Monday, November 23, 2015

FrankenFish and Cultured Chicken

Last week, the FDA stunned the anti-GMO movement by approving a genetically modified Atlantic salmon to be farmed for human consumption--the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified. The new fish will have its genes altered to enable it to grow faster than un-altered salmon, thus increasing its profitability without, its makers say, making it unsafe for the public. The new salmon will not have to be labeled as a GMO product, either, according to the FDA. Activist groups have vowed to oppose the sale of these new fish, and some retailers, such as Kroger's, have said they will not carry it on their shelves.

Science is here to stay, it seems, in all aspects of our lives, to be sure--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. We accept CAT scans and airplanes and microwave ovens, cellphones and hairdryers--all products of Science, which we use with varying levels of unease throughout our daily lives. That Science rears its head in the production of our food? This, I think, trips our inner alarm bells in an even more visceral way, especially when choice--not labeling a GMO product as such, for instance--is taken away from us. It conflates into the ugliest notions about Science and scientists: that it is somehow a conspiracy of eggheads who, at best, are the helpless pawns of conciousless corporate overlords, or, at worst, a group of PhDed psychopaths determined to destroy all mankind for their own sick pleasure.

Stereotypes aside, what is Science up to with our food, and why? That things must be made cheaper, faster, last longer on the shelves, and cause no immediate, easily verifiable damage to our bodies seems to be the goal of modern food production in America. Whatever negative impacts are made on the environment in this quest seems to never be part of the equation, and, somewhere below that never, the well-being of the animals on whose flesh we feed.

But what if that were not the case? What if Science was as concerned with the environment and the animals we consume, while also trying to provide us with animal products? Enter "Cultured Chicken," the result of The Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF) in Ramat Gan, Israel. This all volunteer, nonprofit organization was founded in March last year, and by January launched the world’s first feasibility study to determine the cost, timetable and resources to create commercial cultured chicken breast.

What is the world is a "cultured chicken breast"? Does it enjoy Proust, ponder Hegel, weep at the climax of La Traviata? Sadly, no. Let's let MFA explain in their handy infographic, below:

Says MAF cofounder Shir Friedman:
“Today, the meat, dairy and egg industries are among the major contributors to climate change. They consume huge amounts of valuable resources such as energy and fresh water, contribute to the outbreak of pandemics such as swine flu and are the cause of deaths of billions of animals every year."
About half the earth’s land area is taken up by livestock and the crops that feed them. A third of our freshwater is used for livestock and their food, and half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle headed to slaughter. Cultured meat production would require between seven and 45 percent less energy, 90% less fresh water and 99% less land, and would result in 80 to 90% less greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere.

One of the MAF’s biggest challenges, says the article, is to convince people that cultured meat is not “Frankenfood” and involves no genetic engineering. It is not a meat substitute, but 100% meat. When produced on a mass scale, cultured meat won’t be made in a lab but in a factory just like any other processed food from ketchup to cornflakes.

Talk about "cruelty-free!"

Now look here, you say. That's all well and good, but darn it, can't I just have a piece of chicken without Science all up in it? The kind of chicken Grandma had--is it really too much to ask?? 

It turns out, it is. Even Grandma stopped having chicken like she grew up with, if Grandma grew up in the pre-World War ll era. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the fact that Science has, for a long time now, been up in your chicken.

Let's go all the way back, about 2,000 years ago, when chickens were first domesticated. From the very start of the human-chicken relationship, we have used what we would call Science to change them for our purposes. Strange as it may seem, chickens weren't initially bred to be meals back then, but for their fighting abilities--that's right, cock fighting. 

a mosaic uncovered in Pompeii, probably from the first century AD.
Over time, however, the primary value in poultry keeping was eggs, and meat was considered a byproduct of egg production. Its supply was less than the demand, and poultry was expensive. Except in hot weather, eggs can be shipped and stored without refrigeration for some time before going bad; this was important in the days before widespread refrigeration. There was a reason Herbert Hoover's Presidential campaign slogan in 1928 was "A Chicken in Every Pot." Chicken was expensive, and a rarity, and being able to have it was indeed a sign of prosperity.

By the late 1950s, poultry production had changed dramatically. Refrigeration, the development of Vitamin D (which made it possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round), new breeding and in-cage- egg-laying techniques all helped to industrialize something that once was a niche product of small family farms. 

All this helped to make chicken the item that we perhaps most take for granted on any given menu. 

But back to your Grandma's chicken.

The other way that chicken has changed, besides becoming cheaper and more easily available to us than previous generations, is the sheer size of the things. Check it out:

Cross breeding chickens in the late '40's created the monsters we find wrapped in cellophane in our markets today: plumper thighs, meatier drumsticks, and breasts that would make Mae West blush. And, though products of breeding rather than genetic manipulation (or growth hormones, still illegal in the U.S.) they share the fast growth rate of their salmon cousins, going from chick to a five-pound bird in just six weeks. 

The downside?
These ideal chickens don’t have ideal health. The bigger, fatter chickens get sicker than the birds of yesterday. Confinement and excess weight lead to stress, reproductive issues, cardiovascular disease, and skeletal problems. Heavy antibiotics use — needed to combat disease — has led to disease-resistant bacteria, which are present in about half of all chicken in US stores.
As if that weren't bad enough, these mutant birds don't taste very good either. In my experience buying the big breasts or thighs, usually because of some irresistible sale, I'm lead to regret my thrift because the meat is tough and tasteless. Something the industry could care less about, having already got my money, I'm sure. 

For all these reasons--environmental, animal welfare, the health of us humans, and the taste of our dinners, I'm fairly interested in this cultured chicken business (and also beef).

Hebrew University Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says that if the process becomes economically feasible, “the ecological and ethical considerations would make cultured meat irresistible. Cultured meat is one of the most important revolutions in the history of food and in the history of humankind itself.”

What do you think, Calvin?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Paleo ... Cheerios?

We've talked before on this blog about the problems with the USDA's food labeling system. How proposed changes don't go far enough, and how misleading though completely legal some aspects of labeling can be. Usually, one is merely annoyed by such tactics; however, annoyance can sometimes become elevated to outright disgust. It's not a nice feeling to be lied to, especially by your food.

Not everyone is taking it lying down. As reported in Mother Jones, a group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest has had enough with the labeling shenanigans already, and has filed a class-action lawsuit against General Mills over their product Cheerios Protein. In a California federal court, CSPI alleges that "General Mills falsely and misleadingly markets Cheerios Protein to children and adults as a high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios," when, in fact, it is anything but. I won't spoil it for you, by all means click over to the article for full details, but I will say that it seems you are getting something extra when you buy Cheerios Protein, but it's more than just protein.

Not pictured: the "S" word.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Baby Steps: The Childhood Obesity Smackdown

It doesn't take a scientist to tell you that there are a lot of over-weight kids out there. Nor do you need a laundry list of the less-than-desirable outcomes for these kids, both physical and mental, awaiting them in the future, or that they are experiencing right now, if something isn't done. 

As for the causes, there are almost too many boogie men to point the finger at: a prevalence of cheap but unhealthy foods and sugary drinks that all too often target children, lack of access to exercise, and lack of knowledge about health and diet from the adults in their lives, to name a few.

Still part of the problem, McDonalds

But the good news is, there is actually some good news. Although overall obesity rates remain high, and prevalence among 2-19 year olds and adults in the United States has not changed significantly between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012, for very young children, however, data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) do show a decline in obesity prevalence in the 2 to 5 year old age group from nearly 14 percent in 2003-2004, to just over 12 percent in 2009-2010, to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

Below, childhood obesity by state.

Good on ya, Oregon, New Mexico, Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana,
New York and New Jersey! Not so good on ya, a lot of other states.

Clearly, though there is still much work to do, these states that have seen their childhood obesity rates among their 2 to 5 year olds fall may have something to offer in terms of how they got those numbers down.

On the national level, a way to help kids have more and better options to healthy food has come through the new mandates set for the National School Lunch Program. It requires every school student to have at least one choice of fruit and one vegetable per school-supplied meal. So, that's a "top down" approach, and laudable as far as it goes. But, much like how leading a horse to water doesn't necessarily mean it will drink, just giving kids access to fruits and veggies doesn't mean they will eat them, as any parent knows. And as frustrating as it can sometimes be trying to get your own kids to eat right, imagine that same difficulty on a national scale! 

This article, however, describes a study conducted in 2011 that lead to a solution to the problem that borders on the zen-like in its simplicity. Want kids to stop throwing away their fruits and veggies and eat them? Reschedule recess.

Emphasis mine.
“Recess is often held after lunch so children hurry to “finish” so that they can go play—this results in wasted fruits and vegetables,” explains co-author David Just, PhD of Cornell University, “However, we found that if recess is held before lunch, students come to lunch with healthy appetites and less urgency and are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables.” 
... After analyzing a total of 22,939 observations, the researchers concluded that in the schools that switched recess to before lunch children ate 54% more fruits and vegetables. There was also a 45% increase in those eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. During the same time period consumption of fruits and vegetables actually decreased in the schools that didn’t switch.

Not only did this switch help the kids, but it saved the school districts money by decreasing food waste, offsetting the higher cost of offering healthier food choices. 

And that helps everybody.