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Child Labour and the World’s Most Popular Vegetable Oil

Child Labour and the World’s Most Popular Vegetable Oil

Palm oil — derived from the seeds of the West African oil palm — is a high-smoke point, highly saturated fat of remarkable versatility. Not only can it be eaten, in things like baked goods, spreads, and candies, it can also be found in cosmetics, personal cleansers, and industrial lubricants; byproducts like the seed shells can even be used in concrete. The palm oil industry is so lucrative in habitats like Malaysia and Indonesia that it’s caused devastating deforestation in pursuit of monoculture; making your muffin or car or shampoo a direct contributor to the decline of the wild orangutan.
 
Palm oil’s evil extends beyond damage to the environment though. AP has produced an exposé on the industry’s reliance on child labour, contrasting two childhood experiences — that of a Girl Scout who sells cookies in Tennesee, and that of the estimated 1.5 million children who work in the Indonesian agricultural sector producing the palm oil for those cookies.
 
“Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.

‘Let them enjoy it,’ said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate, but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.

‘Let me work, just me, helping my father,’ Abang said. ‘I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.’”
 
As the world’s most popular vegetable oil, palm oil is present in an estimated 50% of packaged products. Manufacturers obscure its presence in ingredient lists by using up to 200 different names for it. Even ethically sourced palm oil can “greenwashed,” as the investigation of the above-mentioned Girl Scout uncovered.
So, it’s tricky to manage our dependence on palm oil. It’s also easy to not see the people (or endangered animals) whose pain goes into these products, being so far away from their origin. Awareness that it’s everywhere is maybe the first action towards reducing consumer dependence; finding alternatives is second. Third is reframing the market entirely — here’s hoping we’ll make it in time.

Pompeii Snack Counter Offers Taste of Roman Past

Pompeii snack bar

Let’s start 2021 off with a bang, with news that, unfortunately, also started with a bang, way back in 79 CE. That was the year of the notorious Mt. Vesuvius eruption, that buried the Roman town of Pompeii in layers of hot ash and pumice, erasing it from the Italian landscape and preserving the artifacts of its last day for nearly 2000 years. Archaeologists have long studied this slice of historical life (as well as that of the neighbouring buried settlement, Herculaneum), leaving the excavated ruins open for tourists to visit.
 
But a tonne of Pompeii is still buried and off-limits to all but researchers. Recently, a team digging in the Regio V section of the site turned up a fabulous find: a thermopolium, or essentially, an ancient Roman lunch counter. Pompeii is dotted with the remains of these establishments — L-shaped counters with amphorae, once full of hot local fare ready for dishing out to hungry passersby, sunken into them. But the Regio V shop is the first to be uncovered whole, with even its gorgeous counter frescoes — advertising the fresh ingredients! — intact.
 
“Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

‘This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire [thermopolium],’ said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.

Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.”
 
The researchers are eager to learn more about the Roman diet from traces left at this thermopolium. (Already, they’ve uncovered evidence that pork, fish, beef, and snails were on the menu.) I find my fascination tempered by a sense of sadness: a lunch counter is exactly the kind of regular-Joe detail that makes me think of the people who lived next to it, maybe even popped by for a bite every day — until one day they didn’t. I hope science uncovers much more about ancient Roman city life, down to how they did their street food. Not only does it fill in some gaps in history, but it’s also a way of keeping the last happy, delicious moments of Pompeii’s citizens alive.

Waiter, There’s a Cricket in my Soy Sauce!

Japanese haute cuisine restaurant Antcicada has long practiced the bugs-as-food philosophy that we’ve been looking at recently. Foodies rave about their cricket ramen, made with two kinds of local crickets, in which “[n]oodles, sauces and oils were also developed […] to express the charm of crickets in various ways.” At their new permanent Tokyo location, you can even wash down the umami-rich soup with their in-house cricket beer! 
 
Antcicada is now poised to reach even further into Japanese cuisine with a new collaboration with traditional miso manufacturer Noda Miso Co.: a “soy” sauce that has no soy in it at all, but instead uses as its base — three guesses — crickets! Noda Miso president Yoshinari Noda came up with the idea after developing cricket miso five years ago, after a student in one of his miso-making classes asked if it was possible.
 
“Noda, an avid traveler who had tried insects overseas, found the bugs rich in protein, like soybeans. […]

The two-spotted cricket, which has a ‘strong savory and aromatic flavor,’ and the house cricket, characterized by its ‘delicate and elegant taste,’ were used.

The crickets were provided by a start-up company in Tokushima Prefecture and another Japanese company.

The insects were pulverized into powder and treated with rice malt and salt in wooden buckets at Noda Miso Syoten. No soybeans were used in the production.

‘The flavor makes a difference,’ said Noda, referring to the finished soy sauce. ‘I cannot come up with any good descriptions of the flavor other than “cricket-like,” but it resembles that of nam pla and other kinds of fish sauce.’”
 
As we’ve seen in this space before, much is being made of crickets and insects as a protein alternative to meat. But Antcicada and Noda Miso’s collab is the first time I’ve seen flavour as the main selling point. It’s an interesting (and to me, far more appealing) approach! I wonder how long we’ll wait before that attitude — and possibly this soy sauce — make it to our shores?

Scotch Eggs and What Makes a Meal

Scotch Eggs

Much like a local dive bar who obeys liquor laws by keeping a dusty package of Miss Vickie’s behind the counter, UK pubs are getting creative in order to reopen after the end of their most recent lockdown. According to the law, a pub must be able to serve a “substantial meal” along with the pints of cask ale that form the usual menu. The trick is, many of these establishments don’t have kitchens, instead of serving light, cold foods or bar snacks, which means they must stay closed. This is bad news for the livelihoods of the folks who run these quintessentially British establishments.
 
To help their publican constituents, Conservative ministers are attempting to define the classic pub nosh, the scotch egg, as an official “substantial meal.” As a result, manufacturers of the sausage-and-breadcrumb-covered soft-boiled eggs are struggling to keep up with the sudden demand. In some markets, ten times the usual number of orders are coming in as the debate rages on. From The Guardian:
 
“[Gourmet scotch egg company] Happy Belly normally produces about 10,000 scotch eggs a week, said [owner Brendan] Baury. This week he has made 15,000 following a huge increase in enquiries from new customers, particularly kitchenless pubs. […]

Images and repeated discussions about scotch eggs on the news have also helped to drive up sales by putting the old-fashioned delicacy front and centre of people’s minds this week, according to Peter Nutt, who runs Nutts Scotch Eggs in Weston-super-Mare. ‘I think there was subliminal advertising going on. If you hear the phrase “scotch egg” mentioned enough times, it gets into your consciousness.’”
 
There’s a lot of fun British food out there; I’m glad this unique local snack is rising above the rest and bringing home the bacon for the UK’s small businesses. Whether or not this nosh qualifies as a “meal” is just semantics!

Candy Technology Sweetens New Mask Development

mask technology using cotton candy technology

Just in time for National Cotton Candy Day!: A physicist from OIST University in Okinawa has repurposed a trusty piece of fairground culinary equipment — the humble cotton candy spinner — into an inexpensive, quick, and effective method of manufacturing N95 filters for respirators. N95s are the most effective anti-COVID masks, filtering 95% of viruses breathed into or out of the wearer. This comes from the filter material’s non-woven nature, and its electrostatic charge; both features which make it tricky and slow to produce, leading to shortages. Enter Mahesh Bandi, with his MacGyvered method!
 
First, Bandi heated common plastics, like those from water bottles, as the “sugar base” analogue in the cotton candy process. Then he loaded the cotton candy machine hopper with this material, and spun the liquified plastic into a complex matrix of threads, making a mesh. The spinning process already electrostatically charged the textile a bit; Bandi later charged it fully by holding it next to an air ionizer vent. And voila: an N95-quality filter created with the ease of a county fair snack!
 
“Bandi tested his filters by placing several inside of surgical masks. He found the filters worked very well, but the masks were not a viable option. He then designed his own mask to allow easy insertion and removal of the filters (each mask requires three) and used a 3-D printer to produce the result. Rigorous testing (which included microscopic inspections and comparisons with N95 filters) showed the filters to be as effective at preventing inhalation of SARS-CoV-2 viruses as standard N95-type respirators.”
 
Bandi has published his results in Proceedings of the Royal Society A; with no plans to mass manufacture these filters himself, he hopes by offering his research, another organization with greater resources can pick up the baton. Here’s hoping this fascinating and deliciously simple technique gets wider use and helps with potential mask shortages — with the winter we’re expecting, we’re going to need all the innovation we can get.

Bugs on the Menu for Man’s Best Friends

While we in North America remain squeamish, other parts of the world have long boasted tasty traditions of insect-based cuisine. Over here, food innovators have been laying the groundwork for the adoption of crickets, mealworms, and grasshoppers as an alternative protein for a while now, but progress is slow.
 
At least in the human food department: Purina, a sub-brand of (the still problematic) Nestlé is piloting a dog and cat food line that features chicken, fava beans, and black soldier fly larvae. (A second flavour — chicken, pig liver, and millet, is bug free.)
 
This is in response to a general consumer pivot to more environmentally friendly protein options. Meat production is a stunningly resource-heavy undertaking, and the methane that is a byproduct of cow digestion is a big contributor to climate change. Farming insects for food could popularize a low-impact protein source for both humans and their furry friends.
 
“Purina also plans to offer U.S. consumers an insect-based dry dog formula in January online, Lorie Westhoff, a Purina spokeswoman said. It will be rolled out along with several other formulas using protein alternatives, like the invasive Asian carp, she said. […]

Nestlé doesn’t have an estimate on the potential environmental impact of switching pets to a bug-based diet yet, the company told NPR. But they said they ‘generally see the need to diversify sources of protein in food for a variety of reasons, including environmental goals such as fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity.’”
 
As a dog owner and a foodie, I look forward to further developments in bug-based pet foods with interest. However, as a human, I’ll take anything Nestlé says it’s doing to be a moral entity with a giant grain of salt. Maybe I can learn from this industry change, and incorporate insects into the homemade food we cook up for our liege, Samson? Though he may be too picky; instead, I may have more luck flipping the script — and perhaps a burger with some of our sauce — and starting with us!

Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat

Peppers+assortment_0f7704af-e9f5-421d-86d7-f79738cb41bb-prv

At the risk of becoming an all-chili-pepper, all-the-time newsletter, I’m bringing you more news this week from the capsaicin front. (Maybe it’s the wintery weather? I’m subconsciously seeking out all sources of heat…?)

A new study points to spicy pepper consumption as an overall mortality reducer, especially from cardiovascular or cancer-related causes. This study is the first-time chili’s blood-glucose-reducing, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties have been looked at in concert, amalgamating the results of nearly 5000 (!) previous studies to create a bigger picture.

“The health and dietary records of more than 570,000 individuals in the United States, Italy, China and Iran were used to compare the outcomes of those who consumed chili pepper to those who rarely or never ate chili pepper. Compared to individuals who rarely or never ate chili pepper, the analysis found that people who ate chili pepper had:  

  • a 26% relative reduction in cardiovascular mortality;
  • a 23% relative reduction in cancer mortality; and
  • a 25% relative reduction in all-cause mortality.”

These rates of reduction are stunning and immediately left me wanting to know more. But the study’s lead author, cardiologist Dr Bo Xu, says that this data is only a tantalizing taste (pun intended) of possible dietary influences of heart health and cancer prevention. In particular, future studies need to regularize exact amounts and type of chili peppers that net results, as well as other variables like study participant health info. Doing this will narrow down the “why” of chili’s effect on human health.

So, while the researchers work on their data and a final paper, I’ll kill the time by thinking about incorporating chili pepper into my diet more. While I still maintain I have nothing to prove in the spice-withstanding department, I’m happy to take a little heat for some potential health payoff. Maybe once my tolerance is up, the results will be in!

Brouhaha Boils Over Borscht Beginnings

Soup season is coming for us! The colder temps and shorter days have prompted me to haul out my giant pot and start simmering some of my family’s favourites. (Not to toot my own horn, but my classic chicken soup is legendary.)
 
Soup is the great unifier: Not only do most individual humans like it, but every culture boasts its own unique bowls of goodness.
 
Especially Ukraine; or, so says chef Ievgen Klopotenko. The Kyiv restauranteur and TV host bristles at the longstanding Russian claim to borscht, which he believes to be a dish of Ukrainian origin. He is so passionate about the issue that he has founded a non-profit and brought in the big guns — UNESCO — to claim borscht for his own country, rather than a powerful state that still represents the culturally homogenizing USSR.
 
“After months of research to back up his claim, Klopotenko says his application is now supported by the Ukrainian government.

This, despite that the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted last year that borscht is the country’s ‘most famous and beloved dishes.’

But Klopotenko wants to be clear that he is not looking to stir up his country’s already tense relationship with Russia over the dish. Since 2014, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin-supported militants in the country’s east, according to the Washington Post.

‘It’s not about fighting. It’s about how it is — that this dish is ours. It’s not Russian,’ Klopotenko said. ‘But Russians, they want to take that because they think that there is no such nation as Ukrainians.’”
 
Though this dispute seems small, it is symbolically huge, mixing ingredients like national identity, autonomy, and sovereignty in the simmering pot of international relations. But Klopotenko isn’t losing sight of the uniting force of soup. He believes that staking a Ukrainian claim in this small, tasty way, might serve to ease tensions between the two countries. (He also provides tips on what to look for in an authentic borscht: A sweet-sour balance and the inclusion of kvass, or fermented beet juice, for depth of flavour!)
I am inspired both politically and culinarily by Klopotenko’s quest. The latter is easier to respond to: The least I can do is try out an authentic borscht recipe, and see how we like it. Good thing my giant pot is still out and ready…!

Chili Sensing Device Can Take the Heat — Instead of Your Mouth

chili shaped plug-in

I am wary of spicy foods. I’m not like those competitive Carolina-Reaper-eating maniacs; I have nothing to prove. I like a little bit of heat, but not so much it becomes an impediment to enjoying my dinner, rather than an enhancement. The problem with spice though is that it’s subjective — and once you tuck into that vindaloo, or taco, or mapo tofu, you are well past the point of no return.
 
Well, a team from Prince of Songkla University in Thailand (a country well-experienced in spicy cuisine) is here to save the cautious among us! They have invented an adorable widget that plugs into a smartphone, which can assess capsaicin levels of samples dropped into it, instantly. Shaped like a classic red chili, the portable device uses a paper sensor to soak up the chili pepper or food sample, and turn around a result that is then displayed on the smartphone screen. The technology behind this invention is tiny and fascinating. From the American Chemical Society:
 
“The paper-based electrochemical sensor within the device consisted of graphene nanoplatelets doped with nitrogen atoms to improve their electrical conductivity. When the team added a drop of diluted capsaicin to the sensor, the compound underwent oxidation and reduction reactions, producing an electrical current that the device detected. After optimizing the sensor, the researchers used it to determine capsaicin concentrations in six dried chili samples.”
 
The team focussed on portability, ease of use, and low cost. (While other capsaicin sensors do exist, they are too bulky and expensive to bring to the dinner table with you.) For me, this invention is a game-changer: no more guessing, tip-of-the-tongue-testing, or trying to decipher what the waiter really means by “medium.” Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on a commercial rollout of this device, but I await it with bated — and fiery — breath!

The Human Sweet Tooth and our Ancient Brain

human sweets

Finally, a scientific reason why I keep forgetting that bag of carrots in the back of my fridge until they turn into a mouldy, noodley tangle! Researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have shown one particular way in which humans have retained our “Stone age brains”: We are hardwired to remember the locations of calorie-dense foods far more accurately than “lighter” foods. Bye-bye, carrot sticks; hello carrot cake.
 
The study involved 512 participants, who were each guided through a room where the researchers had planted eight samples of actual foods or eight food scents (on cotton pads). The participants smelled the foods or food scents, and then rated them by how appealing they found them. Half of each kind of sample were high calorie (like brownies and potato chips), and half were low calorie (like apples and cherry tomatoes). When the participants were later asked to point out the samples on a map of the room, they were 30% more accurate at recalling the locations of the high-calorie samples — and 243% more accurate when the foods were real, instead of just scents.
 
“‘Our main takeaway message is that human minds seem to be designed for efficiently locating high-calorie foods in our environment,’ says Rachelle de Vries, a Ph.D. candidate in human nutrition and health at Wageningen University and lead author of the new paper. De Vries feels her team’s findings support the idea that locating valuable caloric resources was an important and regularly occurring problem for early humans weathering the climate shifts of the Pleistocene epoch. ‘Those with a better memory for where and when high-calorie food resources would be available were likely to have a survival — or fitness — advantage,’ she explains.”
 
Once upon a Pleistocene, this cool talent saved our bacon. But there is a downside for today’s humans. For those of us lucky enough to live where sugar and fat are readily available, the ancient instinct to zero in on it and eat as much as possible (lest we not find another source for months, or get gored by a mammoth tomorrow) is a contributing factor to the modern scourges of obesity and diabetes. Retraining our brains in a habit that is so deeply ingrained may not be possible — so I plan to rely on my frontal lobe writing me a sticky note on my fridge, that just says “CARROTS.” Once remembered, whether or not I eat them is another story…!