Book Review – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

America’s burgeoning “foodie” movement owes much to Michael Pollan. The author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” opened the eyes of many readers to the issues surrounding modern agricultural production, from out-of-touch government subsidies of corn growers to the disconnect between the expectations and realities of industrialized organic produce. In his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Pollan shifts his focus from the farm to the table, providing an elegantly written primer into the art and science of turning food into meals.

“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. Courtesy of

The book’s subtitle of “natural history” is well chosen, as Pollan’s approach to the science of his subject is more akin to that of a Victorian museum than a modern, specialized laboratory. He chooses to divide the world of cookery into four thematic sections mirroring the classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In each part, the author delves firsthand into a fundamental food preparation technique, telling the narrative of his own experience as he riffs on the chemical and cultural significance of the process. The style is highly observational, but in the best way, expansive and richly detailed.

Pollan begins with the most “primitive” of cooking styles, that of meat over flame, by diving into the world of Southern whole-hog barbecue. The technique takes on quasi-religious significance for its practitioners, and the author riffs brilliantly on the similarities between ancient burnt offerings and modern masters of the fire pit. After the pyrotechnics of this section, he moves into the kitchen, ostensibly discussing the many pot dishes made by braising in water. But it is from this humble beginning that Pollan establishes the main message of the book: cooking for oneself and one’s family and friends is among the most physically and psychologically healthful of activities.

He continues to expand on this point as he moves through the more esoteric techniques of baking and fermentation, representing air and earth in turn. As he explains, learning to make “advanced” products like bread and beer provides an irreplaceable sense of self-reliance, as well as a greater appreciation in consumption. The common thread of patience ties all four parts together: cooking, whether the slow burn of a barbeque pit or the months-long curing of cheese, cannot be rushed, and in this way stands in opposition to the breakneck pace of modernity.

In “Cooked,” Pollan has written an endlessly engaging and thoughtful treatise on why cooking matters. Like the products it describes, the book is a feast for the senses and the mind, an inspiration to cook further. The author offers a handful of recipes in an appendix just for that purpose, and a reader can’t be blamed for heading straight to the kitchen.


A Drop of Value – Wine Additives

As alcoholic beverages go, wine would seem to be among the simplest to produce, requiring little more than grapes, water and time; after all, humans have been producing the potable for over 6,000 years. But the modern, industrial-scale wineries of makers such as E&J Gallo, the company behind the Carlo Rossi and Barefoot brands, have little in common with the Copper Age vessels of the earliest vintners—and their products also contain ingredients that would have astounded their Neolithic forefathers.

Holding tanks at the largest winery in the world, operated by E&J Gallo in Livingston, California. Courtesy of Wine Business.

Take, for example, the coloring agent known as “Mega Purple.” The substance, a thick concentrate of grapes from the “Rubired” cultivar, adds a rich redness and jammy sweetness to any batch of wine. Mega Purple is astoundingly potent: 200 milliliters is enough for an entire wine barrel of 119 liters (less than two-tenths of a percent of the finished product).  Although few winemakers openly admit to using the additive, anonymous industry sources estimate that nearly 25 million bottles per year contain some Mega Purple, including several ultra-premium brands.

While Mega Purple adds flavor, sulfur dioxide prevents it from being lost. The chemical acts as an antimicrobial and antioxidative agent, fighting the negative effects that can come from improper wine storage. Yeast naturally produce small amounts of sulfur dioxide during fermentation, around 10 parts per million, but winemakers often add more to ensure the quality of their products. However, high levels of the gas can cause some people to have allergic or sensitive reactions, including asthma, stomach upset and dizziness.

The speed of wine production has also increased thanks to chemical additives. Aging in oak barrels, a lengthy and expensive process, adds flavors known as aromatic compounds and is considered an integral part of making fine wines. When winemakers don’t have the time or money to spend, they can add these flavors directly through oak essence, a concentrate that imparts vanilla, spice and coconut aromas. While oak essence is certainly convenient, it can’t replace the other benefits of oak aging, such as tannin reduction and the improvement of clarity and color.

In response to these practices, a growing number of winemakers have begun to market additive-free wines. Consumer acceptance has been a challenge; without the benefit of added sulfur dioxide, for example, a wine can become murky or become spoiled in transport. But, as sommelier Hugues Lepin explains, there are some definite positives to additive-free production: “I’m often being asked by customers to choose a wine that won’t give them a hangover and I always choose a wine that’s been made with little sulphur dioxide.”


News Flash – Greenpeace Protests Proctor & Gamble

CINCINNATI — Nine activists from the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace led a protest of consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble on Tuesday, charging the company with complicity in the destruction of Indonesian rainforests to establish palm tree plantations. The protesters rappelled down the twin towers of P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters, revealing two 60-foot banners reading “Head and Shoulders wipes out dandruff and rainforests” and “Head & Shoulders: Stop putting tiger survival on the line.”

Greenpeace activists unfurled two banners on the buildings of Proctor & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters. Courtesy of WCPO.

According to Greenpeace, the palm oil found in P&G products such as Head & Shoulders shampoo and Gillette shaving cream is often sourced from plantations grown in clear-cut tropical areas. This practice endangers the habitat of numerous vulnerable species, among them the charismatic Sumatran tiger. One of the activists dressed in a tiger suit during the action to focus particular attention on the threat posed to this animal.

P&G’s official materials claim that the company is “strongly opposed to irresponsible and/or illegal deforestation practices” and promise that all of its palm oil will be purchased from confirmed sustainable sources by 2015. However, Greenpeace researchers argue that the firm’s supply chain includes environmentally unfriendly companies such as BW Plantations, which was recently charged with the destruction of prime orangutan habitat in central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The nine protesters reportedly gained access to P&G “via a third party who shares a P&G office space,” according to spokeswoman Lisa Popyk. After climbing through the windows of the buildings and establishing the banners, the group maintained the action for approximately an hour before peacefully submitting to law enforcement. Each activist was charged with felony counts of burglary and vandalism, with possible indictment scheduled for March 14. The group is currently free on $50,000 cash bonds for each member, posted by Greenpeace.

In the Crossfire – Pacific Fishers and the War on Drugs

America’s “War on Drugs” has claimed many casualties, but one group impacted by drug policy has no history of use, sale, or possession; it even lacks the opposable thumbs needed to roll a joint. The Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti), a rare relative of otters and minks native to the West Coast, is in danger of extinction due to chemical use at illegal marijuana cultivation sites in the Sierra National Forest, one of its crucial habitats.

The Pacific fisher, courtesy of Sierra Forest Legacy.

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal in the state of California, but the drug is still considered a Schedule I substance under U.S. law, and federal agents continue to destroy hundreds of thousands of plants in the region every year. These raids have pushed some growers to establish grow sites on isolated portions of public lands such as forests and parks, which are more difficult to patrol. Operating outside any regulatory framework, these grows pose a number of environmental hazards, including watershed pollution, habitat destruction, and wildfire risk.

According to Craig Thompson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, a previously unrecognized problem is the unregulated use of rodenticides, or rat poisons, to prevent damage to marijuana plants. These poisons can impact a wide range of nontarget species, including the Pacific fisher. Thompson and his colleagues tracked fishers using radio collars over a five-year period, monitoring their home ranges and performing autopsies on any that died during the study. Of the 46 deceased animals analyzed, 39 (85%) tested positive for a rodenticide. When the home ranges of these fishers were examined, the scientists found that they contained significantly more illegal marijuana grow sites than the ranges of fishers that tested negative for the poisons. As the animals rarely entered into legitimate agricultural lands or human-inhabited areas, the team hypothesized that the grow sites were the sources of the rodenticides.

Although only one fisher died directly due to rodenticide poisoning, lower doses of these compounds still have dangerous effects. Sluggish reflexes, reduced rates of healing, and even brain damage can all result from exposure to rodenticides, rendering the fisher more vulnerable to starvation and infection. As Thompson explained, “By increasing the number of animals that die from supposedly natural causes, these pesticides may be tipping the balance of recovery for fishers.” The species is currently a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and its estimated U.S. population as of 2012 (roughly 4,600) is far under its historical numbers.

Regulating the environmental effects of marijuana production is impossible when production itself is outlawed. By providing a proper legal framework for marijuana growers, officials can create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly market, benefiting humans and fishers alike.

Special Order – Lab-Cultured Meat

Fast-food giant McDonald’s has attracted a great deal of attention in the past few weeks for refusing to raise prices on their famous Big Mac hamburger in order to increase the wages of their workers. One wonders, then, what the corporation would think of a burger that cost $330,000. Such a sandwich was recently displayed (and consumed) in London, its hefty price tag justified by its unusual origins: the all-beef patty was derived entirely from lab-cultured tissue.

The first lab-grown burger. Courtesy of David Parry.

Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is the man behind the meat. Post’s team harvested stem cells from the muscle tissue of a live cow, then placed these cells in a mixture of fetal calf serum and growth medium. By maintaining a close control on the nutrients available to the stem cells, the team ensured that they differentiated into muscle cells instead of the myriad of other possible cell types. As the cells grew and divided, they formed tiny muscle fibers, or myotubes, which the researchers stretched in the lab to simulate exercise. Approximately 20,000 of the half-inch long, twenty-fifth-inch diameter strips were combined to form the final burger, which the tasters judged as “close to meat” and “surprisingly crunchy.”

The process is certainly more difficult (and expensive, although the cost of the London burger was defrayed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin) than raising an actual cow, but proponents of lab-cultured meat emphasize a number of possible benefits. By bypassing the inefficiencies of energy transfer involved with feeding animals, as discussed in a previous article on this blog, Post estimates that his method can save 70 percent of the energy used in conventional meat production. A recent article published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology also projects radical reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions, land requirements and water use of meat production through the use of laboratory techniques. Even the animal rights organization PETA is supportive of the idea, emphasizing the millions of animals who could potentially be spared from slaughter and mistreatment.

Besides cost, a number of technical hurdles remain before cultured meat can be considered ready for supermarket shelves. Only muscle tissue can currently be produced by available methods, which is sufficient for a hamburger but not for a full-fledged sirloin or other cuts. Post’s team is hoping to produce fat and bone cells from culture in the months to come, but structuring them into a steak could take more work. The nutrient content of the meat has yet to be tested, and it is likely that it will need to be supplemented with iron and other minerals. From an ethical standpoint, meat culture using current methods still requires a donor animal for the initial stem cells. Other researchers are attempting to bypass this requirement by isolating embryonic stem cells, which can divide indefinitely, or by regressing skin cells into stem cells for differentiation into muscle. A guilt-free filet mingon may be indeed be a possibility in the years to come.

Slimy Yet Satisfying – Insects as Food

At first glance, the products designed by the United Kingdom-based startup Ento seem just like any other work of modernist culinary art. As might be expected, the plates are white, the lines are crisp, and the portions are small. Yet the company’s goal is unique among haute cuisine: introduce insects into the diets of Western diners. The four co-founders, students at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, believe that their approach can help overcome the cultural taboo surrounding insect consumption by focusing on taste and nutrition, but there are strong ecological reasons for eating insects as well.

An ento box, courtesy of

The species of any given ecosystem form a food web, a complex series of interactions representing which organisms eat what other organisms in the environment. The place of a species in the food web can be defined by its trophic level, which indicates how many steps stand between the initial source of energy (usually, but not always, the sun) and that species. In a kelp forest, for example, herbivorous fish form the second trophic level, with only the seaweed standing between them and solar energy, while sharks might be found at the fifth or higher trophic level. A great deal of energy is lost from one trophic level to the next; the general inefficiency is given by the “ten percent rule,” which estimates that each step up the food chain loses 90 percent of the energy in the previous step.

Both cattle and grasshoppers are on the second trophic level, grazing on similar species of grass or grain, but the efficiency with which these organisms convert their food into biomass varies greatly. As warm-blooded animals, cattle require a great deal of food to maintain their body temperature, and it is estimated that only three percent of the energy in grass is used to fatten a cow. Grasshoppers require much less energy for metabolism and can put more of it towards growing larger; estimates of the food conversion efficiency for edible grasshopper species range from 10 to 15 percent, up to five times that of cattle.

The greatly superior efficiency of insects provides a possible solution to one of the most pressing issues of world nutrition, that of increased protein demand in developing countries. As nations such as China and India have become wealthier, their citizens have begun to consume more meat, which has led to increased stress on the environment both from methane emissions and habitat destruction for pasture land. As the United Nations has pointed out, the increased efficiency and decreased carbon impact of insects would fulfill the protein needs of the growing human population while minimizing its effects on the planet. Indeed, over two billion people already eat insects on a regular basis, mostly in Asia and Africa. Perhaps increased knowledge about the scientific benefits of insect consumption will help overcome long-standing taboos on the practice based on Biblical prohibition or the view of insects as agricultural pests. Of course, when insect-based meals look this good, no convincing may be required.

What You Eat – GMO Labeling

California voters found themselves in the middle of a media firestorm last November over a ballot measure with the innocuous name of Proposition 37. Beneath the legalese, the measure would have required all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold as food in the state of California to be labeled with the fact that they had been modified. Those in favor of the proposition included smaller organic companies like the cereal maker Nature’s Path and the dairy producer Organic Valley, while those opposed were primarily larger corporate interests such as the seed company Monsanto and the Kellogg Company (the parent corporation of the “natural” branded Kashi and MorningStar product lines). Total spending on efforts to support or defeat the measure topped $50 million, with “No” lobbyists making up over 90 percent of that amount. This spending spree seemed to have been effective, as voters rejected the proposition by an approximately three percent margin. The debate over GMO labeling, however, continues across the rest of the United States, with Connecticut and Maine recently passing their own labeling requirements.

A European food label listing GMOs, courtesy of Farm Wars.

The term “GMO” has taken on a life of its own, and the politicized nature of the debate has in many ways obscured the science behind the issue. GMO is a blanket term used to refer to any organism whose DNA has been manipulated by means outside of natural processes. The label is most commonly applied to transgenic organisms, in which genetic material from other species is introduced into the target organism. The most famous transgenic crop may be Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybean (the organism at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision). In normal soybeans, the herbicide Roundup prevents a vital biochemical pathway from functioning, killing the plant. Roundup Ready soybeans, on the other hand, have been modified with a bacterial version of the gene targeted by Roundup, making them immune to the herbicide’s effects. Farmers are then able to spray Roundup over their fields, killing weeds while leaving their crop intact.

The “Yes on 37” camp is primarily concerned with the safety of GMOs and believes that labeling these foods will allow consumers to make an informed decision at the supermarket. The research on this point, however, is almost universally supportive of the safety of these crops; as reported by the National Research Council, after “14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” Indeed, the regulation of GMOs is much stricter than that of novel conventional crops, which are more likely to have unanticipated impacts as they are introduced around the world. The “No on 37” effort raises a number of other concerns with labeling schemes, including increased grocery costs due to regulatory compliance and the possibility of “shakedown lawsuits” for unintentional errors in labeling. While there are legitimate ecological concerns regarding GMO crops, these are perhaps better addressed at higher regulatory levels. GMO labeling is more likely to raise anti-scientific sentiment at a time where every alternative for feeding the world is worthy of exploration.