (bighead, brass, silver, and black) have spread widely since their North American introduction in the 1960s, out-competing local fish for resources and lowering general water quality. But they are also pretty tasty – a fact belied by their unappetizing name. Turning gross-sounding “carp” to cutely exotic “copi,” experts hope, will help humans make a feast-sized dent in the overall population.

“In addition to giving the fish a new name, the project brings together more than 30 restaurants, distributors, processors and retailers from across Illinois, Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington D.C., all working together to get copi on more plates. The project’s website even suggests recipes provided by participating restaurants, including copi fresh fish tacos, a copi firehouse fish burger and copi smoked fish dip. Funding for the project – $600,000 over five years – comes from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a group of federal agencies working to protect the Great Lakes, the largest system of fresh surface water in the world.

The new name comes from the word ‘copious,’ a nod to the sheer abundance of these fish. It was thought up by Span, a Chicago-based communications firm, the AP reports. Fishermen could harvest 20 to 50 million pounds of copi from the Illinois River alone each year, per a statement from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with ‘hundreds of millions’ of additional pounds in other waterways.”

This is a fun tactic in our fight against invasive species – make delicious tacos out of them! It’s also a gentler way of, essentially, taking responsibility for our earlier mistakes. We’ve only got one world, and untangling the web we shouldn’t have woven can make life easier for the countless other-than-human organisms that share our space. If we can get a fabulous meal out of it too, that’s gravy!

Hot Sauce in Hot Water

Thanks to climate change, a fan favourite hot sauce will – like fjords melting under our increasingly temperate atmosphere – disappear from our dinner tables this summer. Huy Fong Foods Inc., purveyors of the classic, green-capped, garlicky bottles of Sriracha hot sauce (as well as a fiery sambal oelek and pungent chili garlic sauce) have publicly broken the news that a pepper shortage will soon affect their output. Wholesale orders for all three popular sauces, which use the same, now-scarce, red jalapeño peppers, made after April 19th this year will be completed and shipped at the beginning of September. Huy Fong dropped the dire news in an email last week.

“The company described the pepper shortage as ‘severe’ and related to the climate. The company sources its peppers from various farms in California, New Mexico and Mexico, and said that weather conditions were affecting the quality of the peppers and deepening the chili pepper shortage. […]

‘Unfortunately, this is out of our control and without this essential ingredient we are unable to produce any of our products,’ the company said. […]

Hot temperatures and a historic drought across the US west have been taking a heavy toll on California’s agriculture. The US Drought Monitor reported that the whole state was in ‘severe drought’ as of last week, with the Central Valley facing ‘extreme drought’ conditions.”

The Sriracha folks are no strangers to production hiccups; in 2013, a lawsuit brought by neighbours claiming that the aerosolized capsaicin emitted by the factory was a public nuisance caused production to grind to a halt, until the suit was dropped the next year. Non-committal language in their announcement aside, I’m betting the famously word-of-mouth-only, cult condiment will bounce back because that’s what the system does in the short term. The greater, long-term question is, will our planet bounce back?

The Popular Pawpaw: Science Intervenes in Future of Elusive Fruit

We’re entering the time of year in southern Ontario where the early fruits start showing up. I’m lucky: my faves are strawberries, so, unlike apple or peach fans, I don’t have to wait too long to dig in!

I love a local fruit, so I was quite surprised to read about one I’d never heard of, via the BBC of all places. The pawpaw is a fragrant, mango-like, ancient fruit that grows wild in half the United States and into our neck of the woods. It has a huge fandom, but, as the pawpaw spoils a few days after being picked — and, as serious devotees attest, is truly ideal freshly harvested from the tree — that’s limited to a pretty short range around its habitat. Advocates have been spreading the word, though, and now science is listening.

“‘They are so delicious,’ said Michael Judd, author of For the Love of Paw Paws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Paw Paws – From Seed to Table. During the harvest season (typically a few weeks in late summer or early autumn), his diet consists mainly of pawpaws taken right off the branch. ‘It’s a nutrient-rich superfood,’ he added, listing off the pawpaw’s many attributes: antioxidants, all the amino acids, magnesium, copper, zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin C. […]

Iowa State University is developing a pawpaw variety with a longer shelf life and a larger fruit with fewer seeds.

Kentucky State University has a pawpaw programme too. ‘We’re interested in pawpaw from an ecological standpoint as a native plant that is losing habitat, and from a horticultural standpoint as a unique high-value fruit crop that can be grown sustainably since it’s well suited for the climate,’ said [KSU research associate Sheri] Crabtree. She noted that over the past 20 years she’s seen awareness of the fruit grow, driven by the shift toward sustainable and local food production and the Slow Food movement. Some of that attention is also driven by efforts to honour indigenous foods. As Mihesuah pointed out, ‘Tribes are attempting to protect and revitalise their traditional food sources, and pawpaws are an important part.’”

My envy at hearing of this fabulous fruit that I’ve totally missed out in quickly galvanized me to find out where in our fair province I could find them. The University of Guelph has a pretty vague map, and a cursory Google around implies that most wild stands are found by word of mouth, and generally protected by fans to prevent over-harvesting. Well, I may try my hand at growing them myself (in pairs of trees, as they don’t self-fertilize), or wait for Science to brew up those shelf-stable fruits that can be shipped up here. Either way, the day I finally taste a pawpaw will be memorable indeed!

Raspberry Robots: Saving Berries one Bot at a Time

raspberry picking results

With robotics ingratiating itself into more aspects of our lives, we are inching closer and closer to the Singularity virtually every day. When it comes, I’m glad that it will at least be delicious: A team of four-armed robots, designed and built by Fieldwork Robotics, has cracked the problem of robotic raspberry picking. The robots are currently roving the fields of Portugal, executing the remarkably difficult task of picking the tiny, delicate fruits from different heights on each raspberry bush, working to stock British supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The Guardian lays it all out.

“‘We are making real progress in the development of our harvesting robots,’ said Rui Andres, Fieldwork’s chief executive. ‘Raspberries are very sensitive so we have had to develop technology that can apply enough pressure to release the fruit from the stem without damaging it. At the same time, our sensors are now so advanced that they can tell if the fruit is ready to be harvested or not, meaning what can be sold is all that is picked.’

He told the Guardian the robots were picking 1kg of fruit an hour, with the company working to ramp this up to more than 4kg an hour. The firm is aiming to have a robot picking 25,000 raspberries a day, compared with 15,000 for a human working an eight-hour shift.”

There’s a lot to be said for the efficiency of these bots, though the usual “freeing humans from drudgery” note is tempered by the fact that UK-based farmers are experiencing a shortage of international workers altogether (Brexit, anyone?). Fieldwork’s representatives insist the robots can work alongside human pickers, to “ensure gaps are filled,” and not to replace them completely. Only time will tell if the raspberry robots can be deployed as a fully automated harvesting force – and what it truly means for labour regulations in the now-isolated UK. Sometimes the only bright spot one can count on in life is a bowl full of granola with a few berries on top. However it shakes out, at least we’re blessed to have access to those little bites of sunshine!

A Dash of Design: Smart Soy Sauce Lid Improves on Perfection

The Japanese are known for their flair for design – especially for food-related items, which they often turn into complete experiences in themselves. Contemplating the perfection that is opening a Ramune bottle, or the long and storied history of bento is an exercise in a cultural respect for food we don’t often see in North America.

Add to the list of delicious Japanese inventions the humble Kikkoman soy sauce decanter, that (on our shores at least) is most often seen gracing a sushi restaurant table. Originally created by Kenji Ekuan in 1961, the perfectly balanced sloping glass bottle with the distinctive bi-spouted red cap is so revered by the design field that MoMA has it in their collection. Ekuan’s decanter was so ideal for its purpose that it’s been used continually for sixty years, with no improvements needed – until last month.

Matthew Clark of Odachi Design in Los Angeles has 3D printed a prototype of a new soy sauce lid that addresses what he sees as the chief flaw in the original design: That it leaves the soy sauce inside open to the air and, therefore, flavour-robbing oxidization. Said Clark:

“‘Soy sauce’s greatest enemy is oxygen. So, with my design, I harnessed the capabilities of 3D printing to integrate a gravity valve within the lid itself. This is achievable with 3D printing, but costly or much more difficult otherwise. The valve is printed within the top when it’s produced. This was created to effectively maintain the flavor and shelf-life. After every pour, the remaining liquid aids the seal.’”

Clark was careful to create a smart lid that respected Ekuan’s original look, making sure that it was, in the parlance, “plug compatible” with Kikkoman’s iconic bottles. The next step would be to ensure Kikkoman’s approval of this 21st century spin on a mid-century modern classic, and to try the smart lid out in food-safe plastics for mass production. I’d love to see one of these in action at my local sushi joint; both to witness two designers collaborate three generations apart, and to enjoy the freshest soy sauce ever. As the Japanese food and design ethos has proven time and again, it’s the simple things that matter!

Stacking Up The World Record Competition

I’ve always enjoyed flipping through a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records whenever I’ve come across one. (I’ve had great luck at garage sales and, weirdly, medical professionals’ offices.) It’s humbling to consider the marvels we humans can accomplish — from memorizing decimals of pi (70,000, by Rajveer Meena), to growing the longest fingernails (8.65 metres, by Lee Redmond), to my personal favourite, achieving the Guinness World Record for the most Guinness World Records (over 700 since 1979, by Ashrita Furman).

I’d resigned myself to never having the time or the athletic skill to rack up a Guinness Record myself. But that was before I read this charming account of the quest for the greatest number of M&Ms candies stacked on top of each other. I was not prepared for the current record: a whopping seven.

“Guinness World Records posted a video of the achievement on Instagram last week — and with seven candies, it looks really difficult. [Record holder Ibrahim] Sadeq wears special finger gloves and needs plenty of effort to steady the final stack. He’s also an accomplished stacker in general: Sadeq is co-holder of the world record for Most Balanced Eggs on the Back of the Hand. (It’s 18 eggs.) […]

So what was Sadeq’s trick to get to seven? ‘I am using a mix of mind and body focus but people usually define it as a gravity defying act,’ Sadeq, who says he’s been stacking things for six years, told Guinness World Records. ‘I could possibly balance anything, but it gets really tough with light objects or liquids.’”

The record for stacked M&Ms was four back in 2016, and in the past 15 months alone the record was beaten three separate times, with Sadeq ending up on top. For now — I’m tempted to try for this bizarrely accessible-sounding record myself! I’m sure it’s more frustrating than it looks though; I may benefit more from the repeated, zen-like encounters with failure that I’m certain will result. Either way, this is a case of sometimes it pays to play with your food!

Snappy Chocolate: An Innovation in 3D Printed Food

chocolate with snap

We’ve got a deep, dark (chocolately) dive this week, into the world of 3D printing food. We’ve looked at printed meat in this space before, but this news is decidedly sweeter: A team from the University of Amsterdam has devised a method of 3D printing chocolate in forms that maximize its “snap factor” — a crispness of mouthfeel that is the hallmark of higher quality chocolate. The process is intensely engineered, as Andrew Liszewski of Gizmodo writes.

“Melted chocolate that had been tempered to reach the stage where phase V crystals form was loaded into syringes that had to be kept at 90-degrees Fahrenheit while the printer built up structures layer by layer. But maintaining that temperature proved to be a challenge, requiring constant recalibration to account for the chocolate thickening over time. […]

The results were shared in a recently published paper, ‘Edible mechanical metamaterials with designed fracture for mouthfeel control,’ in the journal Soft Matter. They confirmed what the researchers speculated: the perceived quality and enjoyment of eating chocolate could be improved by increasing the number of cracks experienced while biting into a piece through S-shaped structures of increasing complexity. The researchers also found the experience could be improved by creating chocolate with anisotropic structures that alter the resistance felt during the bite through shapes and patterns that shear and break with force applied in specific directions.”

Wags in the Gizmodo comments are sounding off about how gross they find “crispy” chocolate as a concept, but I chalk that up to the American obsession with caramel and creamy peanut butter in their candy bars. Try an Aero or (the world’s best chocolate bar and I will die on this hill) a Twirl bar, and I think you’ll know what these researchers are talking about!

This technology would be a boon for folks with low tasting ability, or anyone who prefers a bit of texture to jazz up their snacks. It could also be applied to (wait for it) 3D printed meat, giving it a more accurate texture by laying down contrasting “grains.” It’s possible we could have a whole meal’s worth of printed food available to us in the near future — tasty food to boot. I for one welcome our new dessert-providing robot overlords!

New Chopsticks Zap Sodium Content

From a second chance for single-use chopsticks, we pivot to a high-value pair you may want to keep forever: Japan’s Meiji University and the food and beverage company Kirin have collaborated on the creation of chopsticks that can help eaters reduce their sodium intake, through the power of electricity!

The futuristic utensils are attached to a microcomputer worn on the diner’s wrist. They emit a tiny electrical current that creates an artificial salty taste in the mouth of the wearer. How this is done is some pretty nifty science.

“The chopsticks use ‘very weak electricity – not enough to affect the human body – to adjust the function of ions such as sodium chloride and sodium glutamate to change the perception of taste by making food seem to taste stronger or weaker, Kirin said in a statement.

[Prof. Homei] Miyashita and Kirin said clinical tests on people who follow a low-sodium diet had confirmed that the device enhances the salty taste of low-sodium food by about 1.5 times. They said participants given reduced-salt miso soup had commented on the improved ‘richness, sweetness and overall tastiness’ of the dish.

As someone who makes condiments for a living, I know firsthand how important salt is in a dish. These chopsticks would be a particular godsend for those with medical conditions that prevent them from consuming actual salt – an especially miserable diet. (Though we could all do with a bit of sodium awareness, if not reduction) The Meiji/Kirin team plans to refine the prototype and start rolling out sets of chopsticks to consumers next year. In particular, it’ll be interesting to see how a larger salt-loving populace like that of Japan finds these. I’d love to try a pair myself!

Fascinating Fungi: New Research Shows Mushrooms May “Talk” to Each Other

f, in some sort of creative thought experiment, I had to assign personality quirks to vegetables, I’d give “talkative” to carrots, or possibly broccoli. Never in a million years would I have considered mushrooms to be chatty, but recent research points to fungi as potentially being the “fun guy” you’d want at a party.

Professor Adam Adamatzky of the University of West England has mathematically analyzed the patterns of electrical impulses different types of fungi send to each other. In his research, published recently in Royal Society Open Science, Adamatzky studied the pulses sent between five different groups of mushrooms: Split gill, ghost, caterpillar, and the ever-delicious enoki. He asserts that the patterns he observed are similar to those found in human speech, and that mushrooms might have a vocabulary of up to 50 “words,” that they possibly use to communicate basic information to each other, through a network of mycelium made up of tendrils called hyphae.

“The most likely reasons for these waves of electrical activity are to maintain the fungi’s integrity – analogous to wolves howling to maintain the integrity of the pack – or to report newly discovered sources of attractants and repellants to other parts of their mycelia, Adamtzky suggested.

‘There is also another option – they are saying nothing,’ he said. ‘Propagating mycelium tips are electrically charged, and, therefore, when the charged tips pass in a pair of differential electrodes, a spike in the potential difference is recorded.’

Whatever these ‘spiking events’ represent, they do not appear to be random, he added.”

Maybe don’t send those party invites out quite yet: Though my imagination is already firing like so many propagating mycelium tips, Adamatzky and his colleagues in the field acknowledge this is early days. A lot more research and experimentation needs to be done before a portobello gets invited on Fresh Air. (For instance, this sort of pulsing behaviour has been seen in fungi before, where it indicated simple physical growth.) I for one hope Adamatzky and team get lots of funding and answers soon: I have a paper bag full of criminis sitting placidly in my fridge, and I fear they are planning something!

Algae Alternative Gives Palm Oil The Slip

Readers of this newsletter will be familiar with the scourge of palm oil, which we looked at in a previous installment. Palm oil is a creamy, high-smoke-point fat that can be found in a staggering number of prepared foods, cosmetics, and industrial products. Its value has led to the deforestation of large swathes of Malaysia and Indonesia in favour of tracts oil palm trees, destroying the natural habitat of critically endangered orangutans. In addition, child labour is often used in the farming and harvesting of this oil.

As dirty as the palm oil industry is, we’ve all seen how hard it is to uncouple capitalism from cheap ways of doing things. That’s why this recent news from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Malaysia’s University of Malay is so exciting: They’re investigating harvesting oil from a common micro-algae to replace – and health-wise, even surpass – palm oil. The fascinating process has been detailed in a recent Journal of Applied Phycology

“For the study, the researchers added pyruvic acid – which is an organic acid present in all living cells – to a solution consisting of the micro-algae and a liquid growth medium. The mixture was then exposed to ultraviolet light, to stimulate photosynthesis. After 14 days, the algae was removed, washed, dried and then treated with methanol. The latter treatment was required in order to break the bonds between the algae proteins and the oils produced by those proteins during the photosynthesis process.

The harvested oil is said to possess qualities similar to those of palm oil, although it contains significantly fewer saturated fatty acids, offset by a larger percentage of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. In the present version of the technology, 160 grams of algae would be required to produce enough oil to manufacture a 100-gram chocolate bar.”

To boost the sustainability factor, the team notes they are able to derive the pyruvic acid which kick-starts the procedure from food waste, like fruit peels and soybean pulp. They also envision large scale production that uses sunlight as the required UV light source – one step away from literal farming itself!

This innovation is so low cost, I really hope it catches on. Palm oil is one of those things that we can afford to have “go extinct” – I’d rather have my cake and orangutans too.