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New Apples Still Don’t Fall Far From the Tree

New Apples Still Don’t Fall Far From the Tree

Even though it’s officially a good two weeks away, as soon as the calendar page flips over to September I can’t help but start thinking FALL. I can’t wait to revel in bushels of the season’s best fruit – apples, hands down!

There are so many varieties now, as a layperson I’d think the apple industry doesn’t have to go out of its way to invent more. However, a team out of Ohio State University begs to differ; not only proposing brand new apple types entirely but automating the process –  through the power of science.

Their new analysis platform purports to take years, if not decades, off the traditional apple hybridization process. By using the platform as a drawing board, combining genetic traits affecting sugar levels, acids, and antioxidants, researchers can eventually predict what the offspring fruits will be like without the time investment of real-world breeding. Using this tool, the team hopes to maximize the healthfulness of the humble apple, while keeping flavour, yield, and hardiness in mind too.

There is some hard “core” (pun intended!) science at play here!

“Genome-wide analysis of each apple enabled identification of genetic markers associated with metabolites that influence traits like flavor, disease resistance and texture. The researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance to detect phytochemicals in the apples in a “global” way –  an approach called untargeted metabolomics. […]

‘We looked for strong relationships at locations in the genome that are not well studied in apple and looked for which compounds we could identify and which had nutritional value. We could go from untargeted data all the way to finding candidate genes responsible for compound production –  which researchers can then validate,’ [Ohio State assistant professor Jessica] Cooperstone said.

There are 124 different apples currently in the database, all ready to be combined into new, more nutritious apples that people will already love because, well, they’re apples! I may be biased, but a fan of apples or not, biodiversity and careful selection to ensure the future of the fruit is a good thing for us all.

Edible Soccer Cups: Not Just For Championships

coffee-cups

Soccer fans are internationally known for being, well… fanatics, mostly for their teams or, um, let’s call it “team-related identity politics”. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the U.K., where multiple teams, playing in different leagues in each city, engage in a complex net of rivalries. Manchester, for example, has seven professional clubs – one of which is taking on a delicious environmental challenge.

Etihad Stadium (home of the Manchester City team), is piloting a sustainable cup program at their concessions stands this season. They are serving coffee, tea, and hot cocoa in  compressed wafer tumblers that (in a reverse cookie-dunking move!) are made to be eaten once the drink is finished.

“The concept of the cup is much like an ice-cream cone. Hot contents are served in 220-milliliter (7.4 fluid ounce) wafer ‘cups,’ made of seven natural, vegan ingredients, chiefly wheat flour, oat bran, and water. They’re able to withstand high temperatures (of up to 85 degrees Celsius or 185 degrees Fahrenheit), due to a pressure heat treatment process; they don’t contain any sugar, wax, or artificial coatings.

Filled with hot liquid, the wafer stays leak-proof for up to 12 hours, and crispy for up to 45 minutes – the duration, conveniently, of one half of a soccer game. The bottom half of the cups are wrapped in a paper label, which is both recycled and recyclable, for easier gripping; and to ensure that the bottom of the biscuit doesn’t touch any surfaces. They’re designed to taste like a thin cookie dunked in a cup of coffee, and contain approximately 100 calories per cup.”

Scottish company BioBite (which was founded two years ago by a pair of University of Aberdeen students) are the innovators behind the cookie cups. The founders hope their invention will help eliminate a whole category of single-use paper products that currently plague public noshing. The Manchester trial also includes unwaxed, sustainable paper cups for beer sales – And thankfully so: I know I’d be thrilled to do my environmental bit by eating a cookie, but not one soaked in beer! If this innovation takes off, we may see it over here, and then I can try one and see.

Invasion of the Robo Waiters

In quite possibly the most Silicon Valley thing to ever happen, a new, NASA-honouring hotel in Mountain View, CA, is testing the final frontier of hospitality by letting robot waiters work the floor of their swanky restaurant.

I read Eater’s report with visions of the Jetsons’ maid Rosey swirling through my head. But reality seems significantly more down to earth at the Ameswell’s eatery, aptly named “Roger.” Much like household Roombas, the two robo-servers (both Servi models, created by Bear Robotics were first unleashed to roam the floor of the restaurant, creating an internal “map.” Then, food and beverage manager Jacky Li programmed each of them a home base in the two busiest spots – next to the bar, and the patio. Human servers drop used silverware and plates in the bots’ built-in bins; when those are full, the bots drop them at the dishwashers and then return. So while the mechanical bussers are doing the less-glamorous part of the job, they’ve freed up the human servers to do what they do best… human!

“The idea behind the robots, [food and beverage manager Jacky] Li says, is not to replace workers, but rather to use them as an amenity for servers, ‘So they can spend more time on guest interaction, guest needs, rather than them having to leave the floor every five minutes.’ While the robots aren’t being used to serve yet, Li is eager to try them out in other settings, like for passing apps in the ballroom during a banquet, and maybe eventually to deliver food and drinks in the restaurant. ‘There are a lot of ways we can use the robot. We’re just scratching the surface,’ says Li. So the robots are really working as bussers at the moment, although you could say they may get promoted to servers.

  • While Roger only opened last month, apparently patrons of all ages are already thoroughly charmed by the robots. (The robots themselves may not be as charmed: One tried to escape out the front door after a glitch!) Only time will tell if these automated employees can grasp the more complicated roles intended for them. And as long as they don’t involve lasers or becoming unexpectedly sentient, we should be fine.

Cockatoos’ Dumpster Lunch a Win for Bird Learning

sulpher crested cockatoo

A team of scientists from Australia has found a charming wild cockatoo food-gathering strategy has been passed along bird-by-bird in the Sydney area – one of the clearest examples to date of how birds teach important foraging knowledge to each other.

The researchers from Down Under collaborated with a team from Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, and published their findings in the most recent issue of the journal Science. The article goes into how the sulphur-crested cockatoos execute the complex, five-step process of opening the garbage bins humans leave out for city collection, in order to score the delicious food scraps inside. Plus, it shows how this knowledge is passed through a population and is improved upon by spontaneous innovation. And the garbage bin owners helped collect the data!

“The research team launched an online survey asking Sydney residents if they had seen cockatoos lifting trash bin lids for food.

Before 2018, this behavior had only been reported in three suburbs – but by the end of 2019, that number shot up to 44 suburbs, according to the study. And the behavior spread among nearby neighborhoods faster than it reached far-flung ones, showing that the new behavior wasn’t randomly popping up. […]

And not all birds open trash cans the same way – the team found that regional subcultures had emerged among the cockatoos, who had distinct styles and approaches. For instance, in late 2018, a cockatoo in northern Sydney reinvented the technique by opening the lids a different way, prompting birds in neighboring districts to copy the behavior.

‘There are different ways to go about (opening the lids),’ said [Australian Museum researcher Richard] Major. The fact that groups have developed different ways to do it was ‘evidence they learned the behavior from each other, rather than them solving the puzzle independently.

Now, I personally know certain animals that are just as eager as these cockatoos to get at their precious garbage dinners (hi, raccoons!), but I’m deeply impressed at how this drive has turned into a unique communications system in this parrot species. I’m also impressed at the conclusion the researchers draw for us humans: That by learning about the evolution of urban animal behaviours, we can better co-exist with them. The Sydney bin cockatoo certainly isn’t going away – and, like it or not, neither are we.

The Chemistry of the Tastiest Tomato

examples of different tomato varieties

Here in southeastern Ontario, we are knee-deep in our growing season, and vegetables and fruits of all kinds are coming in fast and furious. This includes our many varieties of tomatoes, each one tasting of sunshine and cool breezes, and nothing at all like the miserable pink disks of sadness one can find sliced on a burger in the depths of January!

Now I admit to a bit of poetic license in the previous paragraph: I don’t actually know what chemical combos go into making summer tomatoes the best-tasting things on earth. But a team of scientists from the University of Tsukuba does – and they’ve let the public know they’ve found a scientific basis for determining the tastiest tomato varietals! The results might not be what you’d expect.

It turns out that heirloom-type tomatoes with greener or underripe-looking bits tend to be scientifically sweeter than pure, deep red varieties. This involves the complicated interrelationships of the pigment molecules inside the fruits.

“The pigment molecules in tomatoes are called carotenoids and are usually red, yellow, or orange, [team leader Professor Miyako] Kusano says. These compounds don’t have a flavor. However, the carotenoids degrade into compounds called apocarotenoids, which do. […]

The team measured amounts of chlorophyll, responsible for green color, and prolycopene, a type of carotenoid that makes tomatoes orange. Overall, tomato varieties with high amounts of chlorophyll also had higher sugar content. Tomatoes with a lot of prolycopene had higher amounts of the volatile compound 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one, which is partly responsible for that distinct sweet-tomato smell and can also affect flavor. Taking all these chemical components into consideration, the researchers concluded that the tastiest tomatoes strike a balance between chlorophyll and prolycopene content, and aren’t necessarily the ripest ones.”

Interestingly, the team relied entirely on their data when making their analysis (recommending Maglia Rosa cherry tomatoes and Aiko grape tomatoes as paragons of that sweet/fragrant balance) without physically tasting their subjects. I wonder if the subjectivity of taste would skew the results – or simply make them more human?

Food Waste Solution Makes Work for Happy Microbes

food waste

Longtime readers of this newsletter will know that we at DFC love bacteria – specifically those found in the human microbiome. These little guys not only improve our health, but generally astound scientists the longer they look at them!

Happy bacteria have long been known to have a beneficial effect on human digestion. But new research is pointing to a similar good influence on the other end of the food chain. A team out of UC Riverside has determined that fermented food waste when applied as fertilizer to food crops, can boost the crops’ resistance to pathogens and reduce their carbon emissions. This has the two-fold benefit of increasing yields and finding a use for the pernicious problem of food waste.

“[The team] examined the byproducts from two kinds of waste that is readily available in Southern California: beer mash — a byproduct of beer production — and mixed food waste discarded by grocery stores.

Both types of waste were fermented by River Road Research and then added to the irrigation system watering citrus plants in a greenhouse. Within 24 hours, the average population of beneficial bacteria were two to three orders of magnitude greater than in plants that did not receive the treatments, and this trend continued each time the researchers added treatments.

UCR environmental scientist Samantha Ying and her team then studied the carbon dynamics and nutrients including nitrogen in the soil of the treated crops. The analysis showed a spike in the amount of carbon in irrigation water after being treated with waste products, followed by a sharp decrease, suggesting the beneficial bacteria used the available carbon to replicate.”

Additionally, the team determined that the food waste slurry had no salmonella or other harmful bacteria in the mix, indicating the chance for food-borne illness using this type of fertilizer is low.

The team recently published its findings and is enthused at the possibility of creating a sustainable, closed system for food production. I’m a fan too, but I really enjoy the fact those wee cheerful bacteria are going to have a field day in the fields, as well as in our guts!

Cheese Pic Melts Drug Empire into Justice Fondue

Here’s another fun one from the intersection of food, tech… and crime! A British drug dealer was busted this spring after snapping a picture of his favourite cheese, blue Stilton. The erstwhile kingpin took the photo of the wedge of Marks & Spencer branded cheese in the palm of his hand and shared it – inadvertently revealing his fingerprints to law enforcement. And those intrepid coppers were lying in wait.

“Like many other criminals, Liverpool resident Carl Stewart used the encrypted communications platform EncroChat to supply underworld networks with large shipments of narcotics. Under the handle ‘Toffeeforce,’ Stewart pedaled heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and ketamine—apparently bringing in large profits. […]

Stewart’s arrest is part of a massive, ongoing law enforcement operation targeting the users of EncroChat. The platform, now defunct, previously gave cover to thousands of alleged criminals, who thought they could use the app to secure messaging about their illicit operations. However, law enforcement agencies managed to crack into the platform—beginning at least last summer.”

Stewart shared the pic of his perfectly legitimate snack on his EncroChat-enabled phone, connecting the dots for police to I.D. him. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply the drugs in question and transferring criminal property, and was handed a sentence of 13-and-a-half years in prison.

If only Stewart had stuck to cheese – posited several years ago to have the same effect on the human brain as hard drugs – rather than the hard drugs themselves! Or, at the very least, kept his grocery store glamour shots safely siloed on a burner phone. Jokes aside, this is yet another lesson that crime doesn’t pay – and it especially doesn’t pay for fancy artisanal cheeses.

Rooibos Tea Cuts Through European Red Tape

rooibos tea

What do champagne, Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, and alfajores all have in common? Well, besides being mind-bendingly delicious in their own way, each of those foods is on the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin list (PDO). PDO status was created by the EU to specially designate food, wines, and agricultural products that have strong links to the places in which they are made, often with traditional methods –  protecting that product’s name and reputation from fraudulent use.

This Eurospecific designation has now branched out into other areas of the world, with the addition of another of my absolute favourites, rooibos tea. Rooibos – “red bush” in Afrikaans – is a herbal tea that is grown in the Cedarberg region of South Africa, which can be brewed and enjoyed any way black tea is.(Seriously, a caffeine-free cuppa with a bit of milk, and a biscotti for dipping is the perfect nightcap.) Rooibos tea’s bid for EU protection is an interesting peek into the high-stakes world of food certification, as Patrick Egwu of Quartz Africa relates:

“In the past, the South African Rooibos council has been involved in legal battles over the illegal use of the product’s name in other countries. This included stopping a French company in 2013 from trademarking the name. But with the recognition, [South African Rooibos Council’s Marthane] Swart says this will solve these issues. […]

Swart told Quartz that the use of the EU PDO logo on the tea indicates quality, reliability, and originality to consumers of the product. According to a study by the European Commission, food and drinks with geographical designations generated € 77.1 ($91.7 billion) in 2017.

EU certification also results in premium pricing for products. According to Swart, ‘The European market tends to favor any product with such recognition and you can normally earn a higher price for the product,’ she says. ‘We don’t know how it will happen for Rooibos, but we are certainly hopeful that it will happen.’”

It seems that the logic of a South African product gaining EU PDO certification lies in unlocking the European market for real rooibos tea. This makes sense: The existing tea market is big, and growing, with Ireland shouldering the bulk of European consumption. If Europeans have a taste for a new flavour, rooibos could be in a perfect position for business. And I’m personally glad both industry and consumer get something out of this: Having had a cup or two of spurious blends in my day, I appreciate that someone is invested in what ends up in my cup!

Black Market Nuts and the Limits of Technology

pistachio nuts

Now, I like pistachios as much as the next person. (Which is to say, I will open a bag, blackout for 20 minutes, and then come to with a fine, pale green dust in the air and all the nuts mysteriously gone)

But apparently, I don’t like pistachios as much as 34-year-old Alberto Montemayor does – though, more accurately, he may be more interested in their monetary value than their rich, buttery taste. Montemayor was recently discovered to be the perpetrator of California’s largest-to-date nut heist, having lifted 42,000 pounds (19 tonnes!) of them from Touchstone Pistachio Company, a pistachio grower and processor.

Turns out, the black market in stolen nuts is quite lucrative, especially in California, where regular nut trade churns $5.2 million USD through the state economy. And, like any bootleg concern, the illegal nut market boasts its own unique set of rules and fascinating culture.

“Nuts are an ideal high-priced items to steal and resell because unlike electronic devices, pistachios don’t have serial numbers — making them virtually untraceable. […]

Thieves have used forged documents, fake companies and computer hacking, BuzzFeed News reported in 2016, to pose as legitimate truckers. Similarly, the thieves are also able to sell off the product to retailers, who are none the wiser about who is actually receiving the money. Last July, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office arrested two men accused of going to an almond and pistachio distribution center and posing as drivers picking up a shipment. […]

But during the past few years, thefts have declined as the farm industry has become savvy to the schemes and larger growers have adopted new policies, such as taking photos and thumbprints from drivers.

Until now, this type of theft was possible due to its sheer low-techness. (Police found most of the pistachios in a simple trailer in a nearby parking lot, where Montemayor had divided them into 2000 pound sacks for an easy sale.) But Touchstone kicked the case into gear through an audit, which uncovered the bizarre deficit. And, with authorities bringing the abovementioned new policies to bear on would-be nut-bandits, that exploitable tech gap is closing. And anything that increases the chances of pistachios ending up in my mouth is fine by me!

Slicing into a Melon Mystery: Watermelon’s Genetic Story

watermelongrowing

We’ve been having major heatwaves at DFC headquarters. So, even though summer doesn’t officially arrive for another week, we’ve already fully committed to the best of hot weather living. (In Canada, sometimes it’s enough that there’s no snow!) This includes wearing shorts, transitioning to cold brew coffee, and eating lots and lots of the perfect summer fruit: watermelon!

I love watermelon: on its own, in drinks, or as part of a salad. But the fruit is usually gone from my plate so quickly that I’d never really spared a thought for its provenance. Scientists, however, have – apparently, the genetic history of the large crunchy berry (technically!) has long been a mystery. But, as Isaac Schultz at Gizmodo reports, a team of international researchers have unravelled the surprising legacy of the world’s best melon.

“As lead author Susanne Renner, a botanist at the University of Munich, put it, ‘everybody thought that there were only four wild species and that the sweet watermelon that we eat today came from South Africa.’ But in 2015, one of her then-graduate students, Guillaume Chomicki, found through DNA sequencing of different specimens across Africa that the suspected watermelon ancestor in the south was just a distant relation. […]

‘We know that large, long watermelons were eaten raw 4,360 years before present in Egypt, thanks to ancient iconography,’ Chomicki said, ‘but the drawings are of whole fruit, and thus we cannot know if they were already red.’ Without material evidence, the researchers relied on a combination of genetic research and historical context. The samples of melon the team used were from Darfur, which was once Nubia. Renner said it’s possible that the crop was domesticated in Nubia and then made its way up the Nile through trade.”

My respect for watermelon has only deepened with this digging up of its proverbial roots. With our society’s general disconnect from our agriculture’s fruits, it feels like a gift to know precisely where – and when – a given melon is from. Knowing I’m eating a slice of history next time I bite into my favourite summer snack will, I think, make the experience all the sweeter!