Tag Archive | Food Science

Missing Context in GMO Reporting.

Someone was asking what to make of this old article from 2007 on Ventria Bioscience’s trials of a rice that has a human transgene to breed a rice that can produce the bacteria fighting compound lysozyme.

The first GM food crop containing human genes is set to be approved for commercial production.

The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.

Its U.S. developers say they could be used to treat children with diarrhea, a major killer in the Third World.

The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.

The article doesn’t give much information or context, just a bunch of scary quotes from the usual suspects, many not particular to the rice in question. But it since it deals with one of the most taboo ideas surrounding genetic engineering it does provide an opportunity to provide some context and information that is all too often missing from reporting on genetic engineering.

With a fear based article like this the first thing is to figure out is “Is this even true?”

Turns out, yes. The rice has been tested. And the trials were approved by the FDA [pdf] in 2005. In fact, the medication is now on the market.

Here’s the context that I think was missing from the reporting.

First, when you want to scare people about genetic engineering you pretend that you are CROSSING a tomato with a flounder. Then you make a graphic depicting a half tomato, half flounder mutant.

Except that isn’t what is happening. You are taking 1 or 2 or 3 genes out of 10’s of thousands of genes from one organism and adding it to 10’s of thousands of genes of another organism.

A geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where a gene comes from, it matters what it does.”

Consider that humans share about half our genes with bananas. Suppose you were trying to breed a plantain that had a certain trait. The gene that conferred that trait was found in both humans and bananas. Why does it matter where that gene originated? It’s the same gene, doing the same thing.

In fact genetic engineers deal with this often. They can choose the same gene from different and sometime seemingly divergent sources. They make the decision based on which pairing produces the most successful transfer and it’s not always from the organism with the most similar phenotype.

As far as contamination goes, aside from the safeguards in place, natural selection provides strong protection against that. Traits bred into plants by humans by any technique don’t tend to spread into the wild because they don’t confer advantage in the wild. This is why you don’t find patches of feral Better Boy tomatoes growing in meadows. Those traits are either a deadly disadvantage outside of cultivation or they are quickly bred out for being useless.

It is unlikely that the ability to produce lysozyme would be advantageous for rice outside of the fields where it was being cultivated. And if it was, why do we care?

Which leads us to:

What is lysozyme?

Lysozymes, also known as muramidase or N-acetylmuramide glycanhydrolase, are glycoside hydrolases. These are enzymes (EC that damage bacterial cell walls by catalyzing hydrolysis of 1,4-beta-linkages between N-acetylmuramic acid and N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in a peptidoglycan and between N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in chitodextrins. Lysozyme is abundant in a number of secretions, such as tears, saliva, human milk, and mucus. It is also present in cytoplasmic granules of the polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs). Large amounts of lysozyme can be found in egg white.

That seems like it could be useful in treating diarrhea. Initial studies showed that it was.

The sad thing is the hysteria that makes biotech research so difficult and expensive:

“Farmers have got enough going against us without making the markets nervous unnecessarily,” said Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council in February. “It doesn’t matter how much I want to help dehydrated children in some awful war-zone, it doesn’t matter how much I want pharmaceutical crops to be grown successfully and how many value-added dollars they could put in my pocket. All that matters is our customers don’t want any medicine in their breakfast cereal. In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharm-rice myself. But, right now, are we really willing to damage — or even ruin — our rice markets over this? We could literally be driven out of business by a few acres of this stuff.”

Daily Essentials | Wednesday | 16 October 2013

Eric Stewart | Pacific Standard

Compared to some European countries, the United States has a weak tradition of labor-based activism. All too often, this leads to the invisibility of labor issues. Take for example, this commercial for Simply Orange brand orange juice. In an attempt to present their product as a natural alternative to other brands, Simply Orange juxtaposes images of natural orange growth with common phrases relating to the structure of a manufacturing organization. The tree is their “plant” (a marvelous pun), the orange blossoms are the “workers” that produce the fruit, and the sun itself becomes “upper management.”

Even though this commercial is humorously centered on the process of producing orange juice, there is not a single human being present in any of the images. It is a story about making a product in which nobody actually makes anything! This message cleverly sells the product, but it also obscures the real labor that went into growing, picking, and juicing the oranges and downplays the contributions to the process made by real people. All that productive effort is condensed into the image of an orange blossom, as if it can be assumed that such production will just naturally occur like an annual blooming.

Click for gif

Lindsey Smith | The Salt | NPR

In West Michigan, it’s apple harvest time. That may conjure up images of picturesque orchards and old-fashioned fun: growers harvesting apples and then selecting them by hand.

Think again.

Robotic arms, computer vision and high-resolution photography are helping Michigan growers wash, sort and package apples at top speeds in the business — think 2,000 apples per minute.


Jacqueline Froelich | The Salt | NPR

China produces most of the world’s edamame, handpicking and processing it there. Now lots of locally-grown edamame are being packed in the town of Mulberry, Ark. Fresh-picked pods jiggle across a massive high-speed conveyor for automated sorting, washing, blanching and flash freezing.

A Texas-based Asian foods importer to build its company, called American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame Inc., here. Raymond Chung, the chief financial officer, says one reason is because plenty of local farmers are willing to grow the non-genetically modified vegetable soybeans.
Genetically modified to be enriched with beta-carotene, golden rice grains (left) are a deep yellow. At right, white rice grains.

“The bulk of soybeans in the U.S. are [genetically-modified] and grown for industrial purposes, but edamame is a special variety,” he says.

Arkansas ranks tenth nationally for conventional soybeans and is the first to develop an edamame variety licensed for commercial production.

Michael Purugganan | IRRI

It all started in 1984 in Los Baños, Laguna, in the Philippines. Scientists had begun to develop an exciting new approach to breeding crops—genetic engineering—and everyone wondered how it could be used to help the world.

In a house in this college town sat several breeders who were dreaming of what traits they could come up with using this exciting new technology. Increase yields? Develop crops to survive droughts? Protect rice against pests?

One breeder, who developed many of the Green Revolution crops that had saved hundreds of millions from famine, gave a startling answer: yellow rice. Why? Because, he said, vitamin A deficiency afflicts millions of people around the world.

Daily Essentials | Thursday | 3 October 2013

Eliza Barclay and Allison Aubrey | NPR

Among those affected by the chaos of the government shutdown are 9 million low-income women and children who may be worrying where next week’s meal is going to come from.

They rely on the government for food assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.

And according to Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the , some of the state programs that serve these women and children may run out of money by next week, while others may have enough funds to offer the food benefits through the end of the month. But across the country, he says, anxiety is rising as both program administrators and participants wonder how long they’ll be in limbo.

Zarja Muršič | The Scicurious Brain | Scientific American

Just how important is leptin? Studies of genetically modified strains of mice with deficiency in production of leptin, and so without the ability to reduce food intake, are prone to obesity and diabetes (8). These mice have a genetic defect in fat cells, which prevents them from secreting leptin, and without leptin, they don’t have the signal to stop, so they keep eating, and get very obese.

So, maybe you are halfway through your omelet, or that big bowl of oatmeal, and your body begins to produce leptin, signaling you have had enough. This may be the whole story of your Sunday breakfast, but the leptin has not yet finished its work. Maybe you didn’t make that omelet yourself, but bought it at a little breakfast place down the road. If you remember where that breakfast place is, you might be able to go back. And leptin plays a role here as well. Our bodies are quite efficient and will turn one hormone to many uses. In case of leptin – if the hormone can do one thing, it can be adapted to do another as well, and in this case, leptin plays a role in cognition.

Paul Raeburn | MIT Tracker

The root of much of the criticism, it seems to me, is that people are shocked, shocked that Chipotle would advocate sustainable farming, family farms, and greenmarkets when it is nothing more than a big corporation selling burritos by any means necessary!

If Chipotle is sincere in trying to use its leverage to promote better agricultural practices, there is no greenwashing here; it is pursuing the course promoted in the video. If it is lying about that, then it is not only guilty of deception, but possibly crimes.

But let’s not be shocked by Chipotle’s eagerness to sell its burritos. It’s a public corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and it’s trading around 419 as I write this, close to its 52-week high. It has a market cap of almost $13 billion and a P/E of just over 44.

If Chipotle is pushing sustainable agriculture over less desirable practices, let’s take it. Would we feel warmer about the burrito-industrial complex if Chipotle promoted ruthless slaughter?

David Sipress | The New Yorker

On Sunday, the great Italian chef and cookbook author Marcella Hazan died, at the age of eighty-nine. Marcella changed my life. Twenty years ago, my wife and I went to Italy for our honeymoon and I discovered the wonders of Italian food. I returned from the trip determined that, for the rest of my life, I would eat only the way I had during those three weeks of culinary bliss. There was one huge problem—I was a terrible cook. The little cooking I did usually involved frying in Wesson oil and saucing with Paul Newman salad dressing. Fresh ingredients were not in the picture; having grown up in New York in the fifties, I had pretty much accepted my mother’s theory that any food item not wrapped in plastic was probably covered with germs.

What I needed was a teacher. And I found mine in Marcella’s “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” All I had to do was follow her instructions to the letter, and success was pretty much guaranteed. If you’ve ever seen Marcella on television, you know that she was a short, compact lady, a tough biscotti with a raspy voice who didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a surprising preference for Jack Daniels over a glass of wine. But in her books her voice is always warm and encouraging. This, and the fact that her recipes are consistently clear and straightforward, enabled me to overcome a lifetime of insecurity in the kitchen. She just made it all seem so easy.

Seth Brown | Dr. Bunsen

For analyzing beer and whisky flavor preferences, I turned to several comprehensive datasets. For coffee, I couldn’t find an equivalent resource, so I generated my own data. My experimental design was simple.3 I’d give guests two cups of coffee prepared in exactly the same way except for one important difference. I’d then ask guests to choose their favorite of the two cups without them knowing which cup was which. Then, I’d record the results.

To avoid Groupthink, I gave one of the two cups, blinded and at random to each subject. I also wouldn’t inform the subjects what the independent variable was until after the experiment was completed. These steps helped avoid introducing bias into the experiment which may have distorted the results.

In total, 3 rounds of randomized experiments were conducted. Two of the three rounds were actual experiments, while the other round served as a control. As a control, house guests were given two cups of the exact same coffee and asked to choose their favorite. The control served as a baseline to calibrate the experiment. In all control experiments, subjects’ preferences between the two cups of coffee were consistent with a random coin flip.

Andy Bellati | Huffington Post

1) “There is no such thing as junk food/there are no bad foods.”
In very specific contexts (i.e., eating disorder recovery), I understand where this stems from — strip away judgmental labels on food and bring it to its most basic function: nourishment. However, I’m increasingly seeing this message doled out by mainstream nutrition experts as a “takeaway” for the general public. . .

2) “Moderation!”
To my ears, “Everything in moderation!” is the equivalent of 600 fingernails on a chalkboard, plus the never-ending drip of a leaky faucet. “Moderation” is a meaningless term. Ask 20 different people what it means and you’ll get 20 different responses.

“But that’s the beauty of it — each person can define it themselves!” some say. That doesn’t sound like beauty to me. It sounds like chaos.

“Everything in moderation,” is another way of unnecessarily and inaccurately equalizing all foods. It operates on the inane and utterly insane notion that peaches, Pop-Tarts, muffins, soda, lentils and tomatoes should all be approached the same way. . .

3) “Healthy eater = red flag.”
When I was in school, I recall many of my nutrition textbooks pointing out that vegetarians, vegans and “those who avoid certain food groups” must be warned that if they do not plan their diets adequately, all sorts of nutritional ills could befall them. Meanwhile, the average American on the omnivorous “Standard American Diet” falls short of the recommended intake of fiber and several minerals, including magnesium. Of course, this is not because omnivorous diets are inherently unhealthy, but because the majority of Americans eat highly processed foods with little nutritional value. . .

4) “You have to be realistic.”
This is often brought up by some nutrition professionals to justify their recommendations about making healthful choices at fast-food restaurants (“Just get the small size”). I’ll admit it — I used to think this way when I first started studying nutrition, before I counseled clients. I now see that the most satisfied individuals I have worked with are those who stepped outside their comfort zone. They aren’t interested in learning how they can still go to the drive-through three times a week and making “lower-calorie choices.” They want to truly learn about healthful eating. . .