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Black Licorice: The Silent Killer?

Black Licorice: The Silent Killer?

black licorice

With Halloween approaching, DFC’s staff fancies are lightly turning to thoughts of… CANDY! We’ll likely be keeping the traditional bowl by the front door to ourselves though, as celebrations all over are in upheaval because of COVID-19. (Besides, given our rural location, we probably wouldn’t be handing out the good stuff to the assorted Black Panthers and mermaids and Baby Yodas hoping to score big anyway.)
 
Which may be a good thing, given news that has come out about a particular type of candy’s very particular type of lethality. A 54-year-old construction worker in Massachusetts died last month after consuming his favourite sweet, black licorice, at the staggering rate of “a bag and a half every day for a few weeks.” According to doctors, the man’s heart stopped due to an arrhythmia caused by low potassium — the direct result of consuming an excess of glycyrrhizic acid. Glycyrrhizic acid comes from licorice root, which can be used in a variety of foods, both obvious, and scarily not.
 
“‘It’s more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of things over the counter. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, have this compound in it,” as do some chewing tobaccos, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a University of Colorado cardiologist and former American Heart Association president. He had no role in the Massachusetts man’s care. […]
 
The FDA permits up to 3.1% of a food’s content to have glycyrrhizic acid, but many candies and other licorice products don’t reveal how much of it is contained per ounce, [cardiologist Dr. Neel] Butala said. Doctors have reported the case to the FDA in hope of raising attention to the risk.”
 
Black licorice is loved and hated, and the fate of the unfortunate Massachusetts fan has only rendered the treat’s reputation even more complicated. This Halloween, remember to enjoy everything in moderation — and when in doubt about your candy tastes, check with a doctor!

A (Subway) Bread by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet

bread

I have a stumper for you: When is a sandwich bread not a sandwich bread? When the Supreme Court of Ireland rules it’s too sugary for that title, that’s when!
 
Jokes aside, this is not a thought experiment — the highest judicial body of an already starch-knowledgeable nation has come down hard on Subway (the sandwich chain) for the sugar content of their bread. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with nutrition but is rather a confusing tussle over taxes.
 
It involves an exemption of Value-Added Tax (a different name for what we know as GST) that an Irish Subway franchisee requested. The franchisee, Bookfinders Ltd. cited the fact that bread is considered to be a staple food in Ireland, and because of that, their hot takeout sandwiches (of which bread is a key component, naturally) should not be subject to VAT. The Supreme Court countered with the judicial zinger that Subway’s bread had so much sugar it could not be legally defined as “bread,” so couldn’t be tax-exempt.
 
“[T]he judges ruled that Subway’s bread is not a staple food because its sugar content is 10 percent of the weight of the flour in the dough; the Value-Added Tax Act 1972 stipulates that sugar, fat, and ‘bread improver’ cannot add up to more than 2 percent of the weight of the flour. (Those limits are in place to prevent things like pastries and other sweet baked goods from being labeled as ‘staple foods’ and exempt from being taxed.)

Justice Donal O’Donnell dismissed Bookfinders’ appeal on Tuesday, although he did acknowledge that some of the arguments presented on their behalf were ‘ingenious.’ An Appeal Commissioner also said that Subway’s hot sandwiches were not eligible for a zero-percent tax rate, so Bookfinders was doubly denied.”
 
I remember the first time Subway had trouble with the contents of its bread: Back in 2014, the scientifically-questionable “Food Babe” blogger, Vani Hari took them to task for using the dough conditioner azodicarbonamide (ADA) in their buns because ADA was also used in yoga mats and shoe soles. While the ADA flap caused Subway to drop the ingredient from their bread recipe, I doubt they will revisit the sugar content today, to benefit one tax-objecting franchisee. Besides, if Subway bread is too sweet to be “bread,” it follows that it must be… cake? A pivot to Subway cakewiches would be “ingenious” indeed!

Wine and Cheesy

VQA wine at Taco Bell

With the rolling restriction tightening that recent COVID surges have brought, I’m starting to think about hunkering down again for the winter as we did back in March. One tiny sliver of silver lining is that our food sources have had a bit of a summer breather to innovate for the dark days ahead. One such innovator is (believe it or not) Taco Bell, which, given my demographic (Canadian) and location (rural), I literally haven’t thought about in years.
 
But now I am intrigued with the Tex-Mex-esque chain, thanks to their brilliant recent marketing: developing and serving a wine at select Ontario locations paired specifically with their new Toasted Cheesy Chalupa. The punnily-named Jalapeño Noir was blended by Queenston Mile Vineyard near Niagara-on-the-Lake, and has “notes of wild strawberry, cherry and beetroot,” as well as “spice” and “leather.” The marriage of low- and high-brow is magnificently absurd — and now completely sold out in the two trial Taco Bell locations. From an op-ed in the Toronto Star (whose author managed to score the special):
 
“‘The Toasted Cheesy Chalupa promotion is exclusive to Canada, and so we wanted to partner with a local Canadian winery too,’ says Kat Garcia, director of brand marketing. ‘With Taco Bell unveiling its fanciest menu item yet, we wanted to celebrate with something equally fancy.’

Some will probably ask if it’s too fancy. I don’t think so. Somms love doing cheeky pairings with popcorn (sparkling), chicken nuggets (rosé) and fish filets (sauvignon blanc). There’s even a book coming out this fall called Big Macs and Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World by sommelier and wine writer Vanessa Price, who even goes so far as to find a pairing for Cheetos (Sancerre).”
 
Unfortunately for me (or actually… maybe fortunately?) the Taco Bell locations where this special is on back-order are nowhere near me. Even the winery itself is out of the whole bottles of Jalapeño Noir they were offering! I’m just going to have to wait until supply meets demand, and the perfect storm of pandemic and hygge this winter. By then, ordering out the Bell and vino will seem like a very good idea indeed.

Veggies and Introversion: Chewing on a Connection?

In our sauce and condiment line, we make room for diets of all stripes. From vegans to vegetarians, to hardcore meat eaters, all are welcome at the DFC table! (YMMV with using our products for keto purposes; and, while roasted meat is the definition of paleo, our barbeque sauces regrettably aren’t.)
 
So I looked with interest at new research about the personalities of our plant-based friends, and how a decisive aspect of their natures might relate to their diets — specifically, a higher tendency towards introversion. The large-scale study has come out of the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences, in cooperation with the University Hospital of Leipzig, and investigated how vegetarianism affects both the body and the mind.

Interestingly, the leading tidbit coming out of the study seems to me the most obvious: That folks who eschew animal products in their diets tend to have a lower BMI, and therefore weight. (This could be for many reasons — for example, plant-based foods are higher in fibre than those made from animals, and fill you up quicker.) But it’s where diet meets personality that my interest was piqued. Here, the study was also broad, attempting to detect correlations between vegetarianism, and “Big Five” personality factors like extraversion and neuroticism (as well as a connection with depression that previous studies showed evidence for).
 
“It was shown that people eating a predominantly plant-based diet are more introverted than those mainly consuming animal products. ‘It is difficult to say what the reason for this is,’ says [study author] Veronica Witte. ‘It could be because more introverted people tend to have more restrictive eating habits or because they are more socially segregated because of their eating habits.’ […]

[The researchers] determined personal diets by means of questionnaires in which participants were asked to fill in how often they had eaten individual animal products in the last 12 months — ranging from “several times a day” to “never”. Personality traits such as extroversion and neuroticism were assessed by means of a so-called personality inventory (NEOFFI), while depression was assessed by using the CESD test, a questionnaire that records various symptoms of depression.”
 
All of this just begs for a multitude of follow-up studies, that the authors and the Max Planck Institute both acknowledge. But even these preliminary results are tantalizing: Does it mean that, like the lower-BMI connection, someone who wants to harness the powers of introversion should start piling on the veggies? Or should organizations looking for thoughtful leaders or good listeners hit the local vegan lunch joint to find their next CEO? I am very interested to see where this thread leads — and I can rest secure in the knowledge that no matter who is involved in the research, we can feed them all! 

Ancient Wine Windows Serve Glasses of Cheer During Coronavirus

wine window

by Maureen Gualtieri
 
When I visited Italy, what stuck with me most about its people was that they were very used to — and very good at — celebrating life in the face of hardship. My trip there took place well before COVID-19, but, for example, the geological threat to the vibrant Naples region, and impact of climate change on historic Venice have been happening for a long time, and the culture has pragmatically worked with it.
 
But the new pressures of the pandemic are reinvigorating a different old Italian good-times-preservation technique — wine windows! These tiny arched openings in restaurant walls are unique to Tuscany and are most numerous in the city of Florence. Originally built starting in the Middle Ages as a way for wine merchants to serve the lower classes, they were repurposed during the bubonic plague of 1630-33 for all customers — under conditions that sound startlingly similar to today’s.
 
“[W]ine producers who were selling their own wine through the small wine windows in their Florentine palaces, understood the problem of contagion. They passed the flask of wine through the window to the client but did not receive payment directly into their hands. Instead, they passed a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar before collecting them.

Wine purveyors also attempted to avoid touching the wine flasks which were brought back to them by the client, in two different ways. Either the client purchased wine which was already bottled, or the client was allowed to fill his or her flask directly by using a metal tube which was passed through the wine window, and was connected to the demijohn on the inside of the palace. So, the wine merchant either filled new flasks for direct purchase or placed the demijohn in a slightly raised position so that the wine would flow down the small metal pipe into the client’s bottle.”
 
Many of Florence’s modern buchette del vino owners have diversified their businesses beyond wine, and today are serving gelato, coffee, cocktails, and takeout through the wee windows. With delicacies like that, served in a contagion-conscious way, getting through the depths of our own pandemic might be slightly easier. Thank you for your foresight, medieval Italian merchants!

Old Apple Tree Offers Glimpse of Genetic Past and Future

an old apple tree - before and now

With high summer behind us and fall on the horizon, I’m looking forward to the season of one of my favourite fruits: apples! And when I bite into my first hand-picked Ambrosia this year, I will say a mental “cheers” to a recently fallen relative — the Old Apple Tree of Vancouver, Washington.
 
CNN reports that the venerable community landmark died this summer, at a staggering age of 194. Planted by Hudson’s Bay traders in 1826, the Old Apple Tree not only formed the centre of a park and annual festival devoted to it but was regarded by the region’s apple specialists as the “matriarch” of the Pacific Northwest’s apple industry — in spirit, if not in genetic fact.
 
“A DNA analysis performed by experts at Washington State University’s Apple Genome Project revealed that the Old Apple Tree is genetically unique.

‘The Old Apple Tree is not identical to any other named variety in a worldwide collaborative data set of several thousand apple variety DNA profiles,’ Cameron Peace, a professor of tree fruit genetics at WSU told CNN.

‘The Old Apple Tree is therefore unique, one-of-a-kind. It will carry genetic factors not present in other heirloom or modern cultivars,’ Peace added.
 
Scientists were able to establish that the Old Apple Tree is almost certainly a grandchild of the French Reinette, a 500-year-old variety dubbed ‘the grandmother of all apple cultivars,’ Peace explained. The French Reinette is a close direct ancestor of most modern varieties and also a parent or grandparent to many heirloom varieties.”
 
Descendants of the tree dot the area — cuttings had been given to attendees of the Old Apple Tree festival to plant in their own gardens since 1984. Plus, as the original tree died, new saplings began growing out of the old root system. One of the saplings will stay on the site, becoming essentially the reincarnation of its mother!
 
Preserving apple diversity is a serious task, and it warms my heart that one of the founding trees of the North American gene pool has given her adoring apple fans one last gift — the continuation of her legacy! I’ll eat to that.

Saving Botswana’s Cattle — One Pair of Butt Eyes at a Time

cattle with eyes painted on their rear

As any dog owner knows, putting eyes on your pup’s rear and pretending their tail is a nose is a source of much hilarity. But in Botswana, cattle farmers are harnessing this gag for good, in order to protect their cattle — both family food source and livelihood — from predation by local lions.
 
A four-year-long international study of cow/lion coexistence in the southern African nation has shown that stenciling large feline eyes on the back ends of cattle spooks lions into thinking their stealthy cover is blown — thereby sparing the life of the cow! From Gastro Obscura:
 
“‘We chose herds that had previously reported higher depredation rates, so we knew lions were a problem for them already,’ says [field researcher Cameron] Radford. Of the group, roughly a third were given a pair of furrowed, acrylic-painted eye-spots (‘We were going for the intimidation factor,’ says Radford), another third were left unmarked, and the remaining third received simple cross-marks. While 15 unmarked cows and four cross-marked cows were killed by predators, not one of the cows with eye-spots over the four-year study became big-cat food.”
 
Initially skeptical, the cattle farmers who had “donated” their herds to the study were soon converted, and eagerly adopted the low-cost method of keeping their cows safe. (In addition to themselves, and the lions: Retaliatory killings of the vulnerable big cats after cattle attacks were common.) This also safeguards their economic niche — cattle farming is the most profitable agricultural activity in Botswana, and over 95% of their beef is exported to other markets.
 
So it seems cattle/lion/farmer interactions are much like those between any other creatures — one part managing expectations, one part sleight of hand! I love the simple elegance of the study’s solution. And, as a BBQ fan, I’m glad the beef is saved!

One Fish, Two Fish, Bred Fish, New Fish

new fish the sturddlefish

Scientists have been formulating “Frankenfoods” for decades now. There is validity to a certain amount of genetic modification; after all, we wouldn’t have today’s plump corn or watermelons or eggplants without selective breeding by ambitious (and hungry!) farmers over centuries. Nowadays, the GMOs we hear most about involving splicing genes from one incongruous species to another, which freaks some consumers out. But the unifying force in most of these attempts is the deliberate intention — which makes the news that scientists have accidentally created a new type of fish hybrid in an effort to save one of the parent species all the more surprising!
 
The task they set out to do was bolster the numbers of Russian Sturgeon, a fish prized for its caviar, but critically endangered due to overfishing, destruction of habitat, and pollution. A team of Hungarian scientists attempted asexual reproduction of the fish, using the sperm of another species, the American Paddlefish, to prompt the development of Russian Sturgeon eggs — a process known as gynogenesis.
 
Unfortunately, the Paddlefish and Sturgeon were genetically closer than the scientists thought, and instead of gynogenesis, good old-fashioned sexual reproduction took place, producing a hybrid now known temporarily (and cutely) as “sturddlefish.” And this may not be a bad thing:
 
“Each of the resulting fish look a little different, most of them bearing a stronger resemblance to the sturgeon (which was, of course, the whole idea). But if the offspring adopt the paddlefish’s dietary habits instead of the sturgeon’s, then the hybrid fish could greatly benefit the environment: Sturgeon have a diet of larger crustaceans while paddlefish feed on smaller organisms like plankton, making the latter’s diet more sustainable in the long run. (Microscopic organisms don’t have to be shipped in to feed the fish, meaning fewer carbon emissions.) Cheap diet + expensive roe = money in the bank.”
 
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about invasive species in my neck of the woods — so it’s refreshing that this particular goof in animal management might turn out well for a change.  And if it leads to stability for a food fish that we humans are responsible for destabilizing, all the better!

Chocolate Chip Redesign Overclocks the Humble Cookie

Here at the DFC test kitchens, David is the baker, while I fall decidedly into Camp Cooking. When it comes to baking, I usually only have patience for the sampling and critique of the results! David’s chocolate chip cookies are particularly legendary: as he did with our barbecue sauce, he spent years refining his recipe, experimenting with the chip to dough ratios and finely calibrating the sugars to yield the perfect chew.
 
But what he hasn’t done is engineer the ingredients themselves. Leave something that “disruptive” to chocolate-chip-cookieness to Tesla senior industrial designer Remy Labesque. He moonlights as a chocolate expert and has collaborated with California chocolatier Dandelion Chocolate to create the ideal baking chip.
 
While his chip still involves quality chocolate, Labesque’s innovation lies in its shape. The traditional teardrop shape is an artifact of the industrial process — it’s the easiest way for a machine (or a human artisan like Dandelion’s head pastry chef Lisa Vega) to fire out hundreds of chips in one go. But Labesque thought the dense, uniform shape lacked texture and was unsuited to the flat planes of a cookie. So, he set out to reconcile his dreams of the ideal melty cookie morsel to the industrial reality — or really, vice versa. The result: a modernist-looking, flat, faceted square chip, with two balanced pairs of thin and thick edges.
 
At Dandelion, the design brief was to make ‘the best chip for the experience of tasting chocolate,’ says chef Vega. Experts claim the way to do that is to let it melt on your tongue.

Each time a prototype came off the line, Vega would start baking. ‘They stay whole, but once they’re baked, the center of the chip gets soft,’ she observes, a benefit for experiencing the chocolate’s texture. Labesque designed the thin, melt-in-your-mouth edges to be sturdy enough to hold their shape in baking and not to break when the chip is unmolded. […]

Dandelion currently sells its ‘facets’ in three distinct, 70% single-origin, types: from Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Madagascar. Additional single-origin styles are planned for the future. The lengthy research and development and ingredient sourcing comes at a cost: a 17.6 oz. bag of the chips goes for $30.”
 
Coming from an IT background, I’m already a big proponent of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I never thought that the chocolate chip was broke. Labesque and Vega have helped me rethink this — and I can never fault someone for following their passion, as niche and privileged ($30 USD a bag?) as it is. But none of us regular folks should let that stop our cookie perfection dreams: The original Depression-era chocolate chip cookie recipe used chopped up chocolate bars — it’s built to use what you have. A regular-shaped chip will never spoil a chocolate chip cookie, as long as you infuse the recipe with your own magic as well!

Sports Science Maps Limits of Human Hotdog Dominance

hotdog-b48b740d9d292d8f3243529d834cd89af866ab47-s800-c85

At the venerable Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, this past July 4th, competitive eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a new record in his chosen sport — 75 hotdogs consumed in ten minutes.
 
A team of sports medicine specialists have taken a closer look at Chestnut’s results with a key question in mind. That a very regular-looking human (his jaw doesn’t even unhinge!) can put away over six dozen tubes of processed meat at a rate of one dog every eight seconds is subjectively stunning; but how close is this feat to the objective upper limit of the sport? In short, is Joey Chestnut, in the words of study author James Smoglia, the “Usain Bolt” of hotdog-eating?
 
Turns out, he is. Smoglia’s team analyzed data from 39 years of the historic sausage gauntlet, using predictive mathematical modelling they usually applied to improvements in more traditional sports.
 
“Improvement curves in elite sports ranging from sprinting to pole vaulting tend to follow a so-called sigmoidal curve, featuring an initial slow and steady rise, followed by an era of rapid improvement and finally a levelling off. ‘Hotdog eating has definitely reached that second plateau,’ said Smoliga.”
 
After an early period where contestants relied on natural talent and how their stomachs were feeling the day of competition,

“[elite] eaters started to follow elaborate training regimes, with some ingesting vast volumes of liquid or gels to expand the stomach without having to process the calories. Chestnut, this year’s winner, claims to train for three months leading up to the competition, including weekly practice runs, a carefully controlled diet and yoga and breathing exercises to help with mental focus.”
 
This victory seems proof that really any action can be turned into a sport if training goes into it. But, like any other sport, there is a physiological limit to hotdog eating: by fitting the hotdog data to the rest of the sigmoidal curve, Smoglia and team predict that 84 hotdogs in ten minutes are the most any typical competitor can hope to eat, even with high-level training. Which makes “Jaws” Chestnut elite indeed!
 
While the condiment connoisseur in me winces at one of the best-loved barbecue options being relegated to so much world-record-fodder, I salute Mr Chestnut and his feat. I hope he gets the opportunity to sit down this summer next to a sizzling barbecue and enjoy a hotdog the way the grill gods intended — slowly savoured with a favourite topping or two. As I hope we all can!