Take Your PIC

Take your PIC: Bonding with Food presents the Public Information Campaign

PIC Presentations

Presenting at the Public Information Campaign

As part of an initiative to inform the public about current food issues, the Public Information Campaign was a night of presentations aimed to educate about topics such as fats, pesticides, organic vs. conventional foods, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners, which are detailed below.

High Fructose Corn Syrup. Sounds scary right? But it’s in so much of our food, from candy to fruit juice, bread to chicken nuggets.

Sweet surprise or deadly demise?

Sweet surprise or deadly demise?

So what is “High Fructose Corn Syrup”? To be honest, I didn’t really know prior to this assignment. I had some vague idea about some sugar/starch conspiracy that caused diabetes. And considering the popular media, it’s not surprising that this was my concept of High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS.

This video, above, is a response to an ad, below, by the Corn Grower’s Association, a national group that represents the corn refining industry in America, attempting to dispel HFCS’s negative image.

But where is the truth? Is HFCS poisoning our food or is it the same as sugar? Initially, I thought it had to be some cover-up by the corn industry and that it was actually causing diabetes and cancer and everything other health malady, but by digging deeper, I learned that the issue is much more complicated than it initially appears.

High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, is a liquid sweetener derived from #2 corn (commodity corn) which is grown in higher yield than sweet corn. Where table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide (double sugar) made of glucose and fructose bonded together, HFCS has both of these sugars, but individually rather than bonded.

Sweet Structures

Sweet Structures

While HFCS does not have identical structure to table sugar, it is made up of the same components. So is it the same?

Due to its nature as a mixture of two sugars, glucose and fructose, there are two pathways by which HFCS is metabolized.

Metabolism

Differences in digestion between glucose and fructose

Due to these differences, HFCS has been blamed for the rise of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases as rates or these rose at the same time that HFCS was rising in use, but does this imply a causal link?

Lemons Graph

The graph above shows an apparent trend of a decrease in US highway fatalities and the number of lemons imported from Mexico increases. Clearly, the imported lemons have no effect on highway safety, but since the increase of one is concurrent with the decrease of the other, it could be assumed that there is a causal link between them. A similar coincidence may have occurred with the concurrent rise of HFCS and chronic disease, such that HFCS might appear to cause these diseases due to a mere coincidence.

However, it is important to note that while HFCS may not directly be causing these issues, increased sugar intake as a result of the increased use of HFCS could certainly create this health concerns. The average American consumes about 19 teaspoons (75 grams) of sugar a day, and since HFCS represents 42% of those sugars, at the very least the calories from HFCS are having a negative effect on our health, if not the substance itself.

Studies have supported both the idea that HFCS causes chronic disease and the idea that it has no effect, and there is no conclusive evidence yet, so while both the use of HFCS and chronic disease have increase in the past 40 years, there is not yet a proven causal link and the complexity of the issue has yet to be fully explained.

So what I know now is that I didn’t actually know what I thought I knew! My views of high fructose corn syrup were unfairly biased based on information that didn’t actually exist. And interestingly, I had a similar experience with the other topics at the Public Information Campaign, finding that what I thought I knew was just inaccurate. Here’s some of the highlights:

I thought that I knew that some artificial sweeteners eat holes in your brain, but apparently  the truth is that while some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners such as Spenda have negative health effects, but these used doses as high as 3000 mg/kg body weight/day or 17,200 packets in an average person per day, indicating that the level necessary for this effect is impossibly high for normal consumption. I mean, if you drank that much water in a day, it would have “negative health effects” (death) a whole lot sooner! In fact Stevia, a sweetener derived from the Stevia plant, been shown to have positive health effect like increasing glucose tolerance and anti-hypertensive/inflammatory/tumor/hyperglycemic effects.

And I was always under the impression that “0” means “none”, but apparently not according to the FDA: FDA regulations state that foods can be labeled as “0 grams trans fat” as long as there are <0.5 grams of trans fats per serving (a trans fat is a particular shape of fat produced by partial hydrogenation resulting in a rearrangement of unsaturated fat structure).

Gir Scout Cookies

“Partially Hydrogenated Oil” means trans fat, so how can it say 0?

Trans Fat

A trans-unsaturated fatty acid
Red circles indicate trans (zigzag) double bond structure.

As there is partially hydrogenated oil in the cookies, there are actually trans fats, despite the misleading label.

In terms of  meat production, while farms are required to test their products for contaminants, such as E. Coli., Listeria, and Salmonella, they do not have to wait for the results of these tests before sending the products to market, and choose instead to recall the product if it is later found to test positive for these contaminants.

Personally, I eat two or three apples a day, so I was disappointed to learn that they top the list for the twelve foods with the most pesticide contamination, according to a list created by The Environmental Working Group. They also created a list of the fifteen foods with the most pesticide contamination (“Clean Fifteen”). Go onions!

The Clean Fifteen

The “Clean Fifteen”

The Dirty Dozen

The “Dirty Dozen”

But if you want to get pesticides off your food, water is just as good as a commercial fruit and vegetable wash, according to a study by Dr. Walter Krol of the Department of Analytical Chemistry at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Apparently the mechanical force of running water was effective in removing pesticides.

Veggie wash or wash your veggies?

Veggie wash or wash your veggies?

Overall, some themes occurred again and again throughout the presentations, including:

Read food labels: One of the fastest and easiest ways to find out what you’re eating is to read the label. Even serial numbers can tell you something. In fact, if the serial number has a “9” in front, it’s an organic food!

Look critically at studies: While everyone likes to use “scientific studies” as “proof”, sometimes the studies can be misleading. Of course artificial sweeteners are bad for you if you eat 17,000 packets of them in one day!

Consider bias in all information: Any interest group is going to want you to think that their product is good (or at least not bad) for you. And their opponents will want you to think that it’s awful so that you buy theirs instead. So who funded that add that told you corn sugar is the same as regular sugar? Was it the Corn Refiner’s Association? Just because it was, does that mean the information is necessarily inaccurate? No, it just means that you should be aware of what they might want you to think.

“The best choice” depends on what you are looking to add or avoid: No trans fat! High in vitamins! Diet! No carbs! Low fat! Sugar-free! These are all advertizing slogans, but what’s really important? Well, that’s up to you. Do you want to trade sugar for Splenda and avoid calories? Go for it! But that doesn’t mean that everyone should.

“Clean” is relative: So back to my apples. If I’m concerned about pesticides on them what can I do? First off, wash them! Will it help? Probably, but if I’m still worried, I can switch to organic apples, which certified as being grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. But I’m going to wash those organic apples too, because manure is organic but that doesn’t mean I want to eat it.

Everything in moderation: Yep, it’s still true! Whether it’s sugar or fats, even vitamins, enough of anything will kill you. So do you have to avoid Oreos for life because they have trans fats? Not if you don’t want to! But you probably also shouldn’t eat them three meals a day, everyday, for ten years.

Overall, I loved this assignment because it confused me. I’m glad that it attacked my “this is good, that is bad” ideas about certain foods, because the truth is somewhere in between.

Aside

Who Said Oil and Water Don’t Mix?

 

There is an old saying that water and oil don’t mix. From a scientific standpoint this is almost always true. The polarity of water makes it repel from other lipid or fatty liquids that are otherwise non-polar. This however is not always the case. Have you ever heard of emulsions? An emulsion is a combination of two liquids that would not ordinarily mix together. Oil and water may be the best example of two liquids that normally do not mesh, but can be made into savory recipes such as mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

In an emulsion a liquid, such as oil, is broken into millions of small particles and the other liquid, such as water, then surrounds each one of these water particles. This is essentially the same as a suspension, such as salad dressing. The difference between a suspension and an emulsion is that a suspension will eventually separate and the two liquids have to be re-mixed or suspended. An emulsion on the other hand stays as this oil/water solution. The key factor in making an emulsion is the emulsifier. The emulsifier keeps the droplets of liquid from coming together with one another and then crashing out of the solution.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on at the molecular level…

            Emulsifiers are molecules that contain both a polar and non-polar end. The hydrophobic tail of the emulsifier surrounds the oil droplets, thus not allowing the oil to make larger droplets. With this emulsifier coating, the oil droplets bounce off one another instead of sticking together and making larger macro-droplets (oil repels away from the hydrophilic head sticking out of the other oil droplets). The hydrophilic head of the emulsifier is then able to interact with the water droplets, preventing them from combining. The water normally has a strong inward pull or surface tension between the water molecules that keeps them compact and stuck together. When the emulsifier dissolves in the water it impedes this inward pull that allows the individual water droplets to get dispersed throughout the mixture.  So as we are looking at an emulsion such as mayonnaise we may think the water and oil have become miscible with one another, but on the molecular level there is some trickery going on. The two compounds give the effect of one solution but are not actually mixed together as one solution. The liquids are rather evenly dispersed and forced to stay close together with the aid of an emulsifier.

 

Common emulsifiers used in cooking are mustard, honey, and vinegar. But the mac-daddy of all emulsifiers is the egg yolk. The egg yolk is the most widely used emulsifier in the kitchen and for good reason. Egg yolks contain lecithin, which is an excellent emulsifier.

 

Why Buy Hellman’s (mayonnaise) When Homemade Is SO Much Better

The key to making any good emulsion is first making sure to completely disperse and break-up the oil into tiny droplets. A convenient way of doing this is by using a food processor (although a whisk and a little elbow grease works fine too).  

What you will need:    1 egg, 1 tsp NaCl, 1 tsp mustard, ¼ tsp sugar, 2 tbsp lemon, 2 tbsp vinegar, 2 cups vegetable oil

Start by mixing the egg in the food processor until well blended. Next add the NaCl, mustard, sugar, lemon, and vinegar and mix again. Then slowly add your oil while the processor is mixing. The mixture will then appear right before your eyes as one mass of mayonnaise! Changing the type of oil can also give you knew and tasty mayonnaises. For those who like something a little spicy, try using a hot pepper flake olive oil. Or if you’re looking for a new bread dip, using olive oil creates a scrumptious little spread (though you should use high quality olive oil and be careful not to process too long, as olive oil mayo may become bitter).

 

 

A Yummy and VERY Lemony Hollandaise Sauce…

What you will need:      3 egg yolks, 60g lemon juice, 113 g butter, ½ tsp NaCl, 1 tbsp H2O

Begin by placing the egg yolks, lemon juice, and water in a double boiler. Melt the butter and then drizzle the butter into the egg yolk mixture, being aware to constantly stir with a metal whisk. The sauce will begin to thicken, at this point remove the sauce from the double boiler and continue to whisk as it cools down. As the sauce cools down add NaCl while whisking.

 

References:

  1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
  2. Corriher, Shirley O. Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. New York: William Morrow, 1997. Print.

Aroma and Flavor: How They Come to Be

We went to Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences New York State Agriculture Experiment Station (Ag Station). Here we met up with Dr. Gavin Sacks, an Assistant Professor of Enology and Food Science. He gave us a tour of the Ag Station, explaining in large what they did there, which was anything from helping individuals produce a food product on a larger scale so they could sell it to grocers, to determining how much poop was on our food.

Some of the products that the Ag Station helped make

The Ag Station is able to have a distiller because they have a license for it otherwise it’s illegal

Gavin took us to the room where individuals can make their own wine, or distill their own spirits. There were two types of tubs that were meant for fermenting the wine, some were for red wine, which ferments with the skins and seed and the other tubs were for white wine, which ferment without the skins and seeds.

After the crash course on how wine was made, Gavin took us to some of the research labs, which dealt with wine flavor and aromas. He showed us some machines that took fractions of compounds that would help better understand their function and what produces the aroma and flavor of wine. Which brought us to Dr. Terry Acree a Professor in Olfaction Taste Flavor Perception.

The oflactometer is used to smell aromas in food

Dr. Acree showed us this machine called the olfactometer and he gave us a demo where he filled a small syringe with some espresso. The olfactometer would break down the espresso into fractions of compounds and send it through a tube that lead to the nose. Since I was writing the blog I was able to use the olfactometer. I sat down in front of it and the tube where the aromas came out was placed under my nose. I was told to take short quick breaths through the nose and out my mouth, and do it without hyperventilating, which I thought was rather difficult. The first aroma that hit my nose was a cracker like smell. There wasn’t much time to enjoy it though because as soon as it came out it stopped and five seconds later a new aroma came out. Some other aromas I smelled from the syringe of espresso were flowers, dirty socks, earthworm, garlic and sulfur. The coffee aroma did eventually come out, but I never expected all those other aromas to be present in espresso. The olfactometer allows Dr. Acree and his colleagues to identify aroma compounds that are in our food, they can then try and determine how these compounds originated. However, I’d imagine that it’s more fun to figure out how the flavor and aroma compounds came to be that are not expected to be in the food that we eat, such as dirty socks in the espresso.

This is where perception of taste is tested in individuals

The last place Gavin took us was to the taste testing room for wine. He explained that perception plays a big role on how people judge if wine is good or not. Therefore, the fancier the glass the wine is served in the better people think the wine is, even if it is not good wine. And the exact opposite can be said, a good wine, poured in a crummy cup is not going to be good to the consumer.

Just imagine for a second the smell of a rich chocolate bar. Your nose becomes engulfed in a smooth, sweet, creamy delectable fragrance, which makes you yearn for its source to become one with you. One would expect their original forms to mirror these same traits. However, the cocoa bean raw is nothing like the chocolate that we eat and enjoy today. The cocoa bean has a dark or light brown appearance, with a hint of a dark chocolate aroma, so naturally you expect it to taste similarly. This is not the case at all; the cocoa bean has a very dry chalky/earthy and bitter flavor, your expectations were completely crushed.

So how can you take the bland taste of a cocoa bean and turn it into the chocolate we enjoy so much? Fermentation of the bean is the first key step in acquiring chocolate. The fermentation produces acetic acid and ethanol, which inhibits germination and also produces structural changes in the flavor compounds. However, both over and under fermentation will lead to undesirable chocolate traits, so according to the study conducted by “Afoakwa, Emmanuel Ohene,

Flowchart on making chocolate

Paterson, Alistair, Fowler, Mark and Ryan, Angela(2008) ‘Flavor Formation and Character in Cocoa and Chocolate: A Critical Review’, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 48: 9, 840 — 857”, reaching a pH of 5.20-5.49 gives the ultimate chocolate sensations. After fermentation the beans are then dried, which further oxidizes the compounds creating new flavor compounds. The roasting is a huge component in forming flavor compounds. Roasting is a type of Maillard reaction, which is a browning reaction, and through Strecker Degradations and Amadori Rearrangements these new compounds are achieved. After the beans have been roasted they are ground and refined creating a dark thick paste like fluid called cocoa liquor. The cocoa liquor is then pressed, separating it into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Then in a process known as conching, which takes pure cocoa liquor and adds sugar, milk solids, vanilla exact, a few other ingredients and finally cocoa butter. By mixing all of these ingredients together for a while, we ultimately obtain the chocolate that we love so much.

Homo Sapiens 2012: Corn People

In elementary school I was always told, “You are what you eat,” however I never knew just how true this is or the implications it has until very recently. The law of conservation of mass states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. So, as beings made up of matter, where did we come from? Biochemically, every atom we have in our bodies has come from ingestion or respiration. All the carbon, nitrogen etc. in our bodies comes from the elements found in our food. Quite literally, we are composed of exactly what we eat.

We take in chemical compounds in our foods such as carbohydrates, which are composed of solely carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They are broken down in the body’s digestion and used to generate energy through metabolism. As metabolites these compounds give about 4 kcal/g. This extremely diverse class includes small sweet sugars, as well as long carbon chains.

Three important simple carbohydrates, glucose, fructose and sucrose. Sucrose, the combination of the two, is what we commonly call sugar.

Other compounds in food are proteins made of amino acids, which are composed of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements.

General Amino Acid structure:
Single amino acid, where the R is a functional group giving rise to the compound’s specific properties. The amino group (side with the NH2) bonds to another amino acid’s carbonyl group (COOH) in a peptide bond.

Proteins are useful to the body because as fuel, 4 kcal/g can be obtained, and the amino acids broken down from food proteins in our stomachs are the amino acids our bodies turn into our own human proteins. There are a few essential amino acids, which are so named because our body cannot produce them, and they can only be used if they are ingested. These essential amino acids are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine. We must ingest these amino acids, which makes me think of how reliant we are on good, balanced diets, and how we are forced to interact with our natural worlds. We have coevolved to rely on certain foods more than just getting energy because in our bodies the proteins form many structural elements as well as perform many of the biochemical tasks necessary for life. So whether in the form supplied to us in food or in derivative forms, every physical part of us comes from all that we have taken in.

Alright, we are all composed of what we have eaten, and use what we ingest to fuel living, but this has been a reality since animals first came into existence. So why does this matter now?

Well in the last few decades, remarkable changes have occurred in the American diet. Leading the front lines of these changes was a single plant: corn. Not sweet corn as you or I would eat it, but rather ‘commodity corn,’ called number 2 corn. Number 2 corn as it grows is inedible to humans with any nutritional benefit. Instead, commodity corn is grown solely for industrial processes to transform the chemical compounds within the corn kernels into usable processed ingredients. The kernels are broken down into the molecules that compose it, and these are then used to make up nearly every food you or I eat on a daily basis.

There are a few parts of the corn kernel that are useful to industrial processes, and are extracted through the process of wet milling. This fossil fuel-driven process gives rise to the multiplicity of corn products you can see in supermarkets today. The endosperm is rich in starch, fiber, and gluten, while the germ is high in oil. Kernels are first soaked in water and sulfur dioxide to prevent bacterial growth, a time during which the kernels inflate due to osmosis. This allows the starch to be softened within so it may be released in the mill. In the crushing mill, the corn oil containing germ is separated from the endosperm’s starch through a cyclone. The starch will be broken down into glucose, which when combined in mixtures high in fructose become what is known commonly as high fructose corn syrup. The endosperm’s fiber is separated from the mixture over a screen, and finally gluten and starch are separated in a centrifuge. From here, the starch can be chemically transformed into many smaller sugars used as sweeteners such as glucose or fructose. Other products of the corn processing are used in animal feed for large industrial farms with thousands of cows packed in tight spaces together. Ethanol, another major corn product, can be found mixed in most gasoline now.

So every part of the corn kernel has been found useful to us in some way. This plant is unique in this way, that it can be broken down so heavily and used in such a multiplicity of ways. It makes sense then how humans have taken this plant and used it so widely, because it is an easy and cheap source of so many things that we need. When we go to a grocery store, we are hoping that the store will have everything we need, and we then won’t have to go from store to store to find our week’s groceries. Corn is much the same way; we can extract so much out of it and convert it all industrially in so many ways to create so much of what we need.

You might think to yourself, “But I only eat corn on the Fourth of July or when we go to visit my uncle and have barbeques during the summer.” But you are really eating corn whenever you eat any conventionally grown chicken or beef, drink conventional milk, or eat anything with corn syrup, xanthan gum, cornstarch and many other compounds. Corn in beef and chicken!? Well, yes actually, and lots of it. As I said before, “you are what you eat,” and cows and chickens on conventional farms (where most supermarket meat comes from) are fed primarily if not entirely corn-produced meal. Nutrients are often pumped into a carbohydrate and oil rich mixture fed to cows and chickens. These animals are then entirely made up of old corn, so when we eat the animals we are actually eating recycled corn that has been biologically processed into proteins (in the animals’ bodies). All of the proteins our body now makes come from animals that were built on corn! So we eat corn-meat, but the milk we drink, cheese we eat, and eggs for breakfast all come from corn-fed animals, and so we consume corn in nearly every meal. Sodas contain corn syrup, and companies such as Coca-Cola are major purchasers of processed commodity corn. Processed food that contains fructose and glucose also is likely derived from corn. Try going out to a local supermarket and look for all the products that might have corn in them, you might be surprised where you will find some corn.

We are essentially corn people. Not only are we made of corn because of its prevalence in our diet, but we also use it to clean ourselves, and get us from home to work.

In nature there are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon. There is 12C, which is the most common form, with six neutrons and six protons. The 13C isotope has one extra neutron, and the 14C isotope, which has two additional neutrons, is a radioactive isotope used in carbon dating. Corn is what is known as C-4 plant, meaning that it will take in more carbon than other plants during photosynthesis, creating molecules containing four carbon atoms. While doing this, more isotopic 13C is used than plants that only use three carbon atom-containing molecules. This means that molecules that come from corn will have a very high specific ratio of isotopic 13C. When average Americans are analyzed, this isotopic ratio can be seen explicitly, showing how high our diet must be in corn-derived products. As Michael Pollan states on page 23 of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we are “processed corn, walking.”

So we are a people primarily made up of corn-derived compounds. What implications does this have? Chemically speaking, it doesn’t matter much, there is no known danger to us having high 13C isotopic ratios. But being made entirely of recycled corn seems kind of far-fetched right? Well it’s a reality, and our diet does not seem like it will be changing soon. In fact, estimates say that an increase in corn cultivation is expected in the next few years, and we will be relying on corn to build our children for years into the future. There are many ethical issues that may be raised however, and many economic and ecological concerns.

Corn production is heavily subsidized by the government. Companies that rely on corn’s processing (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nabisco, etc.) all have lobbyists working for government officials to help shape these policies. Commodity cornfields currently take up over 95 million acres of US soil. The compounds their milling creates generate cheap food with a very large variety of products available to consumers.

Those of you concerned with GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) might wish to know that just short of 75% of commodity cornfields were planted with GMO corn in 2011. Diversity is a measure of health in any ecosystem, and with corn as the only organism growing in 95 million acres, vast swaths of land can be said to ecologically unhealthy. Corn depletes soil nitrogen levels, and so all the land used to grow corn rapidly runs out of nitrogen deposits resulting in infertile soil. To solve this, heavy use of fertilizers has been implemented, both natural and artificial (although often artificial because it is cheaper). These fertilizers are generated using copious amounts of fossil fuels, and also end up running into the Gulf of Mexico creating dead zones where no animal life can survive, killing the fishing industry there. Having nearly our entire food industry built around corn growing in homogeneous fields makes us potentially vulnerable to corn-borne diseases that wipe out crops.

To me, relying to heavily on one plant creates a dependency, one that could potentially be dangerous. If we build our entire food system and energy system around this single plant, we are heavily vulnerable to disaster. I don’t want to sound like a fear-monger, but it is a reality that must be seen. When any system falls entirely dependent on one thing, a single event that destroys that support will cause the whole system to crumble. This could come in the form of a super-resistant parasite, a disease, or industrial breakdown. Additionally, no long-term research has reflected the health risks or benefits of a corn-based diet.

There is a lot that corn does for us as humans. It has allowed us to create the mass amounts of food that we all enjoy regularly. It has grown alongside us and moved us into a new era of food production: industrialization. This has many benefits and well as drawbacks, but it’s ultimately up to us: whether we try to diversify our food sources, or if we choose to remain corn people.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Books. 2006. Print.

“Corn Wet Milling.” Tate & Taylor.  <http://www.tateandlyle.com/aboutus/ourindustry/pages/cornwetmilling.aspx&gt;  April 25, 2012.

Organic or Conventional?

Recently in supermarkets, there have been lingering questions in the produce aisle. On one hand, there is a display of conventionally grown apples and on the other, a display of those grown organically. Each type of apple is firm, glossy, and red or green; both are low in calories and provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Which is the better apple to choose?

http://cdn1.wn.com/pd/4f/96/c8f2d7a140d1fee6a50ad03fc26d_grande.jpg

So what is the difference? Let us first consider the differences between organic and non-organic food. Organic produce is grown in the absence of synthetic pesticides, irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering whereas conventional crop are grown with synthetic fertilizers. For those of you who are not familiar with the term irradiation, it bombards food with X-rays to kill bacteria. Some people believe it creates toxic chemicals on food but it is likely no different than a microwave. On industrial farms, fertilizers are beneficial for maximizing yield at great efficiencies. Organic farmland must have no prohibited substances sprayed on it for at least three years before harvesting crop so it clearly takes time to gain status. Farmers go through substantial effort to rotate crops, keep records, and pay for inspections, ensuring the land is approved by an accredited certifying agent. All farmers that want to sell a crop as organically produced must follow these national organic standards. If simply one of these rules is not followed, the produce cannot be labeled as organic.

(http://omorganics.org/images/usda.gif)

(http://www.eartheasy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/organic_big.jpg)

(http://www.knowabouthealth.com/ organic-valley-eggs-550.jpg)

Are the rules followed?

Is it true that farmers stick 100% to these standards? Can we rely on them based on what we hear? To verify, scientists at the University of Minnesota ran a study to test for deadly and harmless strains of E. coli at a conventional, Certified Organic, and an uncertified organic farm. According to Marion Nestle, involved in food politics and author of “What to Eat,” the harmless strain of bacteria was found in approximately equal percentages for conventional and Certified Organic farms. The much higher level found on noncertified organic vegetables confirmed that Certified Organic farms really do follow organic rules and inspection to harvest safer crops. Organic farmers make their money by marketing harvests without pesticide. It is likely that few would use chemicals.

Do organic foods offer more nutrition?

The answer to this question is heavily nuanced: it is both yes and no. Yes they are considered more nutritious since studies have verified higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organics; however, these small nutrient gains are negligible, giving no measureable health benefits long term. According to Nestle, higher levels of vitamins C and E are found in organic peaches and pears and increased quantities of antioxidants have been measured on organic berries and corn. Conventional crops are treated with synthetic fertilizer, leaving pesticide residue on their skin, making it understandable why those who eat organic have lower levels of these toxins in their body. Having said this, pesticides have not threatened the lives of individuals, confirmed by the fact that there have been no deaths or serious illnesses from too much intake.

(http://www.larasfriends.com/Images/Pesticides.jpg)

Another important point to consider is location: is the apple from a local farm or far away? Food produced and sold locally does not require long distance shipping and therefore does not need to be packaged with artificial chemicals to keep it fresh under aggressive shipping and handling. Looking at the big picture, our class confirmed that the majority of organic and conventional fruits tasted the same. Four out of five had similar organic and conventional counterparts with the exception of the organic blueberries which were much smaller, sweeter, and purple than the industrial. The truth is, fruits and vegetables are fruits and vegetables – organic or not, they are all free of fat, sodium, and cholesterol and supply nutritional quality to a healthy diet. Just eat and enjoy!

How does organic taste?

Now that we know the requirements for organic, how does organic taste compared to conventional? Are fruits and vegetables healthier if they are organic? To find out for ourselves, we performed an experiment with 12 different food pairs without any prior knowledge of which were organic and which were conventional. We tasted each set to guess which was which. I, for one, found some to be quite challenging. To begin, we sampled the bananas.

When I carefully examined banana A and banana B in my hand, the two of them each had a yellow-green peel with a waxy covering. They both had that same banana smell and I could not distinguish any difference in taste as I was eating them. It was hard to pinpoint the differences; nevertheless, myself and the majority of the class hypothesized that banana A was organic. The truth? Drum roll….they were conventional!

After the pear, apple, and cherry tomato trials, the class had concluded for these fruits that the differences between organic and conventional were very subtle and challenging to tell apart, just like the bananas. The blueberries, however, were a different story.

For the blueberries, type A was green on the inside and much bigger while type B was tiny with a deep purple inside. Type B had a much stronger, tart taste while the taste of A was more diluted. Can you guess which one was organic?

If you guessed the one on the right, you are correct! This makes sense since conventional fruits are typically bigger in size and better rounded, as Marion Nestle claims that supermarkets breed their fruits with the “perfect berry architecture” to appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, the consequences are that many times these fruits and berries end up lacking flavor, as I had noticed when I tasted the bigger blueberry A.

Now we know that some organic produce have a taste and appearance unlike that of the conventional. What about other foods besides fruit? Let’s try peanut butter, for example. Type A was smoother and lighter colored; type B was denser, darker, and had a very strong peanut taste that was grainier with hardly any brown speckles. I was much more familiar with the look, taste, and texture of type A which is served at my school cafeteria and used in many homes. Since large business and families buy this type more often, one would assume them to be cheaper. Why would anyone buy a more expensive product when a cheaper alternative is right there on the shelf? It is true that organic produce is more expensive since farmers go through all the extra work of harvesting crop following the national organic standards. Therefore, as a class, we quickly and easily hypothesized type A to be conventional, and we were right.

The cheese, yogurt, and applesauce also had clear differences in appearance and flavor. The organic cheese was less smooth and creamy with a sharper taste; the organic yogurt had a clumpy texture and the applesauce was of similar consistency but darker in color.

Animals on Organic Farms

Have you ever wondered how cattle are treated on an organic farm? Organic farms require improved living conditions for cows and chickens, promising “free-range,” exercise space, food, shelter, shade, clean drinking water, and fresh air. Cows must be fed certified organic grain and must not be injected with growth hormone. The problem is cows’ rumens were meant to digest grass, not organic grain which can makes them sick and bloated. Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” explained that the rumen may inflate like a balloon, pressing against the cow’s lungs which could potentially suffocate it. While many organic farms do follow the more humane treatment standards, others unfortunately have not. Pollan further informed that some organic farms rope cows to milking machines three times a day and chickens allowed “free-range” are in reality living in a shed with an attached small, grassy yard which is hardly much space.

(http://4.bp.blogspot.com /organic-dairy-cows.jpg)

(http://cherthollowfarm.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/chicken_teens.jpg)

Does the organic method pose any risks?

No. There has been talk that the composted manure organic farmers use to replenish their crop exposes their produce to dangerous microbes. This is not true. Farmers, under organic certification rules, are required to make sure their manure is inspected so harmful microbes are destroyed. Conventional growers, on the other hand, are not required to abide by these rules.

“Microwaveable organic TV dinners”

What is this about? You probably wouldn’t have expected these words thrown together, now would you? The organic industry has used new phrases like this and “organic high-fructose corn syrup” to better appeal to consumers. Pollan claimed some organic foods are actually processed by the techniques of modern food technology. He asserted that under federal organic rules, many additives in American dinners contain high-oleic safflower oil, xanthan gum, soy, and “natural grill flavor.” Now, even “organic milk” is less pure because it comes from cows injected with growth hormones. As organic farming has grown more successful, it has more increasingly resembled the industrial system.

(http://www.northernvirginiamag.com/wp-content/uploads/frozen-food-aisle1.jpg)

The industrial farm

Pollan brings to our attention that synthetic nitrogen used on industrial farms will evaporate into the air and acidify into acid rain, harming the environment. Ammonium nitrate NH4NO3 used as fertilizer is formed from combining ammonia NH3 from synthetic nitrogen with an oxidized molecule of ammonia NH3 which turns into nitric acid HNO3. Heating the ammonium nitrate decomposes it into the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O), which inevitably increases global temperatures. According to Pollan, streams are usually polluted from nitrogen runoff where nitrates are converted into nitrites, producing unsafe drinking water. Those who drink from the water are at risk to low oxygen levels in the brain since nitrite attaches to hemoglobin and minimizes normal blood flow. Certainly, there are drawbacks in using fertilizer and we must be aware of the consequences.

From farmland to plate

In an industrial corn field, the corn is fed water, sunlight, carbon dioxide CO2 from the air and nitrogen from the ground. The government subsidizes bushels of corn which is then taken to a processing plant where its starch is separated from the kernel and made into high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, and ethanol. This #2 corn is shipped to small businesses and factory farms as well as given to farm animals which excrete it into manure, possibly containing antibiotics, bacterial growth, and heavy metals as Pollan points out. The cattle fed this corn feed are slaughtered at the meat industry which is then sent to the supermarket with the remaining commodity corn where consumers buy it all from the shelf and cook for dinner. In contrast, organic farms have skipped the refining process, shipping corn straight to the supermarket and onto the table.

(http://cf.ltkcdn.net/recipes/images/slide/134571-600×399-dinner-ideas9.jpg)

That wraps up organic versus conventional. Now with this little bit of knowledge, which apple is it going to be? The choice is up to you!

Corn is a simple vegetable, right?

It’s two weeks after spring break and it is time to get back to work.  This week in the chemistry of food, we are talking about corn and all of its complexity.  At the beginning of class we defined exactly what kinds of corn there are.  This definition was necessary because there is some corn, though on the cob, that we as humans do not eat during our summer cook-outs. Basically, there are two kinds of corn: sweet corn and Number 2 Commodity corn.

Sweet corn is the kind of corn we can eat.  This is the kind of corn you buy at the store on the cob or in the can, and cook for dinner Sunday nights.  Number 2 commodity corn, however, has a less direct application in our diet.  This is the kind of corn with which companies make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and what the meat industry uses for feeding their cattle.  From this definition launched a discussion about the different parts of a cob of corn and finished with the chemistry of making HFCS.

When you break it down, a cob of corn is made up of about 4 parts.  You have the base cob, of course, the skin of the kernel (which is a carotenoid), the germ (which contains the proteins and oils), and the endosperm (which contains the starches and carbohydrates).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of these parts are fairly straightforward; however the starches have a couple of different uses.  The first is that xanthan gum is made from the starch of the corn kernel.  Xanthan gum is a compound that is used as a stabilization substitute for gluten free breads, as well as other products that could use some extra stability.  The second is that the starch from the endosperm of the corn can be used to make HFCS.

If you take the starch from the endosperm and treat it with acid, you will eventually get glucose.  By treating that synthesized glucose with glucose isomerase, the resulting product is HFCS.

Another added use of the starch from corn is if you ferment it, you will eventually produce ethanol.  This is an important tip for corn farmers as it allows them to expand their market beyond the food industry.  They made a deal with the gas and oil companies that now, all gas must contain around 10% ethanol in their mix, which is a very useful trick for the corn industry.  The history behind this deal is simple: the government is already involved in the corn industry.  Corn is a subsidized product, meaning that the government is paying the farmers by the bushel of corn they grow, for that corn.  As a result, the government can make a law requiring that all gas must contain a percentage of ethanol.  Hence the deal between these seemingly unrelated industries.

The other main chemical point we discussed was the Haber-Bosch process.  Essentially this is the process by which artificial fertilizers were made.  You may find yourself asking, “How can a fertilizer be artificial, isn’t it just manure?”.  Well, what these German scientists found was that if you add 1 mol of N2 to 3 mols of H2 with an added catalyst of ruthenium and run this reaction under a lot of heat (created by fossil fuels) and a lot of pressure, you can synthetically make ammonia.  If you oxidize that product you will eventually get nitric acid.  By adding in some more NH3, you will create ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) which is what can be marketed as artificial fertilizer.  This can essentially eliminate the need of using manure or having a source of the wonderfully smelly stuff around to use as fertilizer.  It also makes things easier for farmers (such as corn farmers) to purchase and fertilize their massive farms effectively.

So, in a nut shell, corn is not such a simple product.  It can be manipulated and changed into completely different products and can make its way into our industry in many different ways.  You can also see that normally natural processes have been found to be accomplished synthetically and learned the process by which this is done.

Gallery

Junk Food and How Sweet It Is

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Everybody has their own comfort food that they know is bad for them but eat in because they enjoy it too much. “Junk” food seems unfairly labeled for foods that we like to eat, however “junk” works in saying that … Continue reading