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Curious Cook: Being vegan and other stories

Curious Cook: Being vegan and other stories

EVERYBODY is now probably aware that for some time, we have been living with strains of bacteria which are immune to many common antibiotics. This is not unexpected as it is one of the logical (and short-sighted) consequences of adding vast quantities of antibiotics into animal/poultry feeds. In fact, over 80% of the antibiotics produced worldwide are used in the food industry. Antibiotic resistance is simply a predictable outcome of the quest for profits in the meat and dairy industry.

So a recent study from Brazilian researchers was interesting as it attempted to analyse how certain bacteria acquire this resistance to antibiotics. Foodborne diseases have affected hundreds of thousands of people in Brazil in the last two decades, and many cases were linked to bacteria in the genus Salmonella. This is particularly intriguing as a friend in London had contracted salmonella poisoning around 20 years ago, and it was so severe he was hospitalised for six weeks. Fortunately, the antibiotics he was given eventually worked but it was sobering and traumatic to see him so ill for so long. Imagine what would have happened had it been a strain of salmonella immune to antibiotics.

Men were not made to hunt for meat but vegan diets are slow to gain acceptance. – AFP

More about salmonella

The Brazilian study investigated 90 serovars (sub-strains) of salmonella typhimurium (ST), a sub-species of salmonella enterica, which is the species of salmonella most involved in human food poisoning (normally resulting in gastroenteritis). Testing serovars of ST with common classes of antibiotics revealed that 72.2% were immune to sulphonamides, 48.9% were resistant to streptomycin, 30% are tetracycline resistant, 23.3% were unaffected by gentamicin, etc. In addition, a previous study had reported that 46 serovars of ST were also resistant to nalidixic acid (and also to flouroquinolones). It was grim reading, especially as it was also noted that streptomycin and tetracycline are still common additives in animal feeds.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) was used to analyse how this resistance developed in the ST serovars – this is a non-trivial task as the ST genome contains 4.7 million base pairs. The results were interesting. The research detected different types of mutations in the gyrA, gyrB, parC and parE genes, and only one mutation point in one of these genes was observed. Resistant ST serovars also have additional activated genes, which may be one or more of the qnr, qepA, oqxAB and aac(6’)-Ib-cr genes. It appears that antibiotic resistance in ST serovars is conferred by single point mutations in certain genes in conjunction with the activation of other specific genes.

Curious findings

There are two other curious findings in this paper. One is the antibiotic/antimicrobial resistance of ST serovars have been declining since the 1990s. This may be due to the rise of a more aggressive salmonella enterica sub-species called salmonella enteritidis which caused a worldwide pandemic in the 1990s and has been prevalent ever since. Salmonella enteritidis is the very dangerous pathogen (disease-causing agent) associated with eating undercooked contaminated eggs.

The other odd finding is that resistance to certain antibiotics developed even without any exposure to such antibiotic compounds in the feed or anywhere else. It appears that mutations arising from other antibiotics may be sufficient to promote resistance to unrelated (but somewhat similar) categories of antimicrobials.

Being vegan

As salmonella usually breeds in the intestinal tracts of animals and poultry, I am safe from any possibility of contracting gastroenteritis, at least for a while. This is because I am in the middle of a vegan challenge with my daughter until the end of the month.

The author had to drive 40km to another town to find his vegan meal. – CHRIS CHAN

Being vegan here in France is not as easy as in Berlin where I was last month. I quickly grew tired of my own vegetable stews and curries and decided to get some different vegan meals at the small supermarket in the next village. When I could not find any chilled vegan foods after a search, I eventually asked an assistant about them. He looked incredulously at me as if I was mad before shaking his head sadly. “Désolé, nous n’avons pas de truc végétalien.” (Sorry, we do not have any vegan stuff).

I finally found some tasty vegan foods in a large supermarket in a town about 40km away. The labelling of vegan items in France is heavily influenced by the meat industry here – for example, it is not allowed to label food as burgers or sausages if they are made with non-meat products. But it seems they had forgotten to ban vegetarian “steaks” and “cordon bleu” dishes, which is what I got.

There are several reasons for my vegan challenge. One is curiosity, another is not adding on excessive weight now that the cold season has started – but the main reason is to confront my own denialism about meat production. Denialism is a mechanism used to alter how we think about things so that we can function better or, at least feel better. Sometimes we fool ourselves but very often, we are fooled by other people/things. You can read more on https://www.star2.com/food/2018/09/09/curious-cook-a-quiet-month-of-denialism/

Having access to thousands of research papers provides an in-depth insight into meat production, its consequences, health impacts and development over time. If you think about it, we should not be eating so much meat – not because meat is necessarily unhealthy, but because humans are physically not good predators. Lions are better adapted to be at the top of the food chain in the wild, not humans.

Our brains, again

However, our brains have allowed us to overcome our physical limitations, initially by crafting tools/weapons which enhanced our ability to hunt. Then around 13,000 years ago, humans began domesticating animals for food. In normal evolution, lions required hundreds of thousands of years to evolve their speed, claws and teeth, but human intelligence allowed us to short-cut our way to the top of the food chain and a practically limitless supply of meat.

The speed of change is staggering: the first chicken super-farm was devised in 1926 but before the end of the last century, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and industrial meat farms were already supplying chicken, pork and beef to billions of people, without any consumer making any more effort than picking up a pack of meat and paying for it.

In France, you can’t label a food item a sausage unless it’s made of meat. — AFP

The only way to achieve such prodigious productivity in meat is to invent artificial solutions and ignore the existing natural order of things. This disregard for natural circumstances has profound consequences: deforestation, desertification, antimicrobial resistance, global warming, pollution, etc, and includes the creation of animal and bird hybrids which would be considered mutants in the wild. The world now also plants more food for meat production than for humans.

There are health consequences for humans too. The ubiquity of meat means that most humans have little regard for the sources of animal proteins, practically treating animals like insentient plant crops. Ignoring the disturbingly cruel realities of industrial meat production means that many people now unknowingly ingest meats contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, chemicals such as preservatives, flavourings, etc. Crop-treatment compounds are present in meat because animal feed need not meet human safety standards but these compounds can accumulate in animal flesh and offal, sometimes to problematic levels.

Denialism rules

In summary, people generally do not know as much as they should about animal proteins, and our denialism conspires to keep us ignorant. There is also something wrong when humans can use their intelligence to satisfy our lust for meat but cannot apply the same intelligence to more important issues like our environment. The only difference appears to be the quest for profits, as discussed earlier about the rise of antibiotics-resistant bacteria.

The irony is humans need only tiny amounts of daily protein (animal or non-animal is immaterial): only 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight. So, a quarter-pounder burger fulfills the protein requirement for someone who weighs over 141 kilos. If people cannot wean themselves off meat, then limiting consumption to only the protein amount they actually need would be both healthy and responsible.

In time, the survival of humans will inevitably require overcoming, among other things, our genetic disposition for preferring meat, just as we overcame our genetic limitation of being lousy predators. And this probably starts with overcoming our denialism.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

Curious Cook: Autumn tales from rural France

Curious Cook: Autumn tales from rural France

The Hidden France tour

A few weeks ago, I was walking my dog in the evening when a coach stopped outside the hotel in the village centre and started disgorging a gaggle of Chinese tourists. They saw us and started talking to me excitedly in Mandarin, a dialect which I do not understand – so I responded in Cantonese which agitated them even more. Eventually I found out from their tour guide that the group was doing a tour of “Hidden France” (or something like that), visiting places which are way off the usual tourist routes. Hence their surprise at meeting a Chinese man walking a pug in a remote French village at one of their first stops.

From a description of their itinerary around the village the next day, I doubt they will ever come back. The plan was a visit to some local minor historical sites, then a cheese farm which I know to be extraordinarily odorous, so much so even French people gag when visiting. That was then to be followed by a typical local lunch at the farm restaurant – this would usually be a starter plate of various pates and terrines, then a dish called “truffade” comprising of cooked cheeses with potatoes, bacon and locally-cured dark ham, followed by a selection of regional cheeses and a cream-based dessert.

Considering that statistics show around 90% of Chinese are genetically lactose-intolerant, this does not bode well for their “Hidden France” plans for the rest of the day after lunch. Presumably, the group would also be plied with strong wines as per the local custom for lunches – this again would not help the statistical 30+% of the group unable to digest alcohol efficiently. If you are curious why, please read this story.

Chinese dairy industry

For fun, I looked into China’s statistics for dairy production, and found some surprising facts. The country is now the world’s largest importer of fresh/liquid milk – and on top of that, China is also the third largest producer of milk globally at around 36 million tonnes a year. By comparison, France produces less than 24 million tonnes, and is ranked seventh. However, the tolerance of lactose within the country has not increased, so 90% of China’s population will feel some negative effects when consuming dairy products past their bodies’ sufferance levels. This anomalous behaviour appears to be linked to dairy foods being perceived as a sign of affluence and “fashionable” as it is very much a Western tradition. And curiously, increasing nationwide dairy consumption has been part of Chinese government policy since 2007.

And in case you are wondering, no, I do not understand it either – maybe the Chinese really like ice cream, pizza or something like that.

Is this even worse?

However, despite the likely discomfort that would be suffered by some of the intrepid Chinese tourists in the village, their woes might pale compared to people eating another type of food.

The nutritional content label on a bag of rice.

The nutritional label pictured above is from a packet of basmati rice bought in Kuala Lumpur by a friend and sent to me here. If the label is correct, then it is curious and alarming to see both potassium and lead paired together as an item in the nutritional list. For one, the potassium content of basmati rice hovers at around a maximum of 55mg per 100g, which means that the lead content cannot be much less than 96.5mg per 100g. For another, lead is not a nutritional metal by any definition: it is in fact a toxic metal linked to several dangerous conditions, including brain damage in young children, cardiovascular problems and kidney damage in adults.

Finally, 96.5mg of lead per 100g is a staggering amount, considering that the EU Food Safety Authority and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (jointly run by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization) both established a maximum of 0.02mg per 100g of rice. This rice would be banned in the EU, and should not be consumed anywhere else.

After double-checking the data, I immediately advised my friend to throw away the rice, preferably without touching the grains.

Chelation

Out of curiosity, I did some research on the available options to treat lead poisoning, and the main technique is the use of various compounds to remove the lead from body tissues, particularly blood. This involves a chemical process called “chelation”, which is defined as the binding of chelating compounds to various metal ions, forming less harmful chelates which can then be excreted from the body. Chelation can only remove from the body a proportion of the targeted metal – it does not repair any damage that had already been done. An interesting 2016 paper from the American College of Cardiology on the results of the TACT (Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy) study on 1,708 people found that test subjects exposed to lead increased the excretion of body lead up to 3,830% using the chelating agent edetate disodium. Perhaps more significantly, the TACT study indicated that major cardiac events were reduced by 18% in normal subjects and a remarkable 52% in subjects with diabetes (a disease associated with a higher risk of cardiac problems) by chelation therapy using edetate disodium.

Other claimed chelating agents are 2,3 Dimercaptosuccinic Acid (DMSA), Racemic-2,3-dimercapto-1-propanesulfonic acid (DMPS) and B-dimethylcysteine (penicillamine) though there is not much data about their effectiveness and some of them have notable adverse side effects. There is also a quack industry based around chelation therapy which tries to obscure the facts behind various chelation agents. I hope you are careful about what you ingest and never have to undergo chelation therapy.

Mushrooms

Autumn is the season for gathering wild mushrooms in the French countryside, a fun hobby for me but probably very dangerous if it is not done with expert knowledge as it can lead to a fatal dose of mycetism (mushroom poisoning). In any case, I try not to overdo it due to the complex nature of toxins found even in edible wild mushrooms – more on this later.

Mushroom hunting is known as “la chasse aux champignons” or “la cueillette de champignons” and is one of the national hobbies of France, with people grinning with anticipation when embarking on early morning trips to their secret locations. Despite their enthusiasm (or probably because of it), over a thousand cases of wild mushroom poisoning are treated each year with several deaths reported. Some severe cases also require liver transplants, so it is a hobby fraught with significant risks – there are several thousand species of mushrooms but only a handful are edible. In many ways, wild mushrooms are to the French what fugu fish is to the Japanese.

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A poisonous mushroom.

In the forests, I very often come across the seriously toxic amanita phalloides (commonly called “death caps”), hallucinogenic amanita muscaria, blood coagulating clavulinopsis fusiformis, stomach cramp-inducing entoloma sinuatum, etc. But I only forage for two types specific to the region: a species known locally as “rouges” even though it is not red in colour (clitocybe nuda), and “cèpe des pins de montagne” (boletus pinicola).

Even though I often gather the two types of mushrooms together, I do not mix them when cooking – and they usually do need long cooking to denature some of the compounds inherent within them. There is no scientific reason why I do not mix them – it is a personal preference as each mushroom will have a group of denatured compounds after cooking and I feel it is not necessary to mix the two groups together.

The poisons found in deadly mushrooms are known as mycotoxins and no amount of cooking will destroy these compounds. The most dangerous mycotoxin is probably alpha-amadin which is found in death caps. This toxin will destroy the liver within three days of ingestion, often sooner.

Other deadly mycotoxins are orellanine (kidney failure), muscarine (neuromuscular disorder), monomethylhydrazine (brain damage), ibotenic acid (nerve cell damage) and ergotamine (cardiovascular failure).

Despite the sobering dangers of mycotoxins, good wild mushrooms are still delicious cooked with butter, onions, garlic, eggs and sprinkled over with chopped chives. Just do not ever pick up wild mushrooms if you are not sure.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Curious Cook: The anthropocene diet – Part 2

Curious Cook: The anthropocene diet – Part 2

Read Part 1

Chicken super-farms and Vitamin D

Large-scale commercial meat production, or factory meat farming, probably started with chickens in Delaware, United States, at a farm run by Mrs Wilmer Steele. Selling a batch of 500 broiler chickens in 1923 inspired her to devise new methods to intensify meat production – and by 1926, she had the world’s first indoor chicken super-farm with a capacity of 10,000 birds. The numbers and sizes of such large scale chicken farms expanded exponentially when Vitamin D was included in the birds’ diets – before that, chickens tended to be sluggish or even die off in winter due to lack of sunlight, but the addition of Vitamin D ensured that meat and egg production became a viable operation all year round. The rationing of beef during World War II and Howard Pierce’s competition for super-chickens colluded to make chicken the cheapest and most readily available meat in the world today. For more, read “The story of a super chicken”.

Factory farming

In Britain, factory farming started in 1947, when a new Agriculture Act provided farmers with grants to utilise new technologies in crop and animal farming. It was the period after WWII when the UN was still promoting food security by the “intensification of animal production”. Such intensification was mostly confined originally to chickens as they were the cheapest way to breed meat. However, newer techniques developed for other animals allowed the US and Europe to begin serious large-scale factory meat and dairy farming with pigs and cattle around 1966. This eventually led to practices such as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where huge numbers of animals are crowded together and fed with fattening grains, nutrients, antibiotics (and often growth hormones), with no opportunities to graze or exercise normally. These large-scale farms are now replicated around the world.

Clearly, such intensive methods to mass-produce meat and dairy have practically nothing to do with natural or even humane conditions for the animals involved. For example, confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in indoor factory farms is so stressful that their beaks are routinely sliced off to reduce injuries due to fighting. The birds also usually live their entire lives in a caged space smaller than a piece of writing paper.

The harsh concrete surfaces of factory farms often painfully deform the feet and skeletons of animals evolved to walk on soft soil. A sample of 34,000 pigs in the US some years ago found 65% had pneumonia-like lesions in the lungs – there is no indication whether this may be hazardous to humans. The use of growth hormones for speeding up meat production is well-known and still continues in many countries despite concerns about dangers to humans. This practice is banned in the EU. Note that almost all factory meat farms routinely ban visitors in case they take pictures or write about the conditions inside.

More worrying is over 80% of the world’s production of mammalian antibiotics (including for humans) are given to livestock – this is to ensure the animals can resist the bacteria inherent in crowded, often unhygienic conditions in factory farms. But we all know bacteria can evolve to develop resistance to such overuse of drugs, and some superbugs which affect humans now cannot be treated with conventional antibiotics.

As mentioned, most agricultural land is now used to grow feed for animals, even though cereals provide two to 10 times and legumes 10 to 20 times more protein than animals for the same land area. This anomaly is even more bizarre in developing countries where land for meat production often crowd out land for human food crops.

The growth of factory farms over the last century is staggering. Globally, around 50% of pork, 40% of beef and 70% of poultry are now derived from factory farms. In the US, the statistics are even more sobering: around 95% of pork, 78% of beef and 99% of poultry are supplied by factory farms.

The only explanation for the explosion of such a pitiless business is the expanding and seemingly insatiable human demand for meat. Such vast, inhumane factories can only exist because the meat industry keeps offering meat consistently at prices around or below consumer reference points – and hence it is all about economics, not nutrition or even common sense (because the environmental damage is not sustainable). For more about reference points, please read “What we think of (when we think of food)”.

Anthropocene Epoch – what’s next?

As stated earlier, this new epoch may end up being the shortest in Earth’s history. The damage to the planet caused by human practices (eg. global warming, desertification, ocean pollution, etc) is already potentially mortal and any immediate remedial action can only be helpful. Although many people are not aware of it, the geophysical impact of factory farming is a significant issue. The irony of course is that there is no requirement for such overwhelming meat production – it only leads to a vicious cycle of ever bigger factory farms to reap economies of scale so as to be able to sell meat at lower prices than competitors. The other irony is that over-consuming such meat is also probably detrimental to health in several ways. This may be evidenced by many of the current generation of Americans having a lower life expectancy than the previous generation.

It therefore makes sense to break away from the maddening crowd, if only because a lot of research has indicated that over-consuming animal proteins/fats can reduce human lifespans and alter the death pattern for entire populations. For example, prior to 1950, the main causes of mortality in China were measles, tuberculosis and senility (diseases related to old age). Since 1985, the main causes of death are cancers, strokes and heart disease – and as in other countries with a similar death pattern, it has been linked to an increase in meat consumption.

‘Optimal’ flexitarian

You know by now that a flexitarian diet just means reducing the amount of meat and replacing it with non-meat substitutes, with no rules attached. However, if one is really interested, then some additional comments may be added, as follows:

Humans need only a pretty small amount of daily protein, around 0.8g per kilo of body weight. So someone weighing 70kg needs only 56g of protein a day, though of course most people eat rather more than this. This is also fine as long as they do not have any chronic kidney disease.

Of this optimal amount of protein, try to limit animal proteins to 5% or less of your total calorie requirements. There is roughly four calories per gram of protein. So if your daily requirement is, say, 2,000 calories, try to limit animal protein consumption to 25g a day. The rest should be made up of non-animal proteins.

For the same daily calorie requirement, carbohydrates should be 50% to 55% of the total, so it means roughly 250g to 275g of carbohydrates.

The rest should be vegetables with lots of soluble and insoluble fibre in any proportion you like – plus of course, fats, especially those with Omega-3 fatty acids, so as to offset the Omega-6 oils normally present in most modern foods. A good balance would be four or fewer parts of Omega-6 to one part of Omega-3.

However, I confess I have personally never strictly followed the dietary suggestions above, mainly because I enjoy eating good food (and drinking wine) too much. So it is just a guideline for anyone curious. My opinion is if everyone would cut their meat consumption by 30% to 50% or more, that would already be an excellent step towards keeping the Anthropocene Epoch alive a while longer. It is also remarkably easy to do, even for meat-loving Germans, especially with ultra-modern foods – see “A modern food story – Part 3”.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Curious Cook: The Anthropocene diet – Part 1

Curious Cook: The Anthropocene diet – Part 1

Age Of Humans

We are probably living in a new geological period called the Anthropocene Epoch, replacing the Holocene Epoch which was a relatively warm period which started around the end of the last glacial period around 12,000 years ago.

Like all geological periods, the Anthropocene is defined by observable, distinct changes to the ecosystems and geology of our planet – and it has been proposed that humans are causing a large enough geophysical impact on the planet’s ecology, oceans and geography to warrant defining this new geological epoch.

Anthropocene means Age of Humans, though it is unclear when this period started. It would have begun gradually as the impact of humans on the planet slowly became momentous. Initially, it probably started by increasing deforestation, followed by larger and larger scale commercial farming which in turn changed local fauna by the use of monoculture crops and pesticides/herbicides.

Similarly, towns, industrial sites, transport networks, etc, also introduced other significant impacts; eg. concreting of land, damming of rivers (for hydro-electricity and reservoirs), creation of rubbish landfill sites, air pollution from vehicles and factories, desertification, river pollution by sewage and industrial waste leading to ocean pollution, etc.

Add in global warming, changing weather patterns, mass extinction of many species of fauna, ozone layer depletion, etc, and it is evident we have entered the Anthropocene Epoch. And it might be the shortest epoch in our planet’s history if we cannot stop destroying our environment so zealously.

Berlin

I am writing this in Berlin, Germany, in a country known for efficiency, practicality and environmentalism. It is also a meat-loving country where selling tofu was banned until 1990. So it was a huge surprise to hear Berlin is now the vegan capital of Europe. Every supermarket carries vegetable protein substitutes for meat, and many Germans are cutting down significantly on their meat-eating habits. The consumption of meat in Germany has fallen every year since 2011 and is now under 60kg per person (which is still rather high).

This is in no small way due to major producers offering vegetarian/vegan versions of classic German delicacies, marketed unashamedly using the same techniques as meat-based products, but containing words such as “ohne fleisch” (without meat) or “vegetarische” (vegetarian). The number of vegetarian restaurants and dishes has also increased exponentially.

This contrasts starkly with the United States which is projected to consume more meat this year than ever – the average American will eat a staggering 100.8kg of meat this year (with no signs of any reduction in the future), while food experts suggest it is feasible to reduce consumption of meat in Germany 50% by 2040.

anthropocene diet

Flexitarian restaurants are popular in Berlin.

Flexitarian

A reader recently asked a question which sounded simple but actually had me thinking for days. It was about what makes a good flexitarian diet, in response to an article about ultra-modern foods. It is a timely question as many Germans have said they are moving to becoming flexitarians. At its simplest, a flexitarian diet is just replacing some meat in the diet with vegetarian components.

But being German, some locals have elevated things another level – for example, abstinence from meat entirely for two or three days a week and eating only organic meat the rest of the week. Others would insist on having meat for, say, 50% of their daily protein with the rest made up of non-meat substitutes. And yet another version would be avoiding meat entirely except for social occasions (which is what my daughters do). I consider myself a flexitarian and personally it just involves cutting down on meat in general with no fixed targets. So it seems that being a flexitarian means following a reduced-meat regime without any fixed rules, except the ones you like.

From The Neolithic To Now

Although following a flexitarian diet is very simple, it is something we should all consider doing. The only factor in being a flexitarian is the reduction of animal proteins/fats in food, and many appear to be gravitating to diets of this nature, despite huge pressures from the food industry.

Some people may jokingly argue that being flexitarian can also mean eating some vegetables along with meat, indicating a “flexible” approach to our food. They may not be wrong but it is worth investigating why humans desire meat so much in the first place.

For a start, meat is widely marketed as an important source of nutrition, and this is an easy message to sell (even though it is not wholly true) as humans generally prefer to eat meat. Our evolutionary roots as hunter gatherers leave us today with a propensity for animal flesh and fruits, because that was what we evolved to eat – evidence is ancient human stone tools dating back 2.5 million years used to butcher meat.

Humans figured out around 13,000 years ago it was easier domesticating animals than hunting them. And then around 11,000 years ago, they also found it easier to farm crops than forage plants from distant places. The start of animal husbandry and crop farming is known as the Neolithic revolution – and the availability of a consistent food supply helped create the first civilisations. Note that the earliest humans evolved around three million years ago, while our sub-species (homo sapiens) has been traced back around 200,000 years – so the Neolithic revolution actually happened very recently.

Oddly, human populations did not explode after the Neolithic revolution. This was because deadly diseases spread easier in denser communities, and kept population numbers in check. The world population did not grow exponentially until better sanitation arrived around the 19th century. At the time of the Neolithic revolution, the world’s population of homo sapiens was estimated at around one million to two million, reaching one billion in 1803 and then two billion by 1927 – but in less than 100 years since, it has increased 381% to 7.616 billion today.

Inefficiency Of Food Production

Feeding such a huge population means agriculture on a vast scale, with huge fields of crops such as wheat, corn, soy, etc. It also involves killing over 56 billion animals a year, plus countless billion tonnes of sea life. Despite the image of the food industry being efficient and productive, the reality is vastly different – mass food production is driven by economics, not nutrition.

If not for meat and dairy production, the food industry would shrink very significantly. This is because most of those vast fields of crops end up as food for meat/dairy production, not human consumption. In the US, 36% of corn and 70% of soybeans are grown for animal feed – overall, 67% of US agricultural land is used for meat/dairy production. And much of the rest of US corn is used to produce high fructose corn syrup, an unhealthy source of pointless calories.

Converting crops into meat is notoriously inefficient and polluting – 1,000 calories fed to a cow returns only 30 calories of meat, and each kilo of beef involves producing hundreds of kilos of greenhouse gases and uses thousands of litres of water. For more data, please read “Vegetarian and other dietary tales – Part 4”.

Agribusiness

One current geophysical impact on our planet is agriculture, which is largely controlled by the agribusiness industry. Agribusinesses are responsible for the supply and distribution chains of farming – it provides the crop seeds, animal breeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, feed supplements, medications, antibiotics, land-clearing machinery, farming equipment, marketing, etc.

The agribusiness industry is heavily dependent on meat production, as this provides two streams of profitable clients: (i) crop producers, and (ii) meat producers. It is in their interest to increase meat production and sales because the meat industry is actually the largest consumer of plant crops.

This is a plausible reason why we are continually encouraged to eat more meat, even though large-scale research indicates that consuming too much meat affect lifespans negatively.

Anthropocene Diet?

But even as some countries move away from excessive meat consumption, the marketing of meat simply shifts to other countries. The selling tactics work, as shown by the USA and other developing nations, because the food industry is so dominant. However, the reality is that if there is ever to be an Anthropocene diet, it would need to recognise the realities of nutrition and our environment, not just agribusiness profits. And that starts with eating less meat.

The next part investigates how we got to this curious state.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
Curious Cook: Food, proteins and googly eyes on fish

Curious Cook: Food, proteins and googly eyes on fish

My sister and her family recently came to stay in France, and one of their consistent comments was how good and “different” food tastes here – and were therefore curious about the “secret”.

Of course, there is no secret as such. For one, the food raised in France (and other parts of Europe) is different from food in Asia. By different, I mean the varieties of vegetables, fruits and animals here are distinct from other parts of the world. The preparation of the food is also often different, and I am also particularly fussy – for example, to get the right bangers for a barbecue, we made a return trip of around 100km to a butcher who sold sausages hand-crafted from pigs raised in the Cantal region.

There are, of course, several other items for which I would consider making such a long trip and top of the list would be good Malaysian durians – but sadly, there is no chance of that here as durians are still banned on flights.

This fussiness applies even to little things like salt. It is hard to believe but there are significant differences in the taste of salt. My personal preference is for Fleur De Sel De Guérande – if you are curious, try comparing a sample with ordinary salt side by side. The difference is usually due to the desiccants and/or flow-improvers in normal table salt.

French cheese Reblochon

French cheese Reblochon is made with raw, unpasteurised milk. Photo: The Star

France is largely agricultural and many regions are littered with remote farming communities where there is only one obscure road in and the same route out. Industrial farming is impossible and these communities mainly supply local markets with produce seldom contaminated by modern additives or processes used for mass production.

This is not always riskless – many fine French cheeses are made with “lait cru” or raw, unpasteurised milk and there was recently a recall of many tonnes of Reblochon de Savoie after some batches were found to be contaminated with E. coli. This outbreak had caused hemolytic-uremic syndrome in six out of seven affected children (though nobody died).

Statistically, this still makes eating Reblochon safer than crossing a road, so for that reason, such stories seldom bother me – though I would never offer young children cheese made with unpasteurised milk, just in case.

The right type of ingredients matter very significantly, especially in countries where there are few heavy spices to cover any deficiencies in food elements. For example, the closest to a French national dish might be boeuf bourguinon, a heady stew of beef, Provence herbs and red wine.

Boeuf bourguignon

Boeuf bourguignon is made with few ingredients, unlike a Malaysian beef curry (see main image, top), which is often heavily spiced. Photos: The Star

In theory, it should be very easy to make (as it is mostly boiling lumps of beef for hours in wine and herbs) but it took a year before getting it right. The main problems were the cuts of meat used and the wine selection, according to a professional cook. So changing the meat for a fresher tougher cut and using a lighter Cote du Rhone (and adjusting the balance of herbs) now results in a pretty good stew every time.

I would probably not bother to make boeuf bourguinon in tropical Asian countries. This is because most “beef” in many South-East Asian countries is actually water buffalo imported from India. The other issue may also be the freshness of meat in tropical climates. Meat decomposes and changes its flavour very quickly, especially at warm temperatures – this rapid decomposition is mainly due to aerobic bacteria breaking down meat proteins and spoiling the flavour.

Hence in the Far East, it would make much more sense to cook food with strong spices or flavours to counteract any possible issues with meat protein decomposition. And of course, this is what most people do.

fish

Check the eyes for freshness. Photo: The Star

Googly eyes

A funny story recently is the use of plastic googly eyes by a Kuwaiti fishmonger to cover the rotting eyes of old fish – a common way to test the freshness of fish is to check the decomposition of the eyes. The other is to check the redness underneath the gills. This indicates that consumers are acutely aware of the problems of protein decomposition.

Snack bars

This brings us round to the subject of proteins itself, especially in the modern diet. My daughter recently informed me that dietary protein is now such a fad that even confectionery manufacturers now offer protein-rich snack bars. This was a surprise to me, but a quick search proved she was right – you can get protein-rich Mars, Snickers and Bounty bars, for example. The Carnivore Diet is also an off-shoot of this protein fad. See “A modern food story – Part 1”.

Proteins

After ingestion, proteins are digested down into amino acids which are then released into the blood stream. Amino acids are extremely important as they are the building blocks of enzymes, antibodies, hormones, muscles and connective tissues such as collagen, without which the body simply cannot survive – and we cannot produce all the required amino acids so we require them in our diets. Humans need around 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight.

One fact about proteins is they provide fewer digestible calories than carbohydrates and fat – as often stated before, not all calories from food are equal. This is because of the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) which basically means that proteins take up five times more energy to digest compared to carbohydrates and fats. Hence, a piece of lean meat or soy protein delivers fewer calories than a fried doughnut of the same weight. This was reviewed in “The perils of dieting – Part 1”.

The TEF is also known as dietary-induced thermogenesis and appears to be the rationale behind many of the protein diet fads. Unlike dietary carbohydrates, which are chains of glucose molecules easily freed by enzymes (eg. amylase, galactose, sucrase, etc) into energy-giving glucose molecules, proteins are digested via a completely different pathway.

Proteins are more difficult to convert into energy for two reasons: (i) proteins contain nitrogen; and (ii) the digestive system needs to break down the peptide bonds holding together polypeptides. A string of amino acids is a polypeptide and proteins are either polypeptides or chains of polypeptides. Degradation of proteins is known as proteolysis and the first stage is denaturation of proteins in the extremely acidic environment of the stomach, plus the introduction of a stomach enzyme called pepsin. The deconstruction of proteins is further enhanced by the enzymes trypsin, chymotrypsin, carboxypeptidase A and B and elastase produced by the pancreas while passing into the intestines via the duodenum (where bicarbonate is introduced to raise pH to the level needed for the pancreatic enzymes to function efficiently).

After reducing proteins into amino acids, the amino acids are then passed into the intestinal cell walls and released into the bloodstream to be absorbed by other tissues.

Excess amino acids produced after digestion cannot be stored, and can then be converted into energy. These excess amino acids are subjected to processes called transamination and deamination, which remove the nitrogen molecules in amino acids, thereby reducing amino acids to carbon-based structures (such as pyruvate) which can be converted into glucose (energy) or stored as fat. The nitrogen is freed as ammonia, extracted from the bloodstream by the liver and passed for excretion by the kidneys as urea.

Due to the increase in urea production, anyone with chronic kidney diseases may be negatively affected by high protein diets. Healthy people generally have no issues with any amount of protein.

Although a high-protein diet may help weight loss due to the TEF of proteins, in many ways it is not significantly better than eating raw vegetables, which also have a high TEF. Also, a recent cohort study published in The Lancet (based on 432,179 participants) found that high-protein diets involving mainly animal proteins shortened lifespans (the reasons were not investigated). The study also suggested getting 50% to 55% of daily energy requirements from carbohydrates extended lifespans.

In summary, there is no compelling reason to pursue a high-protein diet but if you must do so, then consider a diet with a much higher proportion of non-animal proteins. There is even less sense in eating expensive sugary confections with added protein – if you investigate the protein content, much of it are by-products from other food processing. Examples are hydrolysed collagen, soy protein isolate, milk protein isolate, skimmed milk powder, whey protein, egg albumen, etc, all mixed with sugars and fats.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

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