Tag Archives: food

Compound droughts risk destabilizing the global food supply if we keep burning fossil fuels

Climate change could severely impact our food and water security in the future by increasing the probability of droughts co-occurring in food-producing areas around the world, a new study says.

Image via Pixabay.

Research led by scientists at the Washington State University (WSU) warns that the future may hold less bountiful tables, and fewer meals, for us all. According to the findings, the probability of droughts co-occurring will increase by 40% by the mid 21st century, and by 60% by the end of the century, relative to the late 20th century (before the year 2000). All in all, this amounts to an almost-ninefold increase in the exposure of agricultural lands and human populations to severe, co-occurring droughts relative to today.

While modern technology and distribution systems insulate us from the effects of drought to a much larger extent than any time previously in history, co-occurring (or ‘compound’) droughts, if they affect key food-producing areas, can severely impact the global food and water availability. If such an event were to come to pass, millions of people would encounter some difficulty in accessing food in the same quantities and varieties as before.

Table troubles

“There could be around 120 million people across the globe simultaneously exposed to severe compound droughts each year by the end of the century,” said lead author Jitendra Singh, a former postdoctoral researcher at the WSU School of the Environment now at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. “Many of the regions our analysis shows will be most affected are already vulnerable and so the potential for droughts to become disasters is high.”

This increased risk of compound droughts is mainly the result of climate change, which itself is the product of greenhouse gas emissions associated with decades of reliance on fossil fuels. The other element factoring in is a projected 22% increase in the frequency of El Niño and La Niña events — the two opposite phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) — caused by warmer average temperatures.

Roughly 75% of compound droughts in the future will occur during these irregular but recurring periods of variation in the world’s oceans, the team explains. The shifting phases of the ENSO have historically played a part in some of the greatest periods of environmental upheaval globally, as they influence precipitation patterns across a huge stretch of the planet. Compound droughts occurring across Asia, Brazil, and Africa during 1876-1878 were generated by these shifts. They led to massive crop failures and famines which killed in excess of 50 million people.

“While technology and other circumstances today are a lot different than they were in the late 19th century, crop failures in multiple breadbasket regions still have the potential to affect global food availability,” said study coauthor Deepti Singh, an assistant professor in the WSU School of the Environment. “This could in turn increase volatility in global food prices, affecting food access and exacerbating food insecurity, particularly in regions that are already vulnerable to environmental shocks such as droughts.”

The team focused their analysis on the ten areas of the world that receive most of their rainfall between June and September, have monthly summer precipitation showing great variability, and fall under the influence of ENSO variations — factors that leave them exposed to co-occurring droughts. Several of these are important agricultural areas on a global level, they add, and they also include countries that are already experiencing food and water insecurity.

Of the investigated areas, North and South America were among the most likely to experience compound droughts in the future. Certain regions of Asia are also at risk, however, large stretches of agricultural land here are projected to become wetter instead of drier, heavily mitigating the risk of crop failure and subsequent famine.

Still, that leaves us in quite a dire situation. The United States today is a major exporter of grains, including maize, for multiple countries around the world. In the event of a severe drought, reduced production here would impact food security around the world, with increases in the price of grains and a significant decrease in food security — grains are staple foods and lack of such foods heavily impacts the most vulnerable groups throughout communities.

“The potential for a food security crisis increases even if these droughts aren’t affecting major food producing regions but rather many regions that are already vulnerable to food insecurity,” said coauthor Weston Anderson, an assistant research scientist at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland.

“Simultaneous droughts in food insecure regions could in turn amplify stresses on international agencies responsible for disaster relief by requiring the provision of humanitarian aid to a greater number of people simultaneously.”

Still, for what it’s worth, these estimates are assuming that the world maintains a high rate of fossil fuel usage. If carbon emissions continue to fall, the risk and intensity of co-occurring droughts would be greatly mitigated, the team explains. Knowing that nearly 75% of compound droughts occur alongside ENSO events also gives us the chance to predict where such droughts may occur and prepare for them in advance.

“This means that co-occurring droughts during ENSO events will likely affect the same geographical regions they do today albeit with greater severity,” said Deepti Singh. “Being able to predict where these droughts will occur and their potential impacts can help society develop plans and efforts to minimize economic losses and reduce human suffering from such climate-driven disasters.”

The paper “Enhanced risk of concurrent regional droughts with increased ENSO variability and warming” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Facebook ads can be used to gauge cultural similarity between countries

The cultural similarity between countries and international migration patterns can be measured quite reliably using Facebook data, a new study reports.

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“Cultural hotspot” isn’t the first thing that pops into mind when thinking about social media for most of us. However, new research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany shows that data from Facebook can be used to gauge cultural closeness between countries, and overall migration trends.

And the way to do it is to track ads for food and drink on the platform.

We are what we eat

“[A] few years ago, after reading a work of a colleague using data from the Facebook Advertising Platform, I was surprised to find how much information we share online and how much these social media platforms know about us,” said Carolina Coimbra Vieira, a Ph.D. student in the Laboratory of Digital and Computational Demography at the Max Planck institute and lead author of the research, in an email for ZME Science.

“After that, I decided to work with this social media data to propose new ways of answering old questions related to society. In this specific case, I wanted to propose a measure of cultural similarity between countries using data regarding Facebook users’ food and drink preferences.”

For the study, the team developed a new approach that uses Facebook data to gauge cultural similarity between countries, by making associations between immigration patterns and the overall preference for food and drink across various locations.

They employed this approach as migrants have a very important role to play in shaping cultural similarities between countries. However, they explain, it’s hard to study their influence directly, in part because it is hard to ‘measure’ culture reliably. The traditional way of gauging culture comes in the form of surveys, but these have several drawbacks such as cost, the chances of bias in question construction, and difficulties in applying them to a large sample of countries.

The team chose to draw on previous findings that show food and drink preferences may be a proxy for cultural similarities between countries, and build a new analytical method based on this knowledge. They drew on Facebook’s top 50 food and drink preferences in various countries — as captured by the Facebook Advertising Platform — in order to see what people in different areas liked to dine on.

“This platform allows marketers and researchers to obtain an estimate of the number of Facebook monthly active users for a proposed advertisement that matches the given input criteria based on a list of demographic attributes, such as age, gender, home location, and interests, that can be customized by the advertiser,” Vieira explained for ZME Science. “Because we focus on food and drink as cultural markers, we selected the interests classified by Facebook as related to food and drink. We selected the top 50 most popular foods and drinks in each one of the sixteen countries we analyzed to construct a vector indicator of each country in terms of these foods and drinks to finally measure the cultural similarity between them.”

In order to validate their findings, the team applied the method to 16 countries. They report that food and drink interests, as reflected by Facebook ads, generally align with documented immigration patterns. Preferences for foreign food and drink align with domestic preferences in the countries from which most immigrants came. On the other hand, countries that tend to have few immigrants also showed lower preferences for foreign foods and drinks, and were interested in a narrower range of such products more consistently.

The team cites the example of the asymmetry between Mexico and the U.S. as an example of the validity of their model. The top 50 foods and drinks from Mexico are more popular in the U.S. than the top 50 U.S. foods and drinks are in Mexico, they explain, aligning well with the greater degree of immigration coming from Mexico into the U.S. than the other way around.

All in all, the findings strongly suggest that immigrants help shape the culture of various countries. In the future, the team hopes to expand their methodology to include other areas of preference beyond food and drink, and see whether these align with known immigration patterns.

“The food and drink preferences shared by Facebook users from two different countries might indicate a high immigrant population from one country living in the other. In our results we observed that immigration is associated with higher cultural similarity between countries. For example, there are a lot of immigrants from Argentina living in Spain and our measure showed that one of the most similar countries to Spain is Argentina. This means that foods and drinks popular between Facebook users in Argentina are also really popular in Spain,” she adds.

“The most surprising aspect of this study is the methodology and more precisely, the data we used to study culture. Differently from surveys, our methodology is timely, [cost-effective], and easily scalable because it uses passively-collected information internationally available on Facebook.”

Overall, the researchers say, this study suggests that immigrants indeed help shape the culture of their destination country. Future research could refine the new method outlined in this study or repurpose it to examine and compare other interests beyond food and drink.

“I would like to see our proposed measure of cultural similarity being used in different contexts, such as to predict migration. For instance, it would be interesting to use our measure of cultural similarity to answer the question: Do the migrants prefer to migrate to a country culturally similar to their origin country?” Vieira concludes in her email.”More generally, I hope our work contributes to increasing the development of research using social media data as an alternative to complement more traditional data sources to study society.”

The paper “The interplay of migration and cultural similarity between countries: Evidence from Facebook data on food and drink interests” has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Shifting to a healthier diet can increase your lifespan by up to a decade

New research is showcasing how a more healthy, balanced diet — including more legumes, whole grains, and nuts, while cutting down on red and processed meat — can lead to longer lives.

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“You are what you eat” is an age-old saying, but a new study from the University of Bergen says that we also live as long as what we eat. The healthier and more diverse our diets, the healthier and longer our life expectancy (LE) becomes, it reports.

The paper estimates the effect of such changes in the typical Western diets for the two sexes at various ages; the earlier these guidelines are incorporated into our eating habits, the larger the improvements in LE, but older people stand to benefit from significant (if smaller) gains as well.

Change your meals, enjoy more meals

“Our modeling methodology used data from [the] most comprehensive meta-analyses, data from the Global Burden of Disease study, life-table methodology, and added analyses on [the] delay of effects and combination of effects including potential effect overlap”, says Lars Fadnes, a Professor at the Department of Global Public Health at the University of Bergen who led the research, in an email for ZME Science.

“The methodology provides population estimates under given assumptions and is not meant as individualized forecasting, with uncertainty that includes time to achieve full effects, the effect of eggs, white meat, and oils, individual variation in protective and risk factors, uncertainties for future development of medical treatments; and
changes in lifestyle.”

Dietary habits are estimated to contribute to 11 million deaths annually worldwide, and to 255 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs). One DALY, according to the World Health Organization “represents the loss of the equivalent of one year of full health”. In other words, there’s a lot of room for good in changing what we eat.

The team drew on existing databases to develop a computerized model to estimate how a range of dietary changes would impact life expectancy. The model is publicly available as the online Food4HealthyLife calculator, which you can use to get a better idea of how changing what you eat can benefit your lifespan. The team envisions that their calculator would also help physicians and policy-makers to understand the impact of dietary choices on their patients and the public.

For your typical young adult (20 years old) in the United States, the team reports that changing from the typical diet to an optimal one (as described by their model) could provide an increase in LE of roughly 10.7 years for women and 13 years for men. There is quite some uncertainty in these results — meaning that increases for women range between 5.9 years and 14.1, and for men between 6.9 and 17.3 — due to the effect of factors that the model doesn’t factor in, such as preexisting health conditions, socioeconomic class, and so on. Changing diets at age 60 would still yield an increase in LE of 8 years for women and 8.8 years for men.

“The differences in life expectancy estimates between men and women are mainly due to differences in background mortality (and particularly cardiovascular disease such as coronary heart disease, where men generally are at higher risk at an earlier age compared to women),” prof. Fadnes explained for ZME Science.

The largest gains in LE would be made by eating more legumes, more whole grains, more nuts, less red meat, and less processed meat.

So far, the research focused on the impact of diet on LE, but such changes could be beneficial in other ways, as well. Many of the suggestions the team makes are also more environmentally sustainable and less costly, financially. The team is now hard at work incorporating these factors into their online calculator, in order to help people get a better understanding of just how changes in diet can improve their lives, on all levels involved.

“We are working to include sustainability aspects in Food4HealthyLife too. Based on former studies, the optimal diets are likely to have substantial benefits compared to a typical Western diet also in terms of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and other sustainability facets,” he added for ZME Science. We have not systematically investigated financial aspects yet, but several of the healthy options could also be cheap, such as legumes and whole grains.”

The paper “Estimating the Impact of Food Choices on Life Expectancy: A Modeling Study” has been published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Just one extra hour of sleep can help overweight people eat less

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Research conducted over the years has increasingly linked poor sleep (particularly sleeping less than the minimally recommended 7 hours per night) to the risk of weight gain over time. Not sleeping enough may result in hormonal imbalances that affect appetite, leading some to eat more than they normally would on a healthy sleep regimen.

To investigate in more detail how sleep affects calorie intake, researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a randomized clinical trial involving 80 young, overweight adults who habitually sleep less than 6.5 hours a night.

“Over the years, we and others have shown that sleep restriction has an effect on appetite regulation that leads to increased food intake, and thus puts you at risk for weight gain over time,” said lead investigator Esra Tasali, director of the UChicago Sleep Center at the University of Chicago Medicine. “More recently, the question that everyone was asking was, ‘Well, if this is what happens with sleep loss, can we extend sleep and reverse some of these adverse outcomes?’”

The volunteers were randomly split into two groups. One received personalized sleep hygiene counseling, which involved changing one’s routine to avoid the things that hinder sleep (caffeine in the evening, heavy meals close to bedtime, excessively warm bedroom, etc.) and introduce activities that aid sleep (going to bed at the same time, using your sleep only for sleep or sex, etc.). The other group received no intervention at all and acted as a control.

In the first two weeks, the researchers just gathered baseline information about sleep and calorie intake. Sleep patterns were measured using wearable devices while calorie intake was quantified using the “doubly labeled water” method. The doubly labeled water method is a trialed and tested urine-based test for objectively tracking calorie intake, which involves a participant drinking water in which some hydrogen and oxygen atoms have been replaced with stable isotopes that are easy to trace. With this technique, it is possible to measure every calorie a person burned over a one to two week interval, without having to hawkishly record everything a person puts into their mouths.

“This is considered the gold standard for objectively measuring daily energy expenditure in a non-laboratory, real-world setting and it has changed the way human obesity is studied,” said the study’s senior author Dale Schoeller, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at UW–Madison.

A month after the study started, the researchers found that participants in the sleep intervention group managed to extend their sleep duration by an average of 1.2 hours. Compared to the control group, the sleep intervention reduced the participants’ daily calorie intake by 270 calories, the equivalent of a small meal.

Of important note is that this examination was performed in a real-world setting. Each volunteer slept in their own beds, ate what they wished, wasn’t prompted to exercise, and generally went about their day as they pleased and normally would. That’s in stark contrast to most weight loss studies that are generally short-lived and diligently measure calorie intake by making sure participants only consume a particular offered diet.

The only factor that was manipulated in the study was sleep duration, and this single aspect proved to have a significant impact on the participants’ calorie intake. If the average reduction in calorie intake of 270 calories per day is maintained over the long term, this would translate to roughly 12 kg (26 pounds) of weight loss over a three-year period. That’s on average; some participants consumed as many as 500 fewer calories per day.

“This was not a weight-loss study,” said Tasali. “But even within just two weeks, we have quantified evidence showing a decrease in caloric intake and a negative energy balance — caloric intake is less than calories burned. If healthy sleep habits are maintained over a longer duration, this would lead to clinically important weight loss over time. Many people are working hard to find ways to decrease their caloric intake to lose weight — well, just by sleeping more, you may be able to reduce it substantially.”

In the future, the researchers plan on studying the underlying mechanisms that may explain why more sleep can lead to weight loss. Previous research by Tasali and colleagues suggest that sleep is important for appetite regulation. Limited sleep may drive changes in appetite-regulating hormones and reward centers in the brain that could lead to overeating.

If you struggle with both your sleep and weight, these findings suggest a simple intervention could do wonders: just sleep more. That’s harder than it sounds, but with some hard work, it is possible. According to the researchers, limiting the use of electronic devices before bedtime was a key intervention.

Here are a few tips that may help you clock in more hours of sleep:

  1. Go to sleep at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
  2. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m, and don’t nap longer than 20 minutes.
  3. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
  4. Avoid nicotine completely.
  5. Get regular exercise, but not within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
  6. Don’t eat a heavy meal late in the day. A light snack before bedtime is OK.
  7. Make your bedroom comfortable, dark, quiet, and not too warm or cold.
  8. Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep (for example, reading or listening to music). Turn off the TV and other screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  9. Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, do something calming until you feel sleepy, like reading or listening to soft music.
  10. Talk with a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.

The findings of the new study appeared in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Making diets more sustainable could be easier than we think

Replacing one serving of beef per day with a climate-friendly alternative would cut a diet’s carbon footprint by up to 48%, according to a new study. Researchers used real-world data to calculate the difference of swapping one high-impact food item for a more sustainable option, estimating emissions and water consumption of each. They found that this simple swap could make an important difference in our struggles against climate change. 

Image credit: Flickr / Sue Thomson.

Food systems are a big driver of the climate crisis, accounting for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, about 70% of the global freshwater consumption goes to agricultural production. Consumer demand is largely behind this trend, with big differences in emissions and water consumption between food types.

Previous studies showed that changing current diets could reduce emissions by up to 50%. Still, dietary change is difficult. Diets are complex and habits are hard to break, and people don’t like being told what they should or shouldn’t eat. But there are ways to convince people to shift towards more sustainable options. One strategy is taking simple steps that are easy to understand and implement — like for instance changing just one component of the diet instead of doing an altogether new diet.

With this in mind, researchers from Tulane University and the University of Michigan decided to study dietary shifts to improve sustainability with a simple strategy. The goal was to identify the foods with the biggest negative environmental impact, find substitutes that are culinary and calorically equivalent, and assess the differences if individuals change just one item of their diet. 

“We studied the potential impact of a simple substitution, one that does not reduce meat consumption, per se, but rather just beef consumption. Granted, there will be many consumers who would still resist such a dietary shift. But by keeping it simple, this approach will be easy for individuals who are motivated to change their diet,” the researchers wrote. 

Diets and the environment

Using data from a survey of what more than 16,000 US citizens eat in an average day, the researchers found that around 20% have at least one serving of beef in a day – the item with the highest environmental impact. If they swapped one serving of beef, for example for turkey, emissions would drop by 48% and water-use impact by 30%.

“People can make a significant difference in their carbon footprint with very simple changes—and the easiest one would be to substitute poultry for beef,” lead author Diego Rose. said in a statement. “The changes needed to address our climate problems are major. They are needed across all sectors and along all levels of human organization.”

Rose and the researchers also looked at how such change would alter the environmental impact of all food consumption in the US in a day. If just 20% of Americans who eat beef switched to something else just for one meal, this would cut the carbon footprint of all diets by 9.6% and reduce water-use impacts by 5.9%. Worldwide, around a third of our emissions are related to agriculture.

While replacing beef had the largest impact, the researchers also measured what would mean to change other food items. Swapping a serving of shrimp for cod would cut emissions by 24%, and replacing dairy milk for soy milk would bring down emissions by 8%. But not all the culprits are meat — the biggest reduction was for changing asparagus for peas, resulting in a 48% decrease. 

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

Cases of eating disorders have doubled in the US during the pandemic

The number of hospitalizations for health disorders has doubled across the US during the pandemic (between January 2018 and December 2020), according to new research. The largest part of this increase was represented by cases of anorexia or bulimia.

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Despite this, other common behavioral health conditions such as depression, alcohol use, or opioid use disorder, haven’t registered any meaningful changes during this time.

Eating issues

“This pandemic era is going to have some long-term impacts on the course of disease and the course of weight over the lifespan,” says Kelly Alison, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, co-author of the paper. “What that does for eating disorders? We just don’t know.”

Although the team can’t yet tell what the cause of this increase is, they believe that we’re looking at the combined effect of several factors ranging from the toll the pandemic has taken on our mental health, an outsized focus on weight gain in parallel with constantly viewing ourselves on video calls, and even symptoms of COVID-19 itself. There is also very little data on how this trend will affect public health in the long run.

The study included data from over 3.2 million individuals across the U.S., with a mean age of 37.7 years old. According to the findings, the number of inpatient care cases for eating disorders remained pretty stable over time, at approximately 0.3 cases per 100,000 people per month, until May 2020. At that date, the number of cases doubled, to 0.6 per 100,000. This increase was registered across anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other and unspecified eating disorders.

The average length of inpatient stays for such cases has also increased. This was on average 9 days and 8 days between June to December of 2018 and 2019, respectively, going up to 12 days between June and December of 2020. A similar increase was not seen for the 3 behavioral health conditions used as controls over the same timeframe.

As far as outpatient care cases for eating disorders have increased from around 25 per 100,000 people per month to 29 per 100,000. The age range of inpatient patients ranged from 12 to 20 pre-pandemic, rising to 18 to 28 after its onset.

The average length of inpatient stays for such cases has also increased. This was on average 9 days and 8 days between June to December of 2018 and 2019, respectively, going up to 12 days between June and December of 2020. A similar increase was not seen for the 3 behavioral health conditions used as controls over the same timeframe.

Stress caused by the pandemic and the changes it caused in our lives could be one of the drivers of this increase, the team reports. Additionally, the shift towards video calls for conferences at work gives us ample opportunity to look at ourselves, which can create a further drive towards the development of eating disorders.

“During the pandemic, having a lack of routine and structure primed us in terms of our behaviors around food,” says Ariana Chao, Ph.D., from Penn’s School of Nursing.

Social media reflects this increase in self-scrutiny and concerns regarding weight, the authors report. As far as eating disorders are concerned, discussions about weight can be “very triggering”, Allison explains, so social media can create a lot of stress in patients at risk. Different people handle this stress differently, the team adds, with some binge eating, while others didn’t eat enough.

For now, it’s not clear whether the rising trend in eating disorder cases will continue after the pandemic. The present study is based on data up to December 2020, so it’s missing the latest part of the picture. The team is now hard at work analyzing data recorded well into 2021 to see how these trends are evolving.

“We really need more research,” says Chao. “Adversity can be a long-term predictor of developing eating disorders. Even the transition back to ‘normal’ can exacerbate eating disorders. Everything is changing so rapidly. Then again, people are also resilient. It’s hard to say what the long-term implications will be.”

The paper “Trends in US Patients Receiving Care for Eating Disorders and Other Common Behavioral Health Conditions Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic” has been published in the journal JAMA Network Open Psychiatry.

Healthier, more nutritious diets have a lower environmental impact — at least in the UK

More nutritious and healthy diet options can also help the climate, says a new analysis from the University of Leeds.

Image via Pixabay.

Our combined dietary habits can be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, food production accounts for roughly one-third of all emissions. This isn’t very surprising, since everybody needs to eat; but there are little tweaks we can apply to our lives which, added up, can lead to significant benefits for the climate.

New research at the University of Leeds reports that more nutritious, less processed, and less energy-dense diets can be much more sustainable from an environmental point of view than more common alternatives. While “less energy-dense” might sound like a bad thing, calorie content doesn’t translate into nutrient content. In other words, many energy-rich foods may actually just leave us fatter and malnourished.

Clean dining

“We all want to do our bit to help save the planet. Working out how to modify our diets is one way we can do that,” the authors explain. “There are broad-brush concepts like reducing our meat intake, particularly red meat, but our work also shows that big gains can be made from small changes, like cutting out sweets, or potentially just by switching brands.”

Similar analyses of the impacts of dietary options on the environment have been performed in the past. While their findings align well with the conclusions of the study we’re discussing today, they focused on broad categories of food instead of specific items. The team wanted to improve the accuracy of our data on this topic.

For the study, they pooled together published research on greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production to estimate the environmental impact of 3,233 specific food items. These items were selected from the UK Composition Of Foods Integrated Dataset (COFID). This dataset contains nutritional data regarding every item on the list and is commonly used to gauge the nutritional qualities of individuals’ diets.

The team used this data to evaluate the diets of 212 participants, who were asked to report what foods they ate during three 24-hour periods. In the end, this provided a snapshot of each participant’s usual nutritional intake and the greenhouse emissions generated during the production phase of all the items they consumed.

What the results show, in broad strokes, is the environmental burden of different types of diets, broken down by their constituent elements.

According to the findings, non-vegetarian diets had an overall 59% higher level of greenhouse gas emissions compared to vegetarian diets. This finding isn’t particularly surprising; industrial livestock farming is a big consumer of resources such as food and water and produces quite a sizeable amount of emissions from the animals themselves, the production of fodder, and through the processing and storage of meat and other goods.

Overall men’s diets tended to be associated with higher emissions — 41% more on average than women’s diets — mainly due to higher meat consumption.

People who exceeded the recommended sodium (salt), saturated fat, and carbohydrate intake as set out by World Health Organization guidelines generated more emissions through their diets than those who did not.

Based on these findings, the authors offer their support for policies aimed at encouraging sustainable diets, especially those that are heavily plant-based. One other measure they are in support of is policy that promotes the replacement of coffee, tea, and alcohol with more sustainable alternatives.

The current study offers a much higher-resolution view of the environmental impact of different food items, but it is not as in-depth as it could be. In the future, the authors hope to be able to expand their research to include elements such as brand or country of origin to help customers better understand what choices they’re making. They also plan to include broader measures of environmental impact in their analyses, not just greenhouse gas emissions.

For now, the findings are based only on data from the UK, so they may not translate perfectly to other areas of the globe.

The paper “Variations in greenhouse gas emissions of individual diets: Associations between the greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient intake in the United Kingdom” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Why kids hate broccoli: a foul combination with oral bacteria

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Your first memory of eating Brussels sprouts and broccoli is likely not a very happy one. Many children dislike these sorts of vegetables, known as Brassica, and some may even find them disgusting. There are a couple of reasons why broccoli can taste really bad, especially for children who are more sensitive, including bitter-taste compounds and gene variants.

Now, scientists have found yet another factor that makes these plants unpalatable: enzymes in broccoli can combine with bacteria in our saliva to produce very unpleasant sulfurous odors. The higher the levels of these compounds, the more likely children were to say they dislike the vegetables. Furthermore, the levels of these volatile compounds were found to be similar in parent-child pairs, which suggests the oral biome is shared.

In the mouth, broccoli can produce putrid odors in some people

Broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts all contain a glucosinolate compound that makes them taste bitter. But to some people, their taste can be especially foul. For some time, scientists have known that the TAS2R38 gene is responsible for regulating how humans sense bitterness in food, with huge evolutionary implications.

The bitter taste, along with sourness, is thought to be protective, an early sign that is supposed to communicate ‘be careful, this food may be toxic’. This warning system is quite robust, being capable of identifying thousands of different compounds, some of which could poison and even kill us.

Sensitivity to bitter compounds is a little bit higher in very young humans. Children have around twice as many taste buds as adults, for instance. Also, there’s quite a bit of genetic variance in how people express TAS2R38.

Of course, broccoli isn’t toxic. On the contrary, it’s a ‘superfood’, very rich in nutrients and antioxidants, while being low on calories. It just so happens that our body mistakes it for something that may be toxic, and this sensitivity is within a spectrum, meaning there’s significant variation among people. To some people broccoli and other vegetables like it are palatable, to others it’s simply not approachable.

Normally the Glucosinolates get all the attention, but Damian Frank, a Research Fellow in Food Chemistry and Sensory Food Scientist at the University of Sydney, found that another compound called S-methyl-ʟ-cysteine sulfoxide shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to Brassica bitterness. When these compounds combine with enzymes in the plant’s tissue and people’s saliva, they produce sulfurous odors.

Frank and colleagues investigated differences in sulfur volatile production in saliva from 98 child/parent pairs. Using gas chromatography-olfactometry-mass spectrometry, the researchers first measured the main odor-active compounds in raw and steamed cauliflower and broccoli. They then mixed saliva samples from each participant with raw cauliflower powder and analyzed the produced volatile compounds. Each sample was then associated with taste ratings self-reported by the parent or child.

Unsurprisingly, dimethyl trisulfide, which smells rotten, sulfurous and putrid, was the least liked odor by both children and adults. But what was intriguing was that there were large differences in sulfur volatile production between child/parent pairs while children had very similar sulfurous odor production to their parents. This makes sense since people tend to have similar microbiomes when sharing the same diet, household, and ancestry.

“There were big differences between the amount of volatiles formed between individuals. But there was a significant correlation between children and adults; the parents of children with high enzyme activity tended to also have high activity. This suggested similarity in the amount and type of bacteria present,” Frank told ZME Science.

Although children whose saliva produced the highest amount of sulfur volatiles predictably disliked raw Brassica vegetables the most, this relationship wasn’t as strong for their parents. This is perhaps due to less taste sensitivity with age and an acquired tolerance of the flavor with repeated exposure through life. That being said, many parents likely hate broccoli as much as their kids do.

“Sometimes the parent has to overcome their own dislike to give their child “healthy” food like brassicas. They want to be a good parent and do the right thing, but it goes against the grain!” said Frank.

The researchers also measured common genetic differences in bitter sensing receptor genes among the participants, the results of which will be published soon. These will likely help explain why some people like Brassica vegetables and others, well, not so much.

“Not sure whether I will be doing further work in this interesting area.  But a better characterization of the type of bacteria present in individual oral microbiomes is a worthwhile research area. Also more research on how bacteria in the mouth affect taste and perception is super fascinating,” Frank said.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Unprocessed plant-based food keeps your heart healthier at any age

Basing your meals on unprocessed plant-based foods is healthy for your heart at any age, according to a duo of studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Image credits Arek Socha.

Eating meals rich in unprocessed plants, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts, legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils, is a good way to keep your heart healthy all throughout your life. New research says that eating such diets in young adulthood is associated with lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease in midlife.

Eat your veggies

“Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centered diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Yuni Choi, Ph.D., lead author of one of the studies and a postdoctoral researcher in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

The paper looked at the occurrence of heart disease in 4,946 adults, all of whom were enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. All participants were aged 18 to 30 at the time of enrollment in the study, were free of cardiovascular disease, and were also analyzed by education level (equivalent to more than high school vs. high school or less). The sample included 2,509 black adults and 2,437 white adults, and 54.9% of participants were women.

Each participant had eight follow-up exams between the enrollment period (1985-1986) and the study’s end (2015-16), which included lab tests, physical measurements, as well as assessments of their medical histories and lifestyle factors. The participants were not instructed to change their habits in any way, such as being told to include or exclude certain items from their diets, and were not told their scores on the diet measures during the trial, so as not to influence the outcome.

The quality of each participant’s diet was scored based on the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS) composed of 46 food groups at years 0, 7 and 20 of the study. The food groups were classified into beneficial (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains), neutral (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish), and adverse (fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries, and soft drinks) based on what we know of their relationship to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Under this methodology, higher scores were indicative of diets that more heavily revolved around nutritionally rich plant-based items.

Based on the data from this study, two papers measured how healthy plant food consumption influences cardiovascular health, in young adults or postmenopausal women. Both of these groups saw benefits, the papers report, as members of both were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.

During the 32-year follow-up period, 289 participants developed cardiovascular disease (including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, heart-related chest pain or clogged arteries anywhere in the body). However, those who scored in the top 20% on the long-term diet quality score were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, after controlling for factors such as age, sex, education, and a host of other relevant factors. Those who improved their diet score the most between 25 to 50 years old were 61% less likely to develop subsequent cardiovascular disease compared to those whose quality of diet declined between the same ages.

The team notes that the study included very few participants who were vegetarians, so the study didn’t record the effects of strict vegetarianism (which excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs) on cardiovascular health, but are representative of general dietary habits.

“A nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian,” Choi said. “People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.”

That being said, the study is observational. In other words, it can show that certain dietary habits are correlated to certain health outcomes, but it can’t say for sure that one causes the the other. Still, the findings are relevant for all of us, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. So maybe help yourself to some extra veggies and greens during your next lunch break.

The first paper “Relationship Between a Plant‐Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort Study” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The second paper “Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Microbes and solar energy could make finally make the food on our plates sustainable

Population growth and changes in the world’s dietary patterns are placing more and more stress on the environment. This means have to find new ways to feed the world without destroying the environment — and we have to do so sooner rather than later. For a team of researchers, a possible solution lies in microbial biomass cultivated to yield protein-rich feed and food supplements.

Image credit: Flickr / State of Israel

It’s the future — so where’s our futuristic food tech?

The researchers’ idea is to use electricity from solar panels and carbon dioxide from the air to create fuel for microbes. The microbes are then grown in bioreactor vats and processed into dry protein powders. The process is highly efficient in terms of land, water, and fertilizers and can be used anywhere, no matter soil and weather conditions. You basically get a lot of nutrients for little land and energy.

While the technology to make it happen is already available, there’s been debate about how it would compare to conventional farming in terms of yields and land use. So a group of German researchers led by Dorian Leger from the Max Planck Institute have carried out the most detailed analysis so far. Largely based on empirical data their analysis shows the approach is viable. 

“This could have very beneficial impacts on the environment. If you have 10 square kilometers of soya bean fields in the Amazon, hypothetically you could make that 1 square kilometer of solar panels and reforest the other nine,” Leger told New Scientist, suggesting food production could be moved to areas that aren’t biodiversity hotspots.

The food challenge

Food security is a critical issue for humanity. The combined effect of population growth and increasing consumption of animal-based products are projected to cause a surge in demand for food, which is expected to make feeding the world increasingly difficult. Moreover, the impacts of climate change pose another threat to future food security.

Addressing food security requires society-wide changes and innovations in the food system that go beyond conventional agriculture. For researchers, producing nutrient-rich foods derived from microbial biomass can address this without increasing pressure on the environment, as it uses water and nitrogen more efficiently than plants.

“We think microbial foods are very promising and will be one of the major contributors to solving the potential food crisis. It might pick up quite quickly on the consumer side, but it’s hard to say. But I do some exercise, and if I was offered a bacterial protein shake now, I would have it,” Leger told The Guardian

Companies are already producing microbial biomass derived from algae, fungi, or bacteria at commercial scale destined for animal or human consumption. The feedstock used to cultivate the microbes is typically agriculturally derived glucose or fossil-derived methane and methanol. Yet, there could be a more sustainable option with solar energy. 

In the study, the researchers calculated the efficiency of microbial biomass, including capturing CO2 from the air and processing the microbes into food that people could eat. They found the microbial system used just 1% of the water needed by the crops and a small fraction of the fertilizer (most of which is wasted when used in fields).

They estimated that the solar-microbial process could produce 15 tones of protein from each hectare a year, enough to feed 520 people. In comparison, a hectare of soya beans could produce 1.1 tones of protein, feeding 40 people. Microbial protein would cost about the same as current proteins eaten by people but it was more expensive than current animal feeds. 

“It provides a compelling alternative for the sustainable supply of nutrients, which can rival and outperform contemporary agriculture in many aspects,” the researchers wrote. “It can help close the approaching ‘protein gap’ while while curtailing further agricultural land expansion, thus safeguarding biodiversity and the carbon sink potential of forests and grasslands.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

It burns so good: why do some people like spicy food?

Spicy foods are meant to discourage us from eating them. However, humans stand apart from other animals in that we sometimes seek these items to eat specifically because they’re spicy. Exactly why we do this is unclear, but it’s likely a combination of factors ranging from potential health benefits to cultural norms and personal preference.

Image credits Chris Hilbert.

Do you enjoy doing things that hurt your tongue? Have you ever thought “man, I’d like to feel my mouth on fire!”? Do you get excited at the prospect of hot wings so hot that they make your very soul tremble? If yes, let me just say that I cannot, for the life of me, sympathize with you. I like my meals like I like my car: not burning.

But that’s not a universal preference among people, which raises an interesting point — why do some people like spicy food? On the face of it, it doesn’t make any sense. We know certain plants use chemical defenses against pests and pathogens, chemicals that also give them unique qualities like flavor or taste. Some are milder, like onions, garlic, or pepper. Others will have you in tears, gagging for life, hoping for death. And yet, we keep coming back for seconds. Sometimes we even go to events to see who can withstand the spiciest foods.

In short, although these plants contain substances specifically to make us not want them, we seek them out, specifically. We don’t really know why, but we do have some ideas, and we’re going to talk about those today.

What makes a spice, what makes it spicy?

We’ve talked about spices before here on ZME Science, but mostly from a historical standpoint. In more practical terms, spices are plant products (apart from their leaves, stems, and flowers, which are referred to as ‘herbs’) that can impart taste, flavor, or color to a meal.

They aren’t very common, all things considered. Their special properties were most likely formed because these plants had to contend with environmental pressures such as parasites, predators, or diseases. They became spices through chemical warfare. Since each species had its own issues to contend with, there is a very wide range of substances they employ. We collectively know these plants as spices, but we also make a distinction between them and things that are ‘spicy’.

A good example are peppers. Bell peppers are a spice, they’re the main ingredient in paprika, but they’re not spicy. Jalapeño peppers can be a spice, but they’re definitely very spicy. The difference between these two terms is more of a subjective one. Things that ‘are spicy’ contain substances that are particularly irritating or unpleasant to us as humans. They’re tailored to offend our bodies in particular.

Not all spices are spicy. Image via Pixabay.

In the case of spicy peppers, that substance is capsaicin. It will make your eyes water, but it wouldn’t have much effect on a bird. We think it comes down to the fact that pepper seeds can’t survive the strong acids in the mammalian gut, but they can make it through a birds’ intestines unscathed. In a bid to help spread their seeds, the theory goes, peppers developed capsaicin to keep mammals away but allow birds to peck away unscathed. We were the intended target for their chemical war effort.

Why people like spices, in general, isn’t very hard to wrap your head around: the flavors they contain are interesting and make meals more enjoyable. Why people like things that are spicy, on the other hand, is a bit more nebulous. Especially so because their spiciness was designed specifically to make us not like them.

Maybe it’s because they make food safe

Evolutionary biologists like to view the traits and behaviors of individual species as elements that help them navigate their environments — like skills that you acquire in time to fulfil your needs. On the one hand, this means that certain plants had a reason to become spices, and we’ve talked about that just now. But on the other hand, it would also mean that we have an evolutionary need to consume spices, or else we wouldn’t.

A paper (Sherman, Billing) published back in 1999 sums up that idea quite nicely in its headline: “Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us“. The authors looked at the use of spices in traditional cuisines across the world from “traditional cookbooks”, comparing this to the natural conditions these cultures developed in.

Their theory was that the use of spice is, at least in part, a pragmatic thing. In warmer climates, they hypothesized, food (meat especially) would spoil quicker and contain more pathogens than in colder climates. The use of spice may well be a subconscious effort to protect ourselves from these, which grew into a cultural preference over time. As we’ve seen before, spices are essentially plant species that use powerful chemicals to protect themselves. The theory, then, is that people mixed these into their foods, in relatively small quantities, to fight off any pathogens in the food — which are a much bigger risk than the chemicals contained in the spices.

Essentially, it’s taking a gamble that the small dose of poison in our food will do more damage to any bacteria or viruses therein than it would do to our bodies.

The authors did find some evidence in support of their hypothesis. The cookbooks from warmer areas mentioned more types of spices overall, and called for more of them to be included in every dish, than those in colder climates. When looking only at meat dishes (meat spoils faster and contains more pathogens than spoiled plant matter), the average number of spices called for by the recipes was 4, and 93% of these recipes called for at least one type of spice. However, Norwegian cookbooks only mentioned 10 different spices and called for 1.6 spices per dish on average. Hungarian cookbooks mentioned up to 21 different spices and called for 3 spices, on average, for each dish.

Certain cuisines are renowned for the amount of spices they typically include. Image via Pixabay.

“But wait!” you cry out, wise to the fact that correlation doesn’t imply causation, “so it doesn’t mean one causes the other just because they occur together”. And, as always, you’re right. This one paper can’t prove that people employ spices against pathogens in foods. It also just happens that most spices today are endemic (native) to warmer areas, as these generally harbor more diverse communities of plants, animals, and the like. So it could simply be a matter of availability. Spices also tended to be extremely expensive or simply not available to many colder regions in the past, so it would make sense their traditional cookbooks won’t mention them, or only do so sparingly.

At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the hypothesis is wrong, it just means we can’t know for sure. The authors further note that vegetable dishes called for much fewer spices across the board, which would fit well with their hypothesis — since spoiled meat contains more bacteria than spoiled vegetables, it makes sense to use more spices when cooking meats. Furthermore, there is data to support the fact that many spices do have an antimicrobial or antifungal effect. At the same time, many of the most widely-used spices, like pepper, aren’t that great at the job; salt, for example, is more of a bacteria-killer than black pepper. There is also quite a lot unknown about how effective these spices will be at killing pathogens in the concentrations and conditions seen during cooking.

Another point that might help support this view is that predators, even obligate carnivores, will eat small amounts of plant matter. While we don’t exactly understand why (it could be simply to get more fibers and assist in digestion) it is possible that the instinct formed to help these animals destroy some of the bacteria in their food with the chemicals contained in the plants. Kind of like the theory proposes people do with spices.

Maybe it’s because your folks served spicy food

While evolutionary biologists like to treat everything in a very clean, cause-and-effect way, when talking about people’s preferences, there’s always an element of subjectivity. Our tastes, wants, and desires are — at least in part — shaped by what we’ve experienced so far. A food item can be our favorite not through the virtue of its taste alone, but also due to intangibles such as nostalgia, social mores, our personal experiences.

If you’re sensitive to spicy, you can train yourself to become desensitized to it. Through repeated exposure to low dosages of spicy compounds in our childhoods, then, we can acquire both a preference for and a resilience in the face of spicy foods.

This cultural hypothesis has two major limitations. First off, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy — we like spicy food because we eat spicy food, so we eat more of it. While it may well be true that we acquire a taste for spiciness with exposure to it, it doesn’t explain why or when this behavior started. If eating spicy food is what makes us like spice, why did we start in the first place? This hypothesis doesn’t offer a starting point.

It explains why I’d like spicy currywurst, but not how I’d start to like it. Even if it’s delicious. Image credits Alex Fox.

Secondly, it doesn’t offer an explanation for why people seek increasingly higher levels of spice. Even if we accept, for the sake of the argument, that repeated exposure to spiciness makes us tolerate it better, the fact remains that people often seek out spiciness, especially in cultures that already include it a lot in their cuisine — such as Mexican or Chinese traditions. More to the point, they seek levels of spiciness in excess of what they can already tolerate. If the point is to make the sensation bearable, why do people keep seeking ever stronger burns? It would suggest that their goal isn’t to become accustomed to spicy, rather the sensation itself, or something associated with it. So, after all…

Maybe it’s because we like the burn

Capsaicin can make your mouth hurt a lot. In fact, if you’ve ever bitten into a mean pepper, you know it can make your whole body ache and tremble. You get sweaty, your eyes sting, some crying might be involved. This effect can stay with you for the whole length of your digestive tract (let’s put it that way).

It’s undeniable then that the effect this substance has on us is profoundly unpleasant and temporarily debilitating. And, while keeping in mind that you can die from eating too much capsaicin, it doesn’t actually harm you in any way. What it does, instead, is to trick your body into thinking it’s in danger.

Capsaicin binds to TrpV 1: the transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1, more easily rememberable as the vanilloid receptor 1. Despite the name, it’s a receptor that’s quite widespread in your body and whose main function is to keep tabs on and regulate your body temperature. Capsaicin wreaks havoc on TRPV1; it binds to it and activates it. While there’s literally no physical damage to your body when you munch on a pepper, to your nervous system, it looks like your mouth is suddenly, and violently, aflame. This effect is so powerful that our bodies’ response to the illusion — mostly in the form of inflammation and changes in heart rate — can kill us.

It is, after all, a substance designed to keep mammals away.

“Bite me mammal, I dare you!”. Image credits Antonio Jose Cespedes.

And yet, we have chili eating contests, a food containing a lot of capsaicin. We know for a fact that even people who say they like chili in particular are not immune to the burning sensation it produces. A paper published in 1980 (Rozin, Shiller), “The nature and acquisition of a preference for chili pepper by humans” notes that these individuals “come to like the same burning sensation that deters animals and humans that dislike chili; there is a clear hedonic shift [in their preferences]”, which could come down to “association with positive events, including enhancement of the taste of bland foods, postingestional effects, or social rewards”.

Another point they raise, however, one that I find much more entertaining, is that eating spicy foods is a way to toy with danger. Much like a roller coaster, that danger is (pretty much) contained. While we do understand that, on an intellectual level, our bodies don’t make the distinction. The physiological effects of being in danger and/or on fire, such as the rush produced by adrenaline or the feel-good sensation produced by the release of endorphins in our system, are still genuine.

In this light, spicy food can be seen as a facet of human thrill seeking — or what the authors refer to as “enjoyment of ‘constrained risks'”.

That bit about endorphins is also pretty interesting. They are a family of compounds that our bodies use to clamp down on stress and pain when needed. They’re not really a chemical family, more of a pharmacological convention, as several different substances with different structures are endorphins. But function-wise, they work very much like opioid drugs, causing euphoria and a host of other delightful effects, including, as mentioned, pain relief. They’re one of a group of molecules the Internet gleefully knows as the ‘happiness molecule’, alongside serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. It’s a pretty wide group because the Internet, overall, is not a very capable pharmacologist, but there is a kernel of truth at the core of the meme.

Eating spicy foods is a reliable and non-threatening way of squeezing out some of this happy juice from your brain. This would also explain why some people would seek ever-spicier foods to torture themselves with. As they become desensitized to a certain level of spicy, an ever higher threshold is needed to obtain the same endorphin reward.

By itself, this doesn’t really explain why some people are aficionados of spice — if eating spicy food is a painful way of enjoying some pleasure, why isn’t everyone doing it? We don’t know. There is some evidence (Byrnes, Hayes, 2012) that personality traits, especially ones such as thrill-seeking, as well as differences in our individual abilities to perceive substances like capsaicin, have a role to play. Someone who’s psychologically predisposed to taking risks, and has a lower abundance of TrpV 1 receptors on their mouth, I’d imagine, is more likely to engage in such behavior.

At the end of the day, the truth is we don’t know. If I had to take a wager, I’d say that all the hypotheses we’ve talked about today play a part. They’re not mutually exclusive. How much influence they have is, very likely, dependent on who you’re talking with. For some it’s the thrill, and the bragging rights. For others, it’s grandma’s cooking. People are complex, and so are the forces that drive us, so we probably won’t ever be able to tell for sure why any of us — nevermind all of us, as a species — would engage in such a behavior.

But the thing we do know is that, apart from a few species that have evolved specifically to be less sensitive to certain irritants, we are the only ones which seek out food that hurts to eat. Could that be a sign of how far we’ve come, that we’d want to seek a semblance of danger just to feel excited? Or is it the other way around, and such predisposition for risky behavior is what set us on the path to success? Very interesting questions to ponder the next time you’re praying for salvation over a bowl of chili.

What makes ‘superfoods’ so super? New studies dive deep

Credit: Pixabay.

Superfoods are foods that are thought to be very nutritionally dense, meaning they provide a substantial amount of nutrients and very few calories. In a series of papers presented this week at the NUTRITION 2021 LIVE ONLINE, scientists took a close look at why items like turmeric and honey are worthy of their superfood status.

Mangoes lower risk of chronic disease

Researchers at the San Diego State University recruited 27 overweight and obese adults who had to consume 100 calories of fresh mangoes or 100 calories of low-fat cookies daily for 12 weeks straight.

Compared to the group who consumed cookies, those that ate mangoes showed improvements in fasting glucose levels and inflammation — all key risk factors in certain chronic diseases. However, cholesterol levels and body weight were not affected.

The creamy fruits are an important source of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, folate, Vitamin B-6, Vitamin K, potassium, copper, calcium, and iron, as well as the antioxidants zeaxanthin and beta-carotene.

Honey contains anti-inflammatory nanoparticles

The nutritional qualities of honey have been acknowledged since ancient times, but scientists are still learning new things about the sweet nectar-derived food. In a new study, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that honey contains nano-scale particles with a membrane-enclosed structure resembling exosomes, which are cell-derived vesicles that are present in many and perhaps all biological fluids, including blood, urine, and cultured medium of cells.

These exosome-like nanoparticles present in honey reduced inflammation in mice that had a liver injury. As such, they could potentially inhibit the activation of a key inflammatory enzyme complex. The high content of antioxidants found in the smooth liquid may also contribute to its anti-inflammatory properties.

These findings add to a growing body of evidence supporting honey’s role in both nutrition and medical applications. For instance, honey’s low moisture content and acidity makes it inhospitable to bacteria, conferring it antibacterial properties. Some evidence from animal and human studies also suggests that honey may be beneficial in the treatment of coughs and digestive upsets.

Some spices and herbs may lower blood pressure

Besides making food taste better, some herbs and spices may produce desirable cardiometabolic effects. Researchers at Penn State University and Texas Tech University recruited 71 participants who included 6.6, 3.3, and 0.5 grams per day of herbs/spices in their diets for four weeks.

No significant changes in cholesterol or blood sugar levels were recorded. However, the study found that the diet with the most herbs and spices, equivalent to about a teaspoon and a half, led to improvements to 24-hour blood pressure levels compared to the diet with the lowest amounts of herbs and spices.

Ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric improves cholesterol in patients with type 2 diabetes

Scientists at Clemson University examined how ginger, cinnamon, as well as curcumin and curcuminoid pigments found in turmeric affect cholesterol levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. The team of researchers performed a meta-analysis on 28 studies, collectively involving 1049 control patients and 1035 patients who received the spice supplements in capsule form for one to three months.

Superfoods are foods that are thought to be very nutritionally dense, meaning they provide a substantial amount of nutrients and very few calories. In a series of papers present this week at the NUTRITION 2021 LIVE ONLINE, scientists took a close look at why items like turmeric and honey are worthy of their superfood status.

Mangos lower risk of chronic disease

Researchers at the San Diego State University recruited 27 overweight and obese adults who had to consume 100 calories of fresh mangos or 100 calories of low-fat cookies daily for 12 weeks straight.

Compared to the group who consumed cookies, those that ate mangos showed improvements in fasting glucose levels and inflammation — all key risk factors in certain chronic diseases. However, cholesterol levels and body weight were not affected.

The creamy fruits are an important source of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, folate, Vitamine B-6, Vitamin K, potassium, copper, calcium, and iron, as well as the antioxidants zeaxanthin and beta-carotene.

Honey contain anti-inflammatory nanoparticles

The nutritional qualities of honey have been acknowledged since ancient times, but scientists are still learning new things about the sweet nectar-derived food. In a new study, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that honey contains nano-scale particles with a membrane-enclosed structure resembling exosomes, which are cell-derived vesicles that are present in many and perhaps all biological fluids, including blood, urine, and cultured medium of cells.

These exosome-like nanoparticles present in honey reduced inflammation in mice that had a liver injury. As such, they could potentially inhibit the activation of a key inflammatory enzyme complex. The high content of antioxidants found in the smooth liquid may also contribute to its anti-inflammatory properties.

These findings add to a growing body of evidence supporting honey’s role in both nutrition and medical applications. For instance, honey’s low moisture content and acidity makes it inhospitable to bacteria, conferring it antibacterial properties. Some evidence from animal and human studies also suggests that honey may be beneficial in the treatment of coughs, belly, and digestive upsets.

Some spices and herbs may lower blood pressure

Besides making food taste better, some herbs and spices may produce desirable cardiometabolic effects. Researchers at Penn State University and Texas Tech University recruited 71 participants who included 6.6, 3.3, and 0.5 grams per day of herbs/spices in their diets for four weeks.

No significant changes in cholesterol or blood sugar levels were recorded. However, the study found that the diet with the most herbs and spices, equivalent to about a teaspoon and a half, led to improvements to 24-hour blood pressure levels compared to the diet with the lowest amounts of herbs and spices.

Ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric improves cholesterol in patients with type 2 diabetes

Scientists at Clemson University examined how ginger, cinnamon, as well as curcumin and curcuminoid pigments found in turmeric affect cholesterol levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. The team of researchers performed a meta-analysis on 28 studies, collectively involving 1049 control patients and 1035 patients who received the spice supplements in capsule form for one to three months.

According to the findings, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, curcumin and curcuminoids were associated with an improved lipid profile for people with type 2 diabetes. This effect was mediated by the spice dose, species, duration of consumption and population characteristics. Despite some limitations, these findings suggest that these spices may be benefitial to patients with type 2 diabetes and unhealthy high cholesterol levels.

In all, these collection of studies add new insights into the properties that truly set some foods head and shoulders above others.


A third of all food is threatened by climate change

If we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions substantially, we could risk up to a third of the global food production, according to a new study. As the world’s most important food-growing areas would be subject to temperature increases and shifting rainfall patters, growing food will become much more problematic. 

Image credit: Flickr / Israel

Agriculture has always been subject to unpredictable weather, but while the short-term weather outbreaks are unpredictable, long-term climate trends are a different thing. While in some regions warmer temperatures may increase crop yields, the overall effect of climate change on agriculture is expected to be negative – reducing food supplies and raising prices.

Coupled with a growing population, estimated to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, this is spelling trouble. Meeting the world’s food demands will require increasing food production by at least 60%, according to the UN — but that might be an understatement, with a 2011 study projecting that food production will have to increase by 100% to meet future demand. We’re already using our resources unsustainably, and if things continue on the current trajectory, things will get worse before they get better.

A bad climate for agriculture

Researchers at Aalto University in Finland found that about 95% of current crop production occurs in areas they define as “safe climatic space” — conditions where temperature, rainfall and aridity fall within certain bounds. If temperatures rise by over 3.7ºC (the business-as-usual scenario) that safe area would shrink dramatically. 

This would especially affect south and south-eastern Asia and vast swaths or central Africa. The good news is that this can be stopped.

If carbon emissions are significantly reduced, in line with the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting temperature increases to 1.5ºC or 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, only between 5% and 8% of global food production would be at risk — which needless to say, is far more manageable.

“Rapid, out-of-control growth of greenhouse gas emissions may, by the end of the century, lead to more than a third of current global food production falling into conditions in which no food is produced today,” Matti Kummu, lead author, said in a statement. “The good news is that only a fraction of food production would face as-of-yet unseen conditions if we collectively reduce emissions.”

Kummu and his team used two future scenarios for climate change in their study. One projected a radical emission cut, limiting global warming to what was pledged in the Paris Agreement. And another one in which emissions continue growing as they are doing now, leading to a temperature increase of about 3.7º or even higher. 

They used both models to understand how climate change would affect 27 of the most important food crops and seven different livestock, considering societies’ capacities to adapt to changes. In 52 of the 177 countries they studied food production would remain unaltered in the safe climatic space, including most of the European countries.

Meanwhile, countries already vulnerable to climate change such as Suriname, Benin and Ghana would be largely impacted if emissions aren’t reduced. The researchers estimate up to 95% of their food production would fall outside the safe climatic space. Plus, these nations have a more limited capacity to adapt to any climate changes. 

Cascading problems

The study is the first to take a holistic look at the climatic conditions where food is grown today and how climate change will affect these areas in coming decades. For the researchers, the main message is the urgency to take action by mitigating climate change, increasing resilience in food systems and making food production sustainable. 

As the planet becomes more and more intertwined, no problem will remain localized — things happening in distant parts of the world will cascade and ultimately affect all of us.

Another problem highlighted by researchers is the expansion of deserts, and the potential appearance of new ones.

If emissions are kept under control, the world’s largest climatic zone, the boreal forest, would shrink from its current 18 to 14.8 million square kilometers by 2100. If emissions aren’t reduced in line with the Paris Agreement, only roughly 8 million square kilometers of the vast forest would remain. North America would be particularly affected.

“If we let emissions grow, the increase in desert areas is especially troubling because in these conditions barely anything can grow without irrigation. By the end of this century, we could see more than 4 million square kilometers of new desert around the globe,” Kummu said in a statement. The Arctic tundra, for example, would disappear completely, he added. 

The study was published in the journal One Earth.

Spanish companies team up to create the first paella-cooking robot

It’s better than your mom’s paella, the robot’s creators say, and while the purists out there will likely huff and puff, this robot could be of great help in the kitchen.

Paella is one of those foods with an almost mythical quality around them. It’s only the initiated that can seemingly whip up a delicious dish, masterfully blending the rice with the other ingredients. But two companies — robot manufacturer br5 (Be a Robot 5) and paella stove manufacturer Mimcook — beg to disagree.

It’s true, some skill comes into making paella, but it can be taught, not just to humans, but to robots as well. The two companies teamed up to develop the world’s first robotic paellero, revealing it at a food fair earlier last month.

It works like this: you set the program, load the rice, the sofrito, the seafood, the stock, and just leave the robot to do its thing. The robotic arm is hooked up to a computerized stove, and together, the two can whip up a reportedly delicious paella in no time.

The advantages of the robot are obvious: it does everything as planned and doesn’t get distracted. It’s easy, especially when mixing a rice, for a human to not pay enough attention or get distracted by some other task (or a text message) — resulting in burned rice or some other imperfection. The robot will do none of that.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to be stirring rice – especially because you’ll be looking at WhatsApp while you’re doing it and it’ll burn. That won’t happen with a robot,” said Enrique Lillo, founder of Be a Robot 5, to The Guardian.

The company specializes in food-making robots, and it emphasizes that this is not a ‘paella-making robot’, it’s a rice-making robot — a distinction aimed at preventing the anger of Valencians, where the dish originated.

The robotic arm makes paella because it’s connected to a specialized paella stove (after all, the paella itself is named after what it’s made in). You could connect to a different type of stove, and it would make burgers, pizzas, or croissants, which the company has already previously demonstrated.

The robot is already causing quite a stir, drawing the interest of many companies but also protests from people who fear the robots will take their jobs. But its creators argue that it’s not meant to take people’s jobs, just help them by doing the mundane things and allowing them to focus on what matters.

“At the end of the day, it’s an assistant. I like to say it’s a bit like the orange-juicing machines where you put oranges in the top and get juice out of the bottom. That’s a robot too – people just don’t realise it – and so is a coffee-vending machine. No one looks at those and goes: ‘Crikey! It’s stealing jobs from people!’ No. It’s elevating human capacity.”

Consumers would pay more for sustainably produced food, study finds

If the environment isn’t being polluted and soils aren’t being damaged in its production, consumers in Finland would be OK to pay extra for food, according to a new study. Researchers found that 79% of households there are willing to pay extra for food produced using cropping diversification and other sustainable agricultural practices.

Image credit: Flickr / Andrew Fogg.

Monocultures are strongly linked to biodiversity loss around the world, and northern Europe makes no exception. High-input practices, often connected to monocultures, have been found to cause soil degradation and nutrient leaching to water bodies, negatively affecting ecosystems such as rivers or lakes. Soil organic matter content is gradually decreasing in Finish croplands due to these reasons.

Cereal monocultures dominate in large parts of southern Finland despite many alternative crops being available for diversification of monocultures. The area under protein crops, oilseeds, potatoes, sugar beets, and other edible plants in Finland is relatively small due to limited domestic demand and excessive imports of protein feed for livestock.

Researchers affiliated with the Diverfarming project, which encourages crop diversification, focused on the value of such practices in southern Finland, the prime crop production region in the country. They then quantified consumers’ willingness to pay for these items, after explaining the benefits of a larger diversity of cultivation practices and crop rotation.

Diversified farming practices under low-input and organic systems sustain and supply multiple agroecosystem services, thus reducing their environmental strain and the need for off-farm inputs. They can improve the resilience of cropping systems to multiple environmental stresses and thus make food production more stable.

Despite the importance of agroecological ecosystem services (these are things ecosystems do to support the growth of crops, such as nutrient recycling, that we don’t need to pay for), their total value is not currently included in the prices of food and agricultural products. There are few studies in Finland focusing on the non-market value of these services, but none is specifically targeted to the benefits of cropping diversification.

The researchers presented three valuation scenarios to a sample of 600 consumers. The first one focused on agroecosystem services on cropland, the second on wider socio-cultural effects, and the third was a combination of both. They found most consumers would be willing to pay $270 per household per year for crop diversification.

“Positive societal implications of cropping diversification were valued slightly higher than direct field-level effects of diversification. In particular, improved maintenance of domestic food production and processing, reduced nutrient runoffs from agriculture, maintained food culture and tradition, as well as improved carbon balance of agriculture and the number of jobs in rural areas were valued high,” the researchers wrote.

As demand for food and fiber increases, fueled by growing populations, rising incomes, and global integration, the negative effects of conventional agriculture increase in scale. A key question is then how society can motivate farmers to reduce negative side effects while meeting the demand for agricultural production.

For the researchers, the high willingness to pay for more sustainable agriculture represents an important message for policy makers and other key actors in the food chain. While agroecology has to be further developed, a higher contribution by consumers can also likely fund future transition towards more sustainable food production.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Management.

Stock photo of a man trying to exaggeratedly open a jar of pickles.

Post-exercise hunger could thwart your efforts to lose weight

Exercise is the healthiest, most efficient way of losing those extra pounds. However, a new paper comes to show how physical activity can influence our appetite and desire to eat — and how best to manage these, if we want to lose weight.

Stock photo of a man trying to exaggeratedly open a jar of pickles.
Image credits Ryan McGuire.

Let’s face it — most of us have become a bit plump during the last year. Between the drop in physical activity as we quarantine in our homes and the comfort eating to soothe our troubled souls, it’s perfectly understandable. But most of us also harbor secret plans to shed the pounds once things quiet down.

A new paper could help us in that regard. Published by a team of researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the University of Nebraska (USA), it details how people can feel the need to eat more food and faster after exercising. This, in turn, can sabotage our efforts of actually slimming down, and can make us give up on it entirely.

Food for thought

“In the sports context, we have the phenomenon of people overeating after physical activity,” said Prof. Köhler, Professor of Exercise, Nutrition, and Health at the Technical University of Munich. “People want to reward themselves and their bodies for being active. So we use a hypothetical experiment to find out why people eat more after exercise compared to when they don’t exercise.”

“Based on this study, we were able to show for the first time that certain characteristics, such as the amount and ‘urgency’ with which a person wants to eat, change over the course of physical exertion. These findings help us develop new interventions to optimize weight loss through exercise.”

The trial followed a randomized crossover structure involving 41 healthy participants (23 women, 18 men) between 19 and 29 years old with an average BMI of 23.7. They were randomly assigned to either a 45-minute exercise session or a 45-minute rest period. Either was performed during the participants’ first visit to the lab. Every participant was then asked to perform the other task upon their second visit.

After this, the real experiment would begin: the team wanted to see how exercise influenced the participants’ choices in regards to the amount and timing of food intake. Before the trials, participants filled out an electronic questionnaire that assessed how hungry or satiated they felt, had them pick between foods that differed in the time of consumption (i.e. immediately or delayed by preparation, for example), how much food they felt like eating (which they did by selecting the desired portions of each food item).

These preferences were recorded both for immediate and later consumption (i.e. they were asked to predict their food preference for four hours later). Then, the participants engaged in the exercise task, which consisted of 45 minutes of aerobic exercise on a bicycle ergometer. Upon completion, they were asked to fill the same questionnaire out a second time, and a third time half an hour later. Participants in the control (rest) group went through the same procedure, but with rest instead of exercise.

All in all, the team explains, exercise led to participants choosing a greater amount of food both immediately after the exercise and 30 minutes later, as reflected in their questionnaires. It also made them pick food that would be immediately available for consumption on both questionnaires.

“The actual results suggest that physical exertion can entice those who do sport to eat larger amounts of food more quickly after the training session,” says Prof. Köhler.

“Since weight loss is a main motivation for exercising for many, and failure to achieve the desired weight loss makes it likely to quit exercising, it could be a good strategy to think about what you want to eat afterwards before you start to exercise.”

The team is currently researching which strategies work best in improving the long-term effectiveness of training programs. But until they can pinpoint the most effective approach, just know that exercising will make you want to eat, a lot, and quickly. Keeping the reins on this can make or break your efforts to lose weight.

The paper “Exercise Shifts Hypothetical Food Choices toward Greater Amounts and More Immediate Consumption” has been published in the journal Nutrients.

Cold sandwiches are calorie traps — don’t fall for it

For some reason, we tend to feel that cold food isn’t as filling as hot food, and it’s tricking us into overeating.

When you’re tempted to conclude that the human species is rational, you may want to slide over to marketing research and check out a journal called Appetite. The journal looks at sensory and other influences on people’s selections of food and drinks. It doesn’t take long to understand the selections we make don’t exactly scream common sense.

A recent research effort in the journal examines our practice of adding orders “on the side” if our main item on order is a cold sandwich. They found that customers who bought cold sandwiches were twice as likely to order a la carte extras such salty crisps and cookies, as if the sandwich, just for its being cold, could not possibly satisfy them without companion sides.

Imagine customer Raph telling the waiter what he wants. After studying his lunch menu, he pats on cold crabmeat sandwich. He wants to know, “What will it come with?” Raph looks at the sides list on the menu and taps on stuffed olives and plantain chips. Was Raph’s sandwich (580 calories and 26 grams of fat, but who’s counting) was not enough to sustain him for a few hours?

If we look at the research in focus, we know that Raph or customers standing at takeout counters think they need more than just the sandwich to complete a sit-down eating experience, because it’s just a cold sandwich, and that’s not much. They simply feel that the cold sandwich alone will not offer ample satiety.

“We show that the temperature at which foods and beverages are served impacts consumers’ complementary purchases, defined as additional foods and beverages purchased for a consumption episode.” wrote Sara Baskentli, Lauren Block, Maureen Morrin in their journal article, “The serving temperature effect: Food temperature, expected satiety, and complementary food purchases.”

Somebody cared

Anyone hunting for explanations for this behavior might remember all the family memories of steaming food on a table marking religious holidays and celebrations. A psychological add-on is that the hot food is a reminder that somebody in the household cared enough to stand, mix, pour, bake, braise, and simmer so that you could be pleased and nourished. Translation: Hot food equals caring. Cold food? Not so much.

To test the hypothesis, researchers examined customers’ café orders over a two-week period. The researchers saw 123 customers’ orders at a New York City café with sandwiches on their menu. People buying cold sandwiches were twice as likely to buy other food items. As for cold beverage orders? Calorie and money traps were evident, too.

“When a customer purchased a cold beverage, they were three times more likely to also buy food items, such as a croissant or a muffin,” said the news release from Rutgers.

The authors in their paper nailed the good news for restaurant business and the caution for the rest of us.

“Serving temperatures that increase complementary purchasing may enhance the firm’s bottom line, but could add unnecessary calories to the meal, and thus is of interest to both consumers and managers.”

In the bigger picture, this is a research discussion that indicates the important difference between appetite and hunger. Scientists like to point out the difference between the two words. Appetite is not hunger, plain and simple. According to the Aspen Clinic, for example, “appetite” involves a “conditioned response to food” and the word is more closely linked to behavior and emotional connection to food. Appetite “can increase/decrease due to hormones, emotional state, and taste preferences.”

Scientists reveal the secret that makes red wine pair so well with cheese, meats, and other fatty foods

Credit: Pixabay.

Cheese and wine by themselves taste good, but pairing them can actually enhance their flavor to make the meal even more delicious. Why is that? Well, who was better qualified to answer this question than a team of French researchers, who recently published a paper showing that tannins in wine have an affinity for lipids (fats) in certain foods, such as cheese, meats, and vegetable oils.

Tannins are polyphenolic compounds responsible for the bitterness and astringency of red wines, although some white wines have tannin too from aging in wooden barrels for fermenting skins of grapes.

Along with other qualities, such as acidity, alcohol, and fruit, tannin content is a key characteristic that helps balance a wine. It can also determine how well a wine pairs with certain foods.

In their most recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers at the University of Bordeaux investigated how tannins influence the size and stability of lipid droplets in an emulsion.

During an experiment, the French researchers made an oil-in-water emulsion by mixing olive oil, water, and a phospholipid emulsifier into which they added a grape tannin called catechin. After the tannin was added to the emulsifier that surrounded the oil droplets, the droplets grew in size.

In another experiment, the researchers studied how human volunteers experienced the taste of tannins. When the participants ate a spoonful of rapeseed, grapeseed, or olive oil immediately before tasting a tannin solution, the reported astringency was reduced. The greatest effect was seen when the tannins were combined with olive oil, causing the tannins to be perceived as fruity rather than astringent.

The two evaluations — one assessing sensory perception, the other analyzing the chemical makeup of the emulsions — led the authors to conclude that the tannins interacted with droplets of oil in the mouth. As a result, the oils are less able to bind to proteins in saliva, which is what is responsible for astringent taste.

“Wine is very often consumed with a meal. However, although it is well known to tasters that the taste of wine changes in the presence of food, the influence of dietary lipids on wine astringency and bitterness caused by grape tannins is not well established from a molecular point of view,” the authors wrote in their study.

“Our results highlight that dietary lipids are crucial molecular agents impacting our sensory perception during wine consumption.”

Study reveals the climate footprint of the food sector. And it’s a lot

From its production to its consumption, the food we eat is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis, a new study has shown. Researchers in Europe have found that more than a third (34%) of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions are generated by food systems – mainly because of deforestation, fertilizer use, distribution, and waste.

Beef is one of the least eco-friendly foods. Image credit: Flickr / Oli

It’s not just what you put in your mouth. Food has to be farmed, harvested or caught, transported, processed, packaged, distributed, and cooked, and the residuals have to be disposed of. Each of these steps causes emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Inputs such as fertilizers need to be produced and made available at the right time and location, causing extra emissions.

Several reports in the past have quantified the climate footprint of food, but the authors behind this new research led by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre argue theirs is the first to cover all countries and sectors, providing a comprehensive picture of the emissions on the world’s plates. They’ve put it all in a database named EDGAR-FOOD, the first global food emission inventory ever produced.

The study covers greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2015. The researchers noted in that period a decoupling of population growth and food-related emissions, which emissions growing slower than the population. Still, they found large variations across the world, with some regions seeing big increases in emissions due to domestic demand and exports.

More than 70% of food system emissions are from the use of land for agriculture, while 32% come from land-use changes, including deforestation and soil degradation. China, Indonesia, the United States, Brazil, the European Union, and India were found to be the six top-emitting economies, accounting for more than 50% of the total emissions of the food system.

“Unlike overall GHG emissions, the food production sector is not overwhelmingly dominated by CO2 emissions from fossil fuels; land-based emissions are particularly relevant. Nevertheless, in line with the ongoing socio-economic development trends, food emissions are being increasingly determined by energy use, industrial activities, and waste management,” the researchers wrote.

Looking at each greenhouse gas, the study found about half of the total emissions were carbon dioxide – mainly from land use due to deforestation and energy due to packaging and transportation. A further third was from methane, released by livestock because of entering fermentation, with the remainder corresponding to nitrous oxide from fertilizers.

The researchers also highlighted the growing volume of emissions from the increased energy use in food production, especially in the developing world – where the use of mechanization and pesticides had matched or even outpaced advanced economies. Emissions from food retail are also on the rise because of the larger demand for refrigeration to prevent food from spoiling.

It’s a massive challenge and in order to address it food system emissions have to be largely reduced, especially in the supply chain, while enabling people access to healthier diets, the researchers argued. A study last year said that if food system emissions aren’t addressed, they would push Earth above the 1.5ºC warming threshold by 2050 just by itself.

“Food systems are in need of transformation,” lead researcher Adrian Leip told Forbes. “Mitigation by reducing emissions from deforestation and on the farm is already very much in the focus of many mitigation policies. But our data show also an increasing significance of emissions from energy use, mainly post-farm gate, which shows the intricate link between the land and the energy systems.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Food.

What is tempura?

Tempura batter is a Japanese take on the age-old art of deep-frying. But their approach creates the unique textures and flavors tempura imparts to any dish.

Shrimp tempura. Image via Pixabay.

Cultural exchange is always exciting, but never more so than when it involves food. You might know that the Italian pasta tradition started when Marco Polo… borrowed the idea of noodles during his adventures in Asia. In the spirit of fairness, Japanese cooks on the island of Nagasaki would also create a new culinary tradition starting from European customs. A technique that Portuguese missionaries used to cope with fasting or abstinence days thus served as the cornerstone of tempura.

What is tempura?

The term itself refers to a type of cooking where different food items are lightly dipped in batter and deep-fried. But it can also be used to refer to the batter itself, and that’s what we’ll be doing going forward.

Not very different in composition from other deep-fry batters in use around the world, tempura is a mixture of water, flour, and sometimes egg. Although simple in terms of ingredients, chefs will take great care to observe proper preparation steps. Their choices and approach have a great deal of effect on the finished item.

The most important steps to making tempura instead of regular ol’ batter is to keep everything at low temperature, in small batches, and keep mixing to a minimum. Tempura batter is made with iced water or mixed in a bowl placed inside a larger container holding ice. Mixing is done in small batches in order to allow for better quality control, and typically performed quite quickly with chopsticks. It’s not uncommon to see some sparkling water being thrown in the mix, too. Baking soda, oil, spices, or starch may also be used.

This set of conditions helps create the distinctive texture and hardness of fried tempura. Because it’s held at such a low temperature and mixed for a few seconds at most, it develops a fluffy, crunchy feel after being fried. The short mixing period also allows for clumps to form in the batter, which helps give its texture more variety and even more crunch. Furthermore, it prevents gluten networks from forming in the batter, giving it its glass-like properties.

Apart from appearing a bit smoother in texture, tempura doesn’t look all that different from other batters after being fried. But where your chicken wings, for example, would be coated in a soft layer with some crunchy bits, one fried in tempura would come out in a very hard, brittle shell. You can even tap on it and it would make a hollow noise like a gourd.

Can I make some?

Definitely. Tempura can be made from the comfort of your own home, where nobody can see you burn the batter. That is, of course, if you’re not somehow reading this from Japan during the Edo period — then it would be illegal for you to fry tempura at home.

It makes sense to ban indoor deep-frying when the local architectural style relies on wood and paper. Image credits Tanaka Juuyoh / Flickr.

Any type of soft wheat flour can be used; cake flour works fine, as does pastry or all-purpose flour. It doesn’t have to be gluten-free, but low-gluten varieties of flour can help make the process a bit more beginner-friendly. Still, when cooking anything that has a short list of ingredients, what you do to them is extremely important for the end result. So don’t expect to be perfect at it from your first try.

Once the batter is ready, however, you can start having fun with it. There’s that old, tongue-in-cheek folk wisdom that everything is tasty when deep-fried, and it holds true here. You can use tempura on pretty much everything from vegetables or greens to fish, meat, dairy, even whole steaks. You can even use it on ice cream. Just keep in mind that the tempura will cook relatively quickly, so if you’re planning on coating something like a steak, make sure it’s cooked before-hand.

How did we get it?

The very short story is that 1543 marked the first contact between Japan and Europe, as some Portuguese sailors washed ashore the island. Five years later, the first missionary (Francisco Xavier, a Jesuit) came to the island to spread their religion, in classic European fashion. Things went pretty well at first, with everyone making a lot of money out of mutual trade, but the Portuguese in particular.

Japan had so far been a relatively isolated culture, owing to its geographical seclusion. Most of their foreign affairs at this point included invading, being invaded by, or limited trade with other groups in East and Southeast Asia. Europeans were already present in the area by 1543, establishing bases mostly in India to cement the spice trade, but there had not been any direct contact between the two groups up to that point.

Needless to say, these two cultures — Japan and Portugal — were quite fascinated by the strange, exotic other, by their language, dress, and the items they had to trade. The Japanese were also taken aback by the ships Portuguese, which were more sophisticated than those available in Japan. But their guns were most impressive of all. In fact, the first three Portuguese traders to ever reach the island (António Mota, Francisco Zeimoto, and António Peixoto) were arguably allowed access into isolationist Japan because they showed off their muskets the minute they got there. Everyone wants to buy muskets, but Japan in particular wanted loads of muskets, as they had been fighting a civil war for almost 100 years by that point.

Portugal was also very interested in the exotic goods Japan had to offer, including silver. But they were especially interested in the Japanese themselves — more to the point, they were interested in buying people from Japan to be sold as slaves throughout Europe. Young women were the most sought-after, for all the wrong reasons. These people were likely the first Japanese individuals to reach Europe, as slaves, exotic concubines, and worse.

Still, despite the nastier parts of history, there was an understandable mutual interest between these two cultures to understand one another. Japan would have the most opportunity to do so as Portuguese (and later, Dutch) missionaries would live on the archipelago and try to convert the natives to Christianity. In the process, they were also given Christian names and encouraged to take up the traditions, customs, and lifestyle. This would eventually cause friction between the natives and these “southern barbarians”, leading to the Tokugawa Shogunate banning Christianity in 1614 and trying to expel all missionaries and execute all local converts in the next few decades.

Westerners (both Europeans and Americans) would eventually return with a lot of guns and big ships, explaining that Japan had none. It was a pretty compelling argument and this forced the island nation to open up to international trade (at, probably, very poor rates).

At some time between the missionaries getting to the island and their expulsion, it’s probable that the Japanese saw these Europeans create batter to deep-fry food during fasting days. We don’t know for sure but we’re pretty confident that the word “tempura” comes from the Latin term “temporo”, meaning “time of” or “time period”. The Portuguese and Spanish Catholics at the time still referred to Ember days by their Latin name, “quator tempora”. It’s possible that the process of dipping food in batter and frying it was thus wholesale ‘imported’ from the missionaries along with the words they used to describe why they were doing it.