For a people bent on projecting whimsicality—cuckoo clocks and Heidi, anyone?—the Swiss are sure coming down hard on former Alpine ambassador product, Toblerone. The triangular bars of chocolate-honey-nougat-amazingness have fallen recently fallen afoul of Switzerland’s “Swissness Act.” This 2017 law requires companies who claim their products are Swiss-made through labelling to meet strict standards of in-country manufacture. Mondelez International, the American (!) company that owns Toblerone, is moving the majority of the chocolate brand’s manufacturing to Slovakia this summer. In response, the Swiss government is stripping Toblerone’s packaging of its most iconic image: the Matterhorn.
“Those regulations aim to protect the credibility and value of the coveted Swiss label, its government explains, citing studies that show the value added by the Swiss branding can represent as much as 20% of the sale price for certain products — and up to 50% for luxury goods — compared to those from other places.
When it comes to food products specifically, at least 80% of raw materials must come from Switzerland, and 100% for milk and dairy. The essential processing must also be done inside the country, with few exceptions (and Toblerone chocolate is evidently not one of them). […]
The company has yet to unveil its new design, but says it will still pay homage to its Alpine roots with ‘a modernized and streamlined mountain logo that is consistent with the geometric and triangular aesthetic.’
It will also keep its ‘famous hidden bear,’ a tribute to the bar’s birthplace of Bern, which you can see if you look closely at the shadows of the Matterhorn.”
Mondelez seems to be leaning into the regulation, stating that they look forward to refreshing the design in ways that echo the chocolate’s Swiss heritage, but don’t claim it to be current. And confectionados will be thrilled to hear that they aren’t touching the recipe! I don’t know about you, but I’ll gladly take a cosmetic overhaul over reformulating the best part of a golden-age Swiss Chalet Festive Special any day.
Mushrooms are definitely having a moment. It seems like everyone in the business world and beyond is talking about entheogens and expanding consciousness with judicious use thereof. This week’s story also happens to be about a magical mushroom changing our brains—but, calm down, Ken Kesey—it’s way more delicious than plant medicines can be!
The mushroom in question is the round and fluffy lion’s mane, a staple of farmer’s market stalls, with a delicate texture and a meaty flavour akin to fresh seafood. Long used in extract form in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the shroom has now been studied by a team from Queensland University. Their study has confirmed the TCM use of lion’s mane as a brain booster—showing that organic compounds found in the humble Hericium erinaceus can actually literally help regrow damaged or injured brain cells.
“The Queensland researchers isolated the compounds from the mushrooms they believed were behind its purported brain health-assisting properties. The researchers then placed the isolated compounds into a Petri dish with sets of cultured brain cells to see what would happen. And to their surprise, something incredible occurred.
‘Surprisingly we found that the active compounds promote neuron projections,’ said [study lead author Frederic] Meunier, ‘extending and connecting to other neurons.’
To get a closer look at what was actually happening, the researchers placed the treated brain cells under a super-resolution microscope. And according to Meunier, ‘we found the mushroom extract and its active components largely increase the size of growth cones, which are particularly important for brain cells to sense their environment and establish new connections with other neurons in the brain.’”
This could be a game changer for folks experiencing Alzheimer’s, or the fallout from a brain injury. Imagine incorporating a dash of mushroom extract into your diet to help support and restore cognition! The researchers also make the excellent point that science shouldn’t discount traditional remedies, and rather take their use as a signal that there’s an empirical basis for how they work. I love how a Lion’s Mane is a triple threat—cute, delicious, and a lifesaver. A psychedelic would just be overkill!
Over the last few months, we’ve seen a levelling up of AI in our puny human lives. From putting visual artists out of a job, to haunting our nightmares, artificial intelligence is finding all kinds of new applications serving—and potentially supplanting?—our purposes. But a brewery in British Columbia has found a way to harness the unnerving powers of AI for good, by charging chatbot ChatGPT to come up with a beer recipe worthy of the Whistle Buoy Brewing name. And, unlike its hilariously clunky “can’t draw hands” brethren, ChatGPT came through, generating a “fluffy, tropical” brew that the Whistle Buoy crew is duly serving up to its emphatically human customers. From the CBC:
“Whistle Buoy Brewing partner Isaiah Archer says his team had been playing around with the program ChatGPT, hoping it would help with developing product descriptions and writing social media posts, when they were inspired to try something else.
‘As we were typing various things into it, we thought, let’s see what happens if we ask it to give us a beer recipe,” he told CBC’s Rohit Joseph. They asked for a fluffy, tropical hazy pale ale. It spat out a recipe that, for the most part, works. […]
The recipe wasn’t perfect — Archer said it initially gave measurements for a homebrew batch. When it was adjusted for a larger brewing operation, he said it didn’t quite make sense, so they had to make some changes.
‘We had to add some human intervention,’ Archer said.”
The AI accepted that intervention, and thankfully didn’t go Skynet on us, thus eliminating the beer industry entirely. But tacky sentience jokes aside, the brewery’s owners appreciate ChatGPT’s “solid” work and are interested in a further collaboration that complements human ingenuity rather than cancels it out. From DFC’s perspective, I’d be very interested to test an AI on its condiment-inventing skills…I may pop over to ChatGPT and ask for a mustard recipe—I’ll report back if anything especially delicious comes up!
Good news from scientists for our planet’s poor beleaguered bees! The United States Department of Agriculture has approved a first-of-its-kind vaccine for the little pollinators, to protect them from American foulbrood disease, which results from a bacterial infection and can take out entire colonies in one swoop.
The science behind the vaccine is fascinating: Insects don’t have an immune system like that of mammals, where, say you or I can be injected with an inert flu virus, and our systems develop antibodies to fight the real live flu when it shows up later. So most researchers didn’t think that vaccine-like intervention into honeybee health was possible. Enter the folks at the University of Helsinki and Dalan Animal Health, who observed a kind of immunity passing from queen to offspring a few years ago, and tried to puzzle it out.
“[Professor Dalial] Freitak and colleagues discovered a key egg-yolk protein called vitellogenin was the transport mechanism for trans-generational immunity in insects. This foundational discovery laid the groundwork for a novel kind of insect vaccine, and the team’s first target was honeybees.
Over the following years the researchers developed a vaccine to target a disease called American Foulbrood. The disease is caused by Paenibacillus larvae bacteria and once it takes hold in a bee population often the only option is to completely destroy the colony. The vaccine works by binding inactive bacterial cells to the vitellogenin protein so when it is consumed by a queen it can be directly transferred to her larvae.
‘The vaccine is incorporated into the royal jelly by the worker bees, who then feed it to the queen,’ a statement from developing company Dalan Animal Health explains. ‘She ingests it, and fragments of the vaccine are deposited in her ovaries. Having been exposed to the vaccine, the developing larvae have immunity as they hatch.’”
With USDA approval of the vaccine and widespread rollout, scientists, farmers, and bee enthusiasts are looking forward to getting foulbrood disease under control. This successful proof of concept may also mean other vaccines, for bees and other insects, will quickly follow—wouldn’t it be terrific if we could vaccinate mosquitoes against malaria?? Not only would we be taking care of some of the smallest cousins we share our Earth with, but taking care of ourselves as well. To borrow an arachnid metaphor, such is the Web of Life!
Way back in the primordial ooze called the 1990s, one of the many trends that swept the planet was that of the tiny pocket pet known as the Tamagotchi. For those of you unlucky enough to not have had a preteen in their household at the time, these gadgets were little eggs on a keychain with LCD screens, on which the life cycle of a tiny alien creature would play out and be influenced by the buttons you pressed to feed and play with them. They were very fun, if stressful, especially if your kid enlisted you to take care of it during the school day so it wouldn’t die because their teacher had banned them in class.
A team of scientists from the University of Chicago have pulled this once-trendy gizmo into the modern age, both technologically and morally. They have adapted the concept to a smartwatch run on a slime mold that the wearer has to feed and keep alive. This living organism/device symbiosis interrogates and complicates the dependent relationships people have with their smart devices.
“They created an enclosure attached to the smartwatch and placed a species of slime mold known as Physarum polycephalum inside it. To enjoy one of the key functions of the accessory – heart rate monitoring – they would need to keep the mold alive by feeding and caring for it.
Here is exactly how it works – the slime mold is placed in one side of the enclosure and as it is fed with a mixture of water and oats it grows to the other side of the enclosure forming an electrical circuit that activates the heart rate monitor function. If the mold is ignored, it goes dormant and the circuit is cut off.
Interestingly, users can forget about their pet slime mold for days, months, or even years, as it can be ‘revived’ by resuming care for it. But scientists wanted to know if simply knowing that there is a living, dormant organism in there affected people’s relationship with the gadget.”
The team engaged a group of five people to wear the smart watches for a two week period, and to write down their feelings about the devices while they fed the slime molds as normal for the first week, then deliberately starved them for the second. The participants reported feeling attachment for their watches, even going so far as naming them, as well as emotions like grief and guilt as the slime molds died.
While this particular watch will likely never be mass produced, we can apply these philosophical findings to the other devices we burn through in our ultra connected lives. Might we be more interested in conservation and re-use of resources if we fed—a nurturing act for our species— our laptops, phones, or watches? If we were more conscious of our use of them, since they would be in literal relationship to us, would that help with doom scrolling and other forms of device-based dissociation? Lots of interesting questions come up—definitely food for thought!
Quinoa—that ancient grain with a nutty flavour and a persistent presence in chic salad bowls over the past decade—has surprised us again. In addition to being a fibre, protein, and vitamin powerhouse, Washington State University researchers have discovered that quinoa flour works demonstrably well as a cookie additive. And, unlike many other “healthy” additions to indulgent foods that should never have happened (ugh, carob), the quinoa flour actually improves the taste, texture, and “spreadability” of the cookie dough. In a study published in the Journal of Food Science, preliminary results showed that more people preferred a sugar cookie with some added quinoa flour, over an entirely wheat flour cookie.
“[R]esearchers looked at ten different quinoa breeding lines and tested them as a flour in cookies at 25% up to 100% quinoa. Many of the breeding lines held up well at the lower levels but the cookies tended to crumble as they approached 100% quinoa flour.
The preliminary results from the taste tests also show that using up to 25% quinoa flour tended to have better results. The researchers purposely chose sugar cookies for the taste test because they are plain as opposed to chocolate chip cookies which might mask any flavor from the quinoa. For the sugar cookie, a little quinoa might have an advantage, said Elizabeth Nalbandian, the study’s first author and a Ph.D. student in [study author Girish] Ganjyal’s lab.
‘I think at 10%, quinoa added a type of nutty flavor that people really liked,’ she said, noting the testers liked it even more than the control whole flour cookie.”
The Washington state connection meant researchers had skin in the game: The two types of quinoa that came out on top in the results are specifically bred to grow in the Pacific Northwest climate. But I think this good news applies to all cookie lovers—especially those of us wanting to consider our health, while not giving up the fun things in life! Hmm, I wonder if David might be willing to whip up a batch of his famous chocolate chip cookies with a dash of quinoa in them…? For fun—and for science!
Vegetarianism and veganism is a hard road to travel, not least because it can be difficult to determine where your personal hard moral line is. For example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian won’t chow down on a piece of chicken, but will an egg, making a distinction between the different levels of animal exploitation they represent: a vegan will eat neither. But even if an egg itself doesn’t represent a death to a vegetarian, the industry that surrounds its production is filled with harm; including the mass killing of male chicks, who are valueless to the industry because they cannot lay more eggs.
But a team out of Israel’s Volcani Institute has devised a method to prevent this slaughter—by preventing male chicks from existing in the first place. They’ve done this, they claim, by gene editing hens to lay eggs that will result in only female chicks hatching.
“The scientists have gene-edited DNA into the Golda hens that can stop the development of any male embryos in eggs that they lay. The DNA is activated when the eggs are exposed to blue light for several hours.
Female chick embryos are unaffected by the blue light and develop normally. The chicks have no additional genetic material inside them nor do the eggs they lay, according to Dr Cinnamon [the project’s chief scientist].
‘Farmers will get the same chicks they get today and consumers will get exactly the same eggs they get today,’ he said. ‘The only minor difference in the production process is that the eggs will be exposed to blue light.’”
Certain jurisdictions in the EU are already banning the culling of male chicks, and simultaneously warming up to the idea of light genetic modification of livestock. If fully adopted, this innovation—not published, because the team wants to license it ASAP—will go a long way toward not having a world filled with roosters! And once scientists have the chance to make sure the resulting eggs are fit for human consumption, eaters will have one less moral choice to make before breakfast.
I’ve come to my love for food (and making the best condiments for it that I can!) via a circuitous route, through many years in the wilderness of IT and business solutions. But before that, I was a chemist—and this recent news about a fascinating advance in vitamin applications made me feel like I’d come full circle.
A team from MIT has shown that encapsulating vitamin A in polymer microparticles before fortifying food with it enables the vitamin to better weather storage and cooking. This allows higher than typical amounts of the key nutrient to make it into the humans eating it. As vitamin A deficiency is prevalent in developing countries (and is the leading cause of childhood blindness in the world), this easy, low-barrier way of boosting vitamin A intake could be a game changer.
“In a 2019 study, the MIT team showed that they could use a polymer called BMC to encapsulate nutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and several others. They showed that this protective coating improved the shelf life of the nutrients, and that people who consumed bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb the iron. […]
Using an industrial process known as a spinning disc process, the researchers mixed vitamin A with the polymer to form particles 100 to 200 microns in diameter. They also coated the particles with starch, which prevents them from sticking to each other.
The researchers found that vitamin A encapsulated in the polymer particles were more resistant to degradation by intense light, high temperatures, or boiling water. Under those conditions, much more vitamin A remained active than when the vitamin A was free or when it was delivered in a form called VitA 250, which is currently the most stable form of vitamin A used for food fortification.”
The technology was trialed in flour and bouillon cubes, both used extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, an area deeply affected by vitamin A deficiency. Testing then showed the bioavailability of the encapsulated vitamin A as being nearly the same as vitamin A consumed on its own. Two companies are now the proud licensees of the tech, and are planning to roll it out into the market soon. This tiny fix in the nutrient profile of common foods can mean a big change for health worldwide—and what a delicious way to do it!
I’ve been keeping an eye on the story of the snow crab population crash for a couple of months now, and as someone interested in shellfish from both a culinary and an environmental standpoint, I’m getting a bit concerned! The NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the American body in charge of the crabs’ habitats and fishing thereof) is gesturing vaguely to climate change to blame for October’s cancellation of Bering Sea snow crab season because 11 billion crabs had basically up and disappeared. But, thanks to a new analysis by Nautilus, it seems things the situation is far more complicated. And it has everything to do with math.
The tale spun by Spencer Roberts is worth the full read, but the gist is as follows: Officials—and fishers—may be repeating history; Spencer cites the 1980s crash of a similar species, the Alaskan king crab, as precedent. Then, as now, it may come down to an ignorance of the crabs’ natural behaviours. Testing nets can drag through a huge pod of hundreds of crabs (that gather in dome-like piles to rest between foraging sessions) and then that highly concentrated number can be erroneously extrapolated to an entire area. This may mean that the 11 billion death toll may be overinflated because there were never that many crabs, to begin with.
“ This opens the possibility for inflated population estimates if surveys happen to intersect aggregations of crabs. That may have happened twice with king crabs: their Cold War collapse in the Bering Sea was preceded by a “recruitment pulse”—a cohort of maturing males—that motivated regulators to double catch limits every three years. […]
“We know that recruitment boom was real,” [NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center program manager Mike] Litzow responded when asked about the possibility that survey methods had caused crab populations to be overestimated. He cited crab reproductive cycles, improved survey coverage, and the fact that the boom persisted for two consecutive years. But while a pulse did occur, was it truly as large as the models suggested? And should NOAA regulators have raised catch limits when its assessments also suggested that the abundance of harvest-sized males had dropped by half in the decade prior?”
Spencer falls heavily on the “No” side here, but the situation gets tragic for the fishers involved, who sank their livelihood into an industry that may have never been robust enough to take it. The crabs themselves got the shorter end of the stick; the limits raised to harvest crabs that didn’t exist truly decimated the ones that did. Only time will tell if populations can recover—it might be worth voting with our dinner plates over.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the dulcet tones of David Attenborough, narrating yet another amazing animal documentary over a soothing soundtrack, it’s that dolphins are very smart. They use highly intelligent strategies to live their lives, hunt, and even play. They also love to eat—all the better if their meal is generously pre-caught for them, by human fishers who are deeply chagrined at the highway robbery occurring in their nets. After noisemakers and reflective material didn’t deter this dolphin behaviour (called depredation) in the Aegean Sea, a team of Greek researchers recently brought out the big guns: hot sauce-laced nets.
More precisely, they coated fishing nets with a resin that contained capsaicin, the chemical irritant that gives chili peppers their famous heat. Capsaicin has been used successfully on land to prevent squirrels, deer, and other mammals from eating what they shouldn’t (like seed from a bird feeder, or crops). But it had never been tried on dolphins…
“Yet after five months of test fishing with capsaicin-coated nets, the research team co-led by Maria Garagouni, a marine biologist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, faced a tough realization: their idea didn’t work. The bottlenose dolphins that interacted with their nets were entirely unfazed. […]
While it’s known that many cetaceans, including bottlenose dolphins, lack four of the five primary tastes—they can only pick up salty—spiciness is registered by a different set of sensory cells through chemesthesis. This process, which signals sensations such as pain and heat, is little studied in the species. Other toothed whales do appear to have the hardware required for capsaicin detection, notes [neuroscientist Aurélie] Célérier, but there’s a lot left to learn.
There could be something else at play in the dolphins’ triumph over spice: cetacean super smarts. […] The dolphins may simply have figured out a way to break into the spicy nets without making much contact. “
Intriguingly, a mystery predator, unseen by the researchers, did avoid the spicy nets, while massacring the control nets. The team is putting their research into who the strange snacker was, as well as their central question, on ice for now. The wheel of science turns slowly—which I’m sure the hungry dolphins appreciate!