Tag Archives: food

New approach to lab-grown meat creates more realistic, more customizable steaks

A new study details how to create lab-grown meat that has a more natural taste and texture. The process will also allow more control over the structure of the meat, so consumers will be able to pick the exact amount of fat content or marbling they want.

Image via Pixabay.

Steakhouses today may ask customers how they’d like their meat to be cooked, but a new paper from McMaster University could mean they’ll soon ask how we’d like it “tuned”. Their paper describes how a more natural feeling and tasting type of lab-grown meat can be produced. According to the authors, this will provide a more “real meat” experience and allow people to have as much fat or marbling on their cut of meat as they want.

Sheets to slabs

“We are creating slabs of meat,” co-author Ravi Selvaganapathy says in a media release. “Consumers will be able to buy meat with whatever percentage of fat they like – just like they do with milk.”

The authors, both from McMaster’s School of Biomedical Engineering, developed a new technique to create lab-grown meat. It involves stacking thin sheets of cultivated muscle and fat tissues, then merging them together. It’s similar to the approach we use to grow human tissue for transplants, the authors explain.

Each of these sheets is as thin as a sheet of paper, and they’re made from cells first grown in a lab culture. They naturally bind to one another while the cells are alive, says Selvaganapathy. This process helps impart the improved texture to the meat. The team tested their approach with cells harvested from lab mice. They didn’t eat that one, but they did eventually grow, cook, and taste a sample from rabbit cells.

“It felt and tasted just like meat,” Selvaganapathy reports.

Although their experiments didn’t include these types of cells as well, the team is confident that beef, pork, or chicken will be growable using this approach in the future. The stacking-sheets approach is also easily scaled-up for industrial production, they add.

The global demand for meat is putting a heavy strain on nature, as it takes a lot of food, water, and land to grow our livestock — and they also produce ample methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Factory farms also need to feed their animals antibiotics constantly to avoid disease, which is helping bacteria develop resistance to drugs. Lab-grown meat can help address this demand much more cleanly and efficiently.

“Meat production right now is not sustainable,” Selvaganapathy contends. “There has to be an alternative way of creating meat.”

The McMaster team is currently working on a start-up company that can produce meat using this technique and sell it commercially.

The paper “Engineering Murine Adipocytes and Skeletal Muscle Cells in Meat-like Constructs Using Self-Assembled Layer-by-Layer Biofabrication: A Platform for Development of Cultivated Meat” has been published in the journal Cells Tissues Organs.

New research closes in on the causes of irritable bowel syndrome

New research at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium may finally uncover why some people experience irritable bowel syndrome.

Image via Pixabay.

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS for short, causes some people to feel severe discomfort or pain in their abdominal area after eating certain foods. Needless to say, it’s not pleasant. But it’s also not well understood. So the team from KU Leuven started studying the condition in a bid to get to the root of IBS and perhaps other types of food intolerance as well.

The symptoms, they explain, have to do with mast cells in our gut releasing histamines in response to certain foods.

Troublegut

“Very often these patients are not taken seriously by physicians, and the lack of an allergic response is used as an argument that this is all in the mind, and that they don’t have a problem with their gut physiology,” says Professor Guy Boeckxstaens, a gastroenterologist at KU Leuven and lead author of the new research. “With these new insights, we provide further evidence that we are dealing with a real disease.”

The findings have been confirmed in both mice and human experiments, and the authors hope they can pave the way towards new, more efficient treatment options for IBS. Up to 20% of the world’s population suffers from IBS, the team notes. Some dietary options, including gluten-free food, can help mitigate the symptoms, but we don’t know why. The mystery is only made deeper by the fact that patients with IBS aren’t allergic to these foods and don’t have conditions such as coeliac disease which could explain the reaction.

Tests in the lab revealed that certain foods can lead to the production of histamines in mast cells, which are part of the immune system. Histamines, as anyone who’s ever had to take antihistamines can attest to, are involved in allergic reactions. Earlier work by the team showed that blocking these substances does counteract symptoms for people with IBS.

First, however, the authors needed to identify the cause of the syndrome. People with IBS often report that their symptoms first started after a gastrointestinal infection, so the team started from the idea that any food present in our guts during such an infection can look like a threat to the immune system, which becomes sensitive to its presence.

In order to test their theory, they caused lab mice to contract a gastrointestinal infection and at the same time fed them ovalbumin (it literally means “egg white”), an egg-white protein commonly used as a food antigen (something that produces an immune response). After the infection cleared, the mice were given albumin again, to gauge whether their guts had become sensitized to the substance — it turns out they did. The presence of this protein was enough to induce mast cell activation, the release of histamine, leading to digestive intolerance and abdominal pain. In essence, these mice were showing IBS. Their control counterparts, who had not received ovalbumin, did not show the same reaction.

Later on, the team also pinpointed exactly where problems started in the gut: the immune response to ovalbumin only occurred in the part of the intestine infected by the disruptive bacteria. All in all they add, despite the severity of the response and the presence of histamines, the experiment did not cause the more general symptoms of food allergy to appear.

“At one end of the spectrum, the immune response to a food antigen is very local, as in IBS,” Boeckxstaens explains. “At the other end of the spectrum is a food allergy, comprising a generalized condition of severe mast cell activation, with an impact on breathing, blood pressure, and so on.”

The next step was to test whether people with IBS reacted the same way to various known food antigens. When these were injected into the intestine wall of 12 IBS patients, they caused localized reactions similar to the ones seen in mice — but healthy volunteers didn’t show the same response.

For now, the data is still based on quite a small sample, so they do need further confirmation before we can take them as fact. But the results are still important when taken together with previous research that showed antihistamine treatments can help IBS patients. That’s enough to at least suggest that the mechanisms identified here warrant further clinical examination. One such larger-scale trial is already underway, the team explains.

“But knowing the mechanism that leads to mast cell activation is crucial, and will lead to novel therapies for these patients,” Boeckxstaens adds. “Mast cells release many more compounds and mediators than just histamine, so if you can block the activation of these cells, I believe you will have a much more efficient therapy.”

The paper “Local immune response to food antigens drives meal-induced abdominal pain” has been published in the journal Nature.

Ancient teeth confirm: people have been trading internationally for thousands of years

We often hear how we’re living in a more interconnected world than ever before — and that is true. But people have never lived in complete isolation from others. New research comes to support this view, by showing that long-distance trade in food and spices was already taking place between Asia and the Mediterranean region over 3000 years ago.

Image credits John Oliver.

Spices such as turmeric and foods including bananas were known and present in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, the paper explains, much earlier than previously assumed. The authors further note that such plants were not endemic to the Mediterranean, so the only way they could get there was via long-distance trade.

Megiddo Mall

“Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia had reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Philipp Stockhammer from LMU, who led the research. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

The international team of researchers analyzed the tartar (dental deposits) on the teeth of 16 people unearthed in excavations at the Megiddo and Tel Erani sites in modern-day Israel. This area mediated any ancient travel and trade between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt. If you wanted to travel between these places in the 2nd millennium BCE, you had to go through the Levant.

What the researchers were looking for was food residue, such as proteins or plant microfossils, that remained preserved in the dental plaque over the last thousands of years. From there, they hoped, they could reconstruct the local diet.

Dental plaque or calculus is produced by bacteria that live in our mouth. As it forms it can capture small particles of food, which become preserved.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

The techniques they used fall under the domain of paleoprotemics, a relatively new field of science concerned with the study of ancient proteins. The team managed to identify both “ancient proteins and plant residues” from the teeth, revealing that their owners had consumed foods brought from faraway lands.

It was quite surprising for the team as well. Such techniques are difficult to use, they explain, because you have to piece together what food people ate judging solely from the proteins they contained. The proteins themselves must also survive for thousands of years until analyzed, so there’s also quite a lot of luck required to pull it off.

The team confirmed the presence of sesame in local diets at the time (sesame is not an endemic plant to the Levant), suggesting that it had become a staple food here by the 2nd millennium BCE. The teeth of one individual from Megiddo showed turmeric and soy proteins, while one individual from Tel Erani showed traces of banana proteins — all of them likely entering the area through South Asia.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” says Stockhammer. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

Naturally, the team can’t rule out that this individual traveled or lived in South Asia for a period of time, consuming local foodstuffs during this time. They also can’t estimate the scale of any trades going on, only find evidence that such networks probably existed.

Still, the findings showcase how early long-distance trade began, and they go to show that people have been living in and building an interconnected world for a very long time now. While definitely interesting and important from an academic point of view, such results also help to put our current social dialogues around globalization, trade, and immigration into perspective.

The paper “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Cooking actually accounts for a lot of our emissions. Here’s how that could be improved

Ever felt powerless in the face of major challenges such as global warming? Well, there’s some good news: the way we cook our meals can actually make a big difference in the world’s climate crisis, according to a new study in the UK. Up to 61% of food-related greenhouse gases come from home cooking, with different methods and appliances releasing different amounts of emissions.

Image credit: Dorin Vancea

Food (and cooking practices) are often left out of the food conversation, in part because data on household cooking practices are so scarce. Yet understanding climate change impacts of different food items from cradle to grave is vital for effectively reducing emissions. Food is estimated to emit 37% of global emissions.

Most studies estimate the climate change impact of food only up to the retail/purchase stages of the food supply chain, thus excluding preparation and cooking. However, the preparation of meat and vegetables can contribute up to 20% and 36% of total product emissions, respectively. In other words, what happens to the food after you buy it is a major contributor to emissions.

Researchers from several UK universities carried out a survey of 765 participants to gather data on cooking habits in households. Eleven different cooking methods, involving ten types of appliance, were assessed. Results showed on average cooking accounts for 6–61% of the total emission impacts for a given food. This changes according to the type of food. In the particular case of vegetables (namely, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, and onions), cooking accounts for up to 61% of their total emissions. Meanwhile, in the case of meat and fish, it represents 8–27% of their total emissions, the study showed (also due to the fact that meat’s overall emissions are so big that cooking represents a relatively smaller part).

When it comes to ready-to-eat foods, the toasting of bread contributes 13% of the total emissions released. For semi-cooked or precooked foods, such as tofu, cooking accounts for up to 42% of their GHGs. Cooking canned baked beans, which are ready to eat after being heated up, represents 6% of their total emissions.

Even though cooking amounts to only 11% of meat’s emissions, Cooking meat accounts for the highest overall emissions across the various foods in the UK. This is due to the long cooking times (>60 min) of oven roasting, which consumes the most energy among the different appliance types.

This might seem like a lot but there are actually several things we can all do to reduce our emissions from cooking, the study’s findings showed. Researchers found that emissions can be at least halved (in the case of toast) and reduced up to 16-fold (in the case of tofu) just by changing the cooking method used.

Considering the most common cooking appliances, ovens are the least sustainable due to comparatively long cooking times and high energy demand, while microwaves have the lowest overall impact. For vegetables, roasting in the oven comprises 53–78% of their total impact, while using the microwave would reduce emissions by up to 78%.

Using an electric grill is also a good alternative to toasting or grilling in the oven since it consumes half of the energy (and can use clean electric energy as well). For instance, grilling chicken in an electric grill releases 73% less GHG emissions than cooking in an oven. Electric grilling corresponds to 9% of the impact coming from the consumption stage, as opposed to 27% for oven grilling.

Cooking under pressure is also an efficient way of cooking meat, pulses, potatoes, and vegetables because the cooking time is substantially shortened. Using an electric pressure cooker as opposed to one that operates on the stovetop could further reduce emissions, since 50% less energy is required, the study found.

“We know GHG emissions from home cooking can be reduced by choosing which foods we eat and minimising cooking time and appliance use. Even combining a more environmentally friendly cooking method, such as using a microwave to part-cook food then roasting to finish in the oven, can cut our GHG emissions substantially,” said in a statement lead researcher Christian Reynolds.

The study was published in the journal Nature Food.

The food industry is skewing research, but we’re onto them now

The food industry could be actively working against public health by influencing the results of studies in their favor.

Image credits Stefan Divily.

New research reports that around 13.4% of the nutrition studies it analyzed disclosed ties to the food industry. Studies in which the industry was involved were more likely to produce results that were favorable to its interest, the team adds, raising questions in regards to the merits of these findings.

Harmburger

“This study found that the food industry is commonly involved in published research from leading nutrition journals. Where the food industry is involved, research findings are nearly six times more likely to be favourable to their interests than when there is no food industry involvement,” the authors note.

It’s not uncommon for industry to become involved with research — after all, they have a direct stake in furthering knowledge in their field of activity. This can range from offering funding to assigning employees to research teams for support or active research.

The current paper comes to show that, at least in the food industry, such activities are actively skewing and biasing research into nutrition. It is possible, the team reports, that this can put public health at risk as corporate interests can start dictating what findings see the light of day, where, and in what form. Such findings are worrying since corporations are notorious for putting profits above anything else, including truth or the common good.

In order to get a better idea of just how extensive the influence of industry is in food-related research, the team — led by Gary Sacks of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia — analyzed all papers published in the top 10 peer-reviewed academic journals related to diet or nutrition. They looked at which had ties to the industry such as funding from food companies or affiliated organizations, and then whether or not the authors went out of their way to support industry interests.

Roughly 13.4% of the articles had some level of industry involvement, with some journals bearing more of the blame than others. The authors explain that studies with industry involvement were over five times more likely to favor industry interests compared to a random sample of studies without involvement (55.6% vs 9.7% for the latter).

Such figures offer a pretty big warning sign that industry involvement could promote research bias or help push an agenda at the expense of quality science (such as the neglect of topics that are important for public health but go against industrial interests). The authors suggest several mechanisms that could be employed to preserve the quality of nutrition research.

The paper “The characteristics and extent of food industry involvement in peer-reviewed research articles from 10 leading nutrition-related journals in 2018” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

No-meat diets won’t fix the climate — too many poor countries can’t adopt them

Removing all meat from the human diet to protect the environment isn’t a workable solution outside rich countries, a new paper reports.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Calls to remove all meat from our diets to limit CO2 emissions are only realistic in rich, industrialized regions. In low- or middle-income countries, livestock can represent a critical source of income and food, the paper argues, making such changes practically impossible for locals.

Let’s meat halfway

“Conclusions drawn in widely publicized reports argue that a main solution to the climate and human health crisis globally is to eat no or little meat but they are biased towards industrialized, Western systems,” said Birthe Paul, the lead author and environmental scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Animal sourced foodstuffs such as meat and dairy are a much heavier burden on the environment than plant-sourced items. As such, many governments and organizations around the world are urging citizens to reduce their intake of the former and include more of the latter. As a bonus, plant-based items tend to be healthier, too.

But we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is all it will take to address climate change. For many people, such a shift is simply impossible without a massive blow to their and their families’ financial and food security. Livestock are extremely important sources of food and repositories of value for people in low- and middle-income countries. Asking them to give up animal products is asking them to shoot themselves in the foot, the team argues.

Of all scientific literature published since 1945 on the subject of livestock only 13% covers Africa, they note — yet Africa houses around 20%, 27% and 32% of global cattle, sheep, and goat populations, respectively. Although livestock makes up a key pillar of local economies in Africa, eight of the world’s top 10 institutes publishing livestock research are based overseas. Only two, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are headquartered in Africa.

The authors argue that this has left us biased in regards to research on livestock. As western nations focus more and more on climate change, they’re driven to understand the effects the livestock industry has on climate. This leaves out a lot of the picture, they add, including the positive role such animals can play, both from an environmental and socio-economic point of view. It also leaves out a huge difference — animals in Africa are rarely reared the same way that they are in highly-industrialized nations.

“Mixed systems in low- and middle-income countries, where animal production is fully linked with crop production, can actually be more environmentally sustainable,” said An Notenbaert, from the Alliance of Bioversity International, co-author of the paper.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, manure is a nutrient resource which maintains soil health and crop productivity; while in Europe, huge amounts of manure made available through industrialized livestock production are overfertilizing agricultural land and causing environmental problems.”

A common approach in African savannas is to keep herds in pens at night, which has been shown to increase the levels of nutrients available in the whole ecosystem, the authors argue. Feed is produced more locally and in more sustainable fashion, whereas industrialized nations import most of their feed (which means more fuel and infrastructure is needed to transport it). Such imports are also a driver of ecological damage — the authors note that soybean produced and exported as feed to animals in Vietnam and Europe is a leading cause for deforestation in the Amazon.

While livestock are an important source of greenhouse gases, we simply don’t have the data needed to establish national mitigation strategies in this regard. The authors also urge that we look beyond making animals more productive, and turn instead to looking at how we can be more resource efficient and what systems can be put in place to limit emissions from them.

“Meat production itself is not the problem. Like any food, when it is mass-produced, intensified and commercialized, the impact on our environment is multiplied,” said Polly Ericksen, Program Leader of Sustainable Livestock Systems at the International Livestock Research Institute and co-author of the paper.

“Eliminating meat from our diet is not going to solve that problem. While advocating a lower-meat diet makes sense in industrialized systems, the solution is not a blanket climate solution, and does not apply everywhere.”

Meat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is much lower than that in developed countries, also. The paper cites estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization, according to which average yearly meat consumption per capita here will be roughly 13kgs by 2028; in the US, this figure is expected to reach 100kgs in the same timeframe.

The authors point to a range of higher-impact environmental solutions. Among them, improved animal feed so animals emit less greenhouse gases like methane per kilogram of milk or meat. Better land management and approaches such as using manure and crop byproducts for fertilizers (by plowing them into the soil) would have a significant positive impact on farm output as well as the environment.

The paper “Sustainable livestock development in low and middle income countries – shedding light on evidence-based solutions” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Food production threatens the Paris Climate Agreement

The expansion of intensive farming is jeopardizing the goals of the Paris Agreement, according to a new study. Researchers warned that the greater use of artificial fertilizers and larger populations of livestock is increasing the concentration of atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O), a key greenhouse gas.

Credit Flickr Chanel Mason

N2O is released to the atmosphere from artificial and organic fertilizers such as manure. It is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). The levels of N2O in the atmosphere are currently 20% higher than in pre-industrial times, with most of that increase coming from farming.

Artificial fertilizers account for two-thirds of the emissions of N2O from farming. The gas is released when microbes in the soil break down the excess fertilizer, particularly in over-wet ground where there is less oxygen. Farmers can reduce emissions with simple methods such as using fertilizer only when it’s actually needed.

Researchers from 48 research institutions in 14 countries created the most comprehensive assessment to date of all global sources and sinks of N2O. The findings showed N2O emissions are growing at a rate of 1.4% a year, faster than the forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This means the world’s temperature is on track to exceed the 2ºC warming limit included in the Paris Agreement on climate change, the authors agreed. In fact, they found that the current rates of nitrous oxide emissions are consistent with 3ºC of global warming above pre-industrial levels.

“The dominant driver of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide comes from agriculture, and the growing demand for food and feed for animals will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions,” said Hanqin Tian, co-author. “There is a conflict between the way we are feeding people and stabilizing the climate.”

The study found that the largest contributors to global N2O emissions are East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and South America. Emissions from synthetic fertilizers dominate releases in China, India, and the US, while emissions from the application of livestock manure as fertilizer dominate releases in Africa and South America.

Emerging economies, particularly Brazil, China, and India, where crop production and livestock numbers have increased, saw the largest increases in N2O emissiosn. Meanwhile, those in Europe dropped in agriculture and the chemical industry. This was achieved thanks to the more efficient use of fertilizers.

Study co-leader Dr. Josep Canadell said: “This new analysis calls for a full-scale rethink in the ways we use and abuse nitrogen fertilizers globally and urges us to adopt more sustainable practices in the way we produce food, including the reduction of food waste. The findings underscore the urgency and opportunities to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions worldwide to avoid the worst of climate impacts.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

A short wrap-up of the history of falafel

Few foods can yield the bold flavors and portability of street food by using only cheap, readily-available plant products. Falafel is, perhaps, the best example.

Image via Pikist.

Take a bunch of chickpeas, soak them overnight, and grind them down. Mix everything up with parsley, scallions, and garlic (also finely chopped), then throw some spices in for good measure. Roll this mixture up into a patty or small balls, deep-fry them, and you get falafel. Simple, tasty, and cheap to make — no wonder that falafel is such a popular food item today.

But these savory bites aren’t immune to the pitfalls of fame. Since everybody wants a bite of falafel, many peoples are claiming to be its inventors. And since historically-speaking everyone has been cooking it to suit their own tastes and local agriculture, we’re having a hard time determining where the word and recipe actually comes from.

A crispy, crunchy treat

Falafel is a Middle Eastern dish, perhaps among its most recognizable and widely-known. While the word itself actually denotes the brown, fried patties, food stalls will likely hand you a wrap when you ask for falafel. This is the most common way of serving it: on a bed of salad, vegetables (cooked, pickled, sometimes fresh) with ample helpings of spices, sauce, all wrapped up in a flatbread.

These fried patties are very versatile. They can be served hot or cold, don’t squash in your backpack, won’t spoil for a few days, and can be eaten on the go. They’re pretty tasty by themselves but shine when paired with other flavors. Alternatively, they can inject that flavor to a meal of nutritious but bland items.

Falafel, Alimente, Arabă, Bucătărie, Delicios
Falafel in a wrap.
Image credits Firas Hassoun.

Another part of this versatility shines in the cooking department: chickpeas aren’t the only base you can use to make falafel. One of its main selling points is that you can take a cheap and easy-to-grow main ingredient that’s bland by itself (a bean, pea, or some other type of protein-rich plant) and turn it into a portable, flavorful, filling dish. The variety popular in the Western world and much of the Middle East today uses chickpeas, but Egyptian falafel (ta’miyya) is made using only fava beans. In Marsa Matruh, a city in Egypt’s Western Desert, you can even find ta’miyya made from hyacinth beans with some beef in the middle.

Which spices go into the patties is also mostly a product of local taste and available ingredients. Traditionally, cumin and coriander are added to the chickpeas or beans.

Is it nutritious, sustainable and healthy?

Falafel as a dish contains several ingredients which are at least in part the product of where you find yourself, so offering a one-size-fits-all guide of how nutritious it is would be impossible.

But the patties themselves, when made with chickpeas, are rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, fibers, and several key nutrients such as calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc. Chickpea falafel is notable for having a high level of soluble fibers which help reduce cholesterol.

A man in a restaurant kitchen making fritters
A man cooking falafel using an ‘aleb falafel’ in Ramallah, Palestine.
Image via Wikimedia.

As a rule of thumb, falafel patties tend to have roughly similar nutritional content to the (cooked) beans they’re made from. In the case of chickpeas, cooking increases the amount of fiber, the quality of the proteins, and makes most other nutrients more accessible to our bodies. Chickpeas themselves have a very mild taste, so falafel’s strongest flavors come from the onions, spices, and herbs mixed in (so it’s delicious).

However, they do absorb some oil while being deep-fried, which isn’t the healthiest thing; baking the patties after cooking can help draw out some of this fat content.

Falafel typically includes no meat, and is generally completely plant-based — so each falafel you eat has a comparatively small environmental impact. It can contain dairy products in the sauces or dressings added, but these are limited in quantity.

All in all, if you want to help the environment on a full belly, ditching the steak for one or two falafel sandwiches is the way to go.

When did people start eating it — and where?

Easy to make, cheap, portable, filling, and made from two of the oldest crops humanity has domesticated — falafel must’ve made for a very popular food in Antiquity.

But no, not really. Or, at least, not to the best of our knowledge. One of the main criticisms against ancient falafel is that it needs to be deep-fried, which is a very wasteful way of using cooking oil (a very pricy commodity in many areas of the ancient world). While this wouldn’t be out of the reach of kings or pharaohs of old, we didn’t find any paintings of them doing so.

File:Falafels frying in egypt.jpg
Falafel being deep-fried.
Image via Wikimedia.

The dish does indeed seem to originate in Egypt, however, or to at least draw from its ta’miyya patties. Another popular theory is that an ancient branch of Christianity which forms the bulk of Egypt’s modern adherents to this faith, the Copts, invented falafel as an alternative to meat during times of fasting. There’s little to back this theory up, however.

Chickpeas were known and grown in Europe by the time of Charlemagne, but we have no mention of falafel or a similar dish here until the late 17 early 18 century (the British occupied Egypt in 1882).

Egypt’s largest port Alexandria is often seen as the birthplace of falafel. This Mediterranean port was the country’s gateway to Europe and harbored the highest local concentration of soldiers and civilians from Europe. Either these soldiers carried news of falafel back home, or they were part of the cultural dialogue that led to its creation.

Today, the debate of who deep-fried the first falafel patty is quite heated in the Middle East. People of all walks of life from all cultural and religious groups in the area enjoy it. But governments in the area want to claim local foods as their own cultural legacy, as a means of legitimizing their political claims.

Whichever way such decisions go, it won’t change the simple simple fact that falafel is cheap, easy to make, and above all — delicious.

If we all ate like rich countries, we’d need 7 Earths

Seven planets would be needed if everyone started eating like the world’s 20 leading economies, according to a report that compared the carbon emissions from food consumption in G20 countries.

The report urges us to rethink our diets amid climate change — especially as food consumption is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions.

Credit EAT

Among the G20 countries, only India and Indonesia have a diet low enough in carbon emissions to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States were the ones to exceed the most sustainable levels of food-related carbon emissions.

The Diets for a Better Future report, published by NGO EAT, focused on the national dietary guidelines and consumption rates of G20 countries. It showed that rich countries are consuming more red meat and dairy than is laid out in their countries’ nutritional guidelines, and much more than what is sustainable for the planet.

“Currently, individuals in a handful of countries are eating way too much of the wrong foods at the expense of the rest of the world,” Brent Loken, global food lead at WWF and lead author of the report, told AFP. “These imbalanced diets by a relative handful of rich countries are “to the detriment of climate, health and economies”.

Producing food for Earth’s 7.7 billion people is responsible for a quarter of the global carbon emissions that drive climate change. About 40% of that comes from livestock production and food waste, with the rest generated by rice production, fertilizer use, land conversion and deforestation to accommodate commercial crops. Calorie per calorie, meat produces far more emissions than other, equally nutritious foods.

The Paris climate agreement aims to keep global heating within two degrees Celsius. The so-called “food-print” emissions produced by G20 countries, which account for around 64% of the world’s population, currently create 75% of the total global food-related emissions, the report estimated.

“The report shows the food system has a long way to go in delivering diets that achieve health and wellbeing within planetary boundaries. Yet the good news is that there is a lot of governments, businesses and citizens can do now to make this happen, building on existing action to bring win-wins to all,” Corinna Hawkes, director of the University of London’s Centre for Food Policy, told Deutsche Welle.

Argentina is on top of the list of countries with a diet exceeding climate thresholds, followed by Canada, Brazil, the United States, Russia, and Australia. At the other end of the spectrum, the countries with the most climate-friendly dietary guidelines are Indonesia, India, South Korea, China, and Japan.

Credit EAT

The report also identified that many countries even have national dietary guidelines of red meat and dairy that exceed health diet guidelines. Germany, for example, recommends 50 grams of red meat a day but the actual average consumption is around 110 grams.

Shifting toward healthier diets rich in legumes, vegetables, fruits and nuts, is useful for both the environment and our health, the authors argue. But considering that, for instance, almost all countries now fall short on food consumption of nuts and legumes, this is bound to be challenging.

Some, however, have already taken significant steps to promote healthier diets. Recently revised Chinese guidelines, for example, recommend to eat a variety of foods, with cereals as the staple; balance eating and exercise to maintain a healthy body weight; consume vegetables, milk, and soybeans; and consume an appropriate amount of fish, poultry, eggs, and lean meat.

A study released last year found that improving our nutrition can also be advantageous economically. Transitions in the way we grow and consume food could unleash $4.5 trillion in new business opportunities each year, at the same time-saving $5.7 trillion a year in health and environmental costs.

In addition, shifting diets can reduce the risk of future pandemics — which, especially given the current circumstances, could make a huge difference.

How long can humans survive without food or water?

Credit: Flickr.

Despite what was some new age gurus might claim, humans aren’t light beings that can subsist on air and sunshine alone. Like all creatures, we require food and water to survive.

Typically, humans can go without food for about three weeks before the effects of starvation on the body kill a person. But since the adult body is made of 60% water, typically a person would only last three to four days without a drop of water.

These are average values, however. There are outliers who have managed to survive for longer without food or drink. How long a person can last without access to calories and liquids depends on many factors, such as environmental conditions and a person’s underlying health.

For instance, lacking access to water in the desert under the broiling sun will kill a person much faster than in the middle of the forest where it’s much cooler.

To make things easier, use this ‘rule of three’ to get an idea how long the human body can last without basics: 3 minutes without oxygen, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

How long can someone live without water?

Fluid intake has the most immediate effect on survival. While the body has fat and muscle that it can burn for energy in case food is nowhere to be found, water stockpiles are far less plentiful.

Our bodies mostly consist of water, but we lose a lot of it each day when we sweat, urinate, or even exhale. This is why water needs to be constantly replenished.

How much water a person needs on a daily basis depends on physical activity, age, body temperature (having a fever requires more water), the environment, and air humidity.

Water loss through respiration and sweating can be anywhere between 0.3 and 1 liter per 24 hours under typical conditions. However, under extreme conditions like trekking through the desert, an adult can lose as much as 1.5 liters of sweat per hour.

An adult will also lose around 1.5 liters of water through urine. If you add everything up, that’s around 2.5 liters of water lost per day. What flows in must flow out, so each adult should seek to intake at least that much water from their food and drink in order to maintain fluid balance.

Don’t worry though. You don’t have to keep your eyes on the pitcher all day, constantly measuring to make sure you’re not getting dehydrated. Each person’s water requirements vary, but the body already does a fantastic job of signaling its needs. If you don’t feel thirsty, that’s good enough.

But what happens if this delicate balance is suddenly thrown off? Within a few days without fluid intake, the kidneys lose much of their function and can collapse. Depending on how much water they lose due to physical activity, temperature, and humidity, a person can survive anywhere between 3 to 7 days without water, extreme cases notwithstanding.

An 18-year-old Austrian by the name of Andreas Mihavecz is believed to have survived the longest without water after police accidentally left him in a holding cell for 18 days in 1979. He allegedly licked condensation trails off the wall, but that doesn’t make this record any less impressive.

However, keep in mind that any dehydration that causes a loss of more than 10% of your body weight is classed as a medical emergency.

One of the most dangerous things about water loss is that it can cause blood volume to drop. With less blood circulating through the body, blood pressure can fall to levels that can be fatal.

How long can humans go without food?

The number of days a person can survive without one morsel of food has an even broader range than those suffering from water deprivation. Mahatma Gandhi, who is world-famous for his extremely long fasts, once went 21 days without food.

However, the longest a person has ever survived without food is 74 days. The record was set by Terence MacSwine, an Irish political prisoner, who went on hunger strike in protest, which eventually led to his untimely death in 1920. Generally, people who have voluntarily stopped eating during hunger strikes without ceasing their protest have died after 45 to 61 days, according to a 1997 study published in BMJ.

Hunger strike protestors are actually the most reliable evidence available that we have for how long people can go without food. Starvation experiments in controlled settings are impossible to perform, since it would be highly unethical to ask or force a person to stop eating for prolonged periods just to examine the outcome. Unfortunately, this also means that it is extremely difficult to estimate how long the average person can survive while forgoing food.

What we know for sure is that humans can survive without food for longer than without water. The body relies on calories and nutrients in food to provide cells with the energy they need to fuel vital biological processes.

When the body is deprived of food, it turns to stockpiles. First, the body turns to glycogen in the liver and muscles, converting it into sugar and amino acids.

When it runs out of glycogen, the body starts burning fat stores for energy. This is one of the reasons why fasting is excellent for weight loss. It’s not too fun when the body has to turn to proteins for energy, though. It causes significant muscle loss, including muscle tissue from the heart.

During starvation, the pulse and blood pressure drop because the heart doesn’t have enough energy to pump blood around the body as it normally would. If food isn’t ingested soon at this point, heart failure can become inevitable.

Starvation obviously interferes with the gastrointestinal system, leading to bloating, stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, and even bacterial infections.

Deprived of energy, the central nervous system is also affected. The brain consumes a fifth of a person’s energy, but with little energy to fuel its processes, starving people will have problems concentrating or sleeping.

Bottom line: it’s not clear how long the average person can go without food or water, but humans can typically survive for weeks while starving thanks to their energy stockpiles in their glycogen, fat, and muscles. 

Soap bubbles are quite good pollinators, a new paper shows

New research from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology plans to fertilize fruit-bearing plants with soap bubbles.

Image via Pixabay.

Whimsical? Yes. But researchers in Nomi, Japan, suggest soap bubbles as a low-tech approach to support robotic pollination. Such processes are becoming more important as bees and other insect pollinators struggle under climate change and environmental degradation.

Bubble business

“It sounds somewhat like fantasy, but the functional soap bubble allows effective pollination and assures that the quality of fruits is the same as with conventional hand pollination,” says senior author Eijiro Miyako, an associate professor in the School of Materials Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

“In comparison with other types of remote pollination, functional soap bubbles have innovative potentiality and unique properties, such as effective and convenient delivery of pollen grains to targeted flowers and high flexibility to avoid damaging them.”

Some of the team’s previous work included using tiny, toy drones to pollinate flowers. While efficient, that approach very often destroyed the blossoms whey were trying to reach. Bubbles, Miyako observed one afternoon in the park with his son, could work as an alternative.

After confirming in the lab that they could carry grains of pollen around, the team tested five commercially-available surfactants (compounds that can produce bubbles with water) for their ability to create bubbles and their effect on the pollen. They settled on lauramidopropyl betain (A-20AB), as it had a positive effect on the grains after deposition on flowers.

In the end, they settled on pear pollen grains in a 0.4% A-20AB bubble solution, with some other compounds thrown in to stabilize its pH and provide needed ions (such as calcium) for germination.

The authors then loaded the solution into a bubble gun and used it to apply the pollen in a pear orchard. It was very successful, and pears grew merrily. The authors report that every bubble carries around 2,000 grains of pollen directly to the targeted flower. The last step was to install a bubble-producing device on an autonomous drone. This setup had a 90% success rate from a height of two meters and at a drone velocity of two meters per second (meaning the bubbles can be applied while the drone is in transit).

One other advantage of the bubble method is that the solution which carries the grains of pollen can be used to support its activity. Pollen activity mediated through the soap bubbles remained steady three hours after pollination, the team explains, while the grains applied through other methods such as through powder or solution became less effective.

For now the findings are definitely exciting, but it will take more refinement to make it usable on large scales in the field. Another thing to note is that the bubbles can only be applied during mild weather, as raindrops can wash away the pollen from flowers and winds can blow the bubbles away entirely. In the immediate future, the team plans to focus on increasing the efficiency of the system, as the prototype device still wastes pollen (which lands on the ground, not the flowers).

The paper “Soap Bubble Pollination” has been published in the journal iScience.

Coronavirus threatens to worsen global food crisis, UN warns

The coronavirus pandemic could leave the world with a food crisis worse than anything we’ve seen for over 50 years, according to the United Nations.

The economic recession threatens the ability of the world’s poorest to meet basic nutrition needs, and only with drastic action can we avoid this crisis, officials warned.

The pandemic is threatning global food security, the UN says. Image credits: Wikipedia Commons

The pandemic could push nearly 50 million more people into extreme poverty but the long-term effects could be worse, as poor nutrition in childhood leads to lifelong suffering, the UN warned. One in five children (144 million) around the world is now stunted in their growth by the age of five due to food shortages.

“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.”

Guterres warned that the worst effects of the pandemic and the economic recession are still yet to be felt, despite the fact that the harvest of staple crops are stable and protectionism fears have been mostly avoided. “Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain,” he argued.

A recent policy brief by the UN said that harvests remain healthy and supplies of food are robust but that’s not the case of local markets, from which most people get their food and that have seen disruptions. At the same time, a higher unemployment is affecting the possibilities of many to access basic food.

The report argued that lockdowns are slowing down harvests, as seasonal workers can’t go to work in full force. Food waste is also reaching damaging levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable fruits and vegetables as the result of supply chain problems. In the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.

Maximo Torero, the chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told The Guardian that the world’s food systems are under threat as never before in recent times. The pandemic and lockdowns hampered people’s ability to harvest and buy and sell food. “We need to be careful,” he said.

Action plan

Seeking to act fast, the UN laid out a set of recommendations geared towards saving lives and livelihoods, which also support the transition to a greener future. Countries need to designate food and nutrition services as essential, guaranteeing that those workers in the sector have the necessary protections.

At the same time, authorities have to scale up support for food processing, transport and local markets, and to ensure food systems can continue to function by keeping trade corridors open. The stimulus packages should be targeted to the most, vulnerable, especially small-scale farmers.

Guterres highlighted governments have to improve social protection systems for nutrition. This includes providing sufficient support for the children across the world that can’t access school feeding programs due to the suspension of classes. “Countries need to safeguard access to safe, nutritious foods, particularly for young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women,” he said.

No matter the disruptions currently brought by the pandemic, the UN said the global food system was already having troubles in many areas – such as conflicts, climate change, and pests and plagues. For example, East Africa is now dealing with one of the worst swarms of locusts it has seen for decades.

“The Covid-19 crisis is attacking us at every angle,” Agnes Kalibata, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the 2021 food systems summit, told The Guardian. “It has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.”

It’s a reminder that the challenge from the coronavirus pandemic is still far from over, and we still have multiple challenges to overcome — in terms of public health, economy, and also feeding the planet.

When otters play with rocks, it’s because they’re excited about food

The otters’ playful juggling of rocks has been reported many times. Whether it’s in the wild, at a zoo, or an animal sanctuary, the little creatures have often been seen playing with rocks — throwing them into the air and skillfully catching them, or rolling the rocks around their necks.

Now, researchers believe they know why otters do this: they’re excited about food.

Researchers from the University of Exeter did what we all secretly crave to do: they spent a lot of time watching otters playing. Of course, it wasn’t for the fun of it — they were looking to see why captive otters tend to play with stones, commonly referred to as “rock juggling”.

Otters are social creatures, learning by copying and mimicking each other. It makes sense that such behavior would have been passed from generation to generation, but why did it emerge in the first place? Researchers suspected that it might help otters practice their dexterity, enabling them to improve their foraging skills (such as cracking mussels and clams), but this doesn’t seem to really be the case.

When researchers gave otters a series of puzzles to solve (which were rewarded with food, of course), otters that spent more time playing with rocks did not seem to fare any better.

The three novel extractive food puzzle types presented to each otter group.

Instead, it seems that otters tend to juggle with rocks more when it’s close to their feeding time, which led researchers to believe that they’re just excited about food — and let’s face it, who isn’t?

However, while hunger is a factor in this behavior, it’s still not clear just what drove its emergence in the first place. Mari-Lisa Allison, lead author of the study said:

“Zoo visitors are often enthralled by the otters’ playfulness. Surprisingly, very few studies have investigated why otters are so keen to juggle stones. Our study provides a glimpse into this fascinating behaviour. While hunger is likely to drive rock juggling in the moment, the ultimate function of the behaviour is still a mystery.”

Overall, rock juggling frequency appeared to increase with age, which may be a way to keep their brains active and to maintain the skills they need to survive in the wild. It could also be that older otters don’t have any parental responsibilities, which leaves them with more free time to be playful. The frequency of rock pay also depends on context, sex, and species, researchers note.

Juggle rate did not predict an otter’s ability to solve food extraction puzzles, suggesting that rock juggling does not enhance food extraction ability. Senior author Dr. Neeltje Boogert added:

“While it did not appear that frequent jugglers solved food puzzles faster, more research is needed to exclude the ‘practice makes perfect’ hypothesis to explain rock juggling in otters.”

Journal Reference: The drivers and functions of rock juggling in otters, Royal Society Open Scienceroyalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.200141

Despite an increasing need, school meals are getting less healthy in the US

With classes canceled in up to 40 states, schools in the United States are still fulfilling an important need amid the coronavirus lockdown. Many families visit schools every day to get food as they can no longer afford it.

Credit Flickr.

As on any other school day, all schools are providing meals to families that have to meet the federal nutrition standards. But, instead of working to ensure that the meals remain nutritious, the Trump administration is rolling back healthier standards, health organizations claim.

Back in January, the federal government proposed new rules to allow more pizza, meat, and potatoes in schools instead of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. This means replacing standards that have been put in place by Michelle Obama.

The new rules mean schoolchildren could consume an additional eight cups per week of hash browns, french fries, or other potatoes instead of fruit in breakfast and other vegetables in lunch. Trump’s initiative has already been rejected by nearly 60 health organizations.

“These rollbacks fail to put children’s health first, which is the clear goal of school nutrition programs under the statute. If finalized, this rule would jeopardize the progress schools are making to provide healthier food to vulnerable children and [will] decrease the overall healthfulness of school meals,” the Center for Science in the Public (CSPI) said.

A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program found that these proposed changes would adversely affect student’s health and academic performance and that students from low-income families attending schools are most likely to be impacted.

Virtually all schools participating in breakfast and lunch programs have made and are making great progress toward serving healthier meals for participating children with less sodium; more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and fewer sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks.

The current proposed rule undermines such efforts to improve the quality and nutritional value of foods served in schools. The USDA purports that the proposed changes are “customer-focused”; however, the data show that parents and students are in favor of healthier standards.

“Continually weakening the standards does not provide more stability and consistency for schools or industry. On the contrary, it continuously changes the goalposts for school efforts and industry reformulation,” Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for CSPI, said.

This is hardly the Trump administration’s first attempt to weaken school nutrition. It previously rolled back requirements for whole grains and sodium in kids’ meals — moves that are now the subject of two ongoing lawsuits by CSPI and partners and by a group of state attorneys general.

COVID-19 unlikely to spread through food or food packaging, says WHO in new guidelines for companies

We should all washing fruits and vegetables before cooking or consuming them raw, pandemic or not. Credit: Pixabay.

About half of the world’s population is now under strict orders to stay home in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However, for some people, such as food industry personnel, working from home simply isn’t an option. A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) offers a set of guidelines and best practices in order to ensure that the food industry operates in a disease-free working environment.

Coronavirus doesn’t spread from the food itself, but people might get infected when delivering food or working alongside infected staff

According to the UN report, there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food or food packaging. This is a very controversial claim that needs to be put into proper context.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that first appeared in late 2019, in Wuhan, China. Its primary mode of transmission is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with the respiratory droplets generated by an infected person when they cough or sneeze.

COVID-19 may also spread from fomites, which are basically any objects or surfaces that are contaminated with the virus. When touching a contaminated surface such as a doorknob, or when shaking hands, it is possible to become infected if we then also touch our own mouth, nose, or eyes.

Studies have also pointed out to virally loaded aerosol transmission of COVID-19, which can be generated when an infected person speaks towards a susceptible host. Although aerosol transmission hasn’t been verified, it is a plausible mode of transmission for the new coronavirus, underscoring the importance of using face masks whenever leaving the house.

An often-cited study suggests that SARS-CoV-2 can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and up to 24 hours on cardboard.

However, these findings were made following research conducted under highly controlled laboratory conditions and their real-life application should be interpreted with caution.

The WHO released guidelines for food producers and processors. These do not apply for consumers

Regarding foodstuff and food packaging, WHO says there is no evidence to date that viruses that cause respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 can be spread this way. According to the WHO, coronaviruses simply cannot multiply in food as they need an animal or human host to replicate their genes.

But, what about the food packaging claim of no risk of transmission? Doesn’t that contradict the study mentioned earlier?

It’s important to take note that this a report addressed towards food manufacturers and processors. When the WHO says that there is no evidence of food packaging transmitting COVID-19, they are referring to merchandise in the manufacturer-transport-retail supply chain.

In other words, the WHO authors believe that the risk of contamination is very low for food on its way to the supermarket shelf. Inside the supermarket that’s a different thing. For instance, an infected person looking to shop food in the supermarket aisle might sneeze or cough over a can of food that you might pick up in your hands only minutes later.

The new WHO report goes on to suggest a set of best practices in order to ensure that food workers preparing and delivering food do so under safe conditions.

So, this is not a consumer report. It’s important to take this into consideration so that you might not think that you’re immune to infection when handling food bought from a retailer or packaged and delivered to your door.

First and foremost, the authors advise staff involved in food preparation to be aware of their own health. If a member of the staff feels sick or displays any symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, fatigue), they should immediately self-isolate at home and stop coming to work.

Managers should have clear written instructions and offer training to staff on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Because some individuals infected with the novel coronavirus don’t appear sick at all (asymptomatic), it is important that all staff practice personal hygiene and the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Good staff hygienic practices include:

  • proper hand hygiene – washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;
  • frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers;
  • good respiratory hygiene (cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; dispose of tissues and wash hands);
  • frequent cleaning/disinfection of work surfaces and touchpoints such as door handles;
  • avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing

Food workers should employ gloves but only when properly trained. Gloves need to be changed frequently and hands must be washed between glove changes and when gloves are removed. Food workers should avoid touching their mouth and eyes when wearing gloves.

Disposable gloves should not be used as a substitute for handwashing. Gloves can become contaminated with the coronavirus in the same way as bare hands. Managers should make this clear to workers who might have a false sense of security when wearing gloves and not wash hands as frequently as required. Normal soap and running water are adequate for handwashing.

Physical distancing should apply in the restaurant and kitchen as well. The WHO guidelines suggest maintaining at least 1 meter (3 feet) between fellow workers. Some distancing guidelines in the food-processing environment include:

  • stagger workstations on either side of processing lines so that food workers are not facing one another;
  • provide PPE such as face masks, hair nets, disposable gloves, clean overalls, and slip reduction work shoes for staff. The use of PPE would be routine in high-risk areas of food premises that produce ready-to-eat and cooked foods. When staff are dressed in PPE it is possible to reduce distance between workers;
  • space out workstations, which may require reduction in the speed of production lines;
  • limit the number of staff in a food preparation area at any one time;
  • organise staff into working groups or teams to facilitate reduced interaction between groups.

Finally, if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, all close contacts of the infected employee need to be notified. This includes any employee who was in face-to-face or physical (i.e. touching) contact with a confirmed case. Contacts need to be quarantined for 14 days from the last point of exposure to the confirmed case.

With regard to food delivery, the WHO states that drivers and other staff delivering food should use a hand sanitizer before passing delivery documents to food premises staff.

A food delivery staff may become infected when coming into contact with a client who might be sick or when touching a contaminated surface. This is why hand hygiene between deliveries is paramount, as well as physical distancing when picking up and passing deliveries to customers.

A new study looked at how early complex European cultures farmed and ate

New research is shedding light onto the social and agricultural customs of early Bronze Age societies.

Map showing the maximum territorial extension of the El Argar culture with locations of the analyzed sites (La Bastida and Gatas)
Image credits Corina Knipper et al., (2020), PLOS One.

The El Agar society is known from a site in the south-western corner of the Iberian peninsula (today’s Spain). It is believed, however, that it held cultural and political sway over a larger area during its day, from 2200-1550 cal BCE. It also developed sophisticated pottery and ceramics, which they traded with other tribes in the Mediterranean region.

New research based on El Agar gravesites and the layouts of their settlements reports that it was likely a strongly-hierarchical society that revolved around complex, “monumentally fortified” hilltop settlements. The findings showcase the potential use of including trophic (food) analysis in anthropology, and help to reveal the complexity that societies in this period could achieve.

Farming for success

“It is essential to not only investigate human remains, but also comparative samples of different former food stuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social historical context,” explains Dr. Corina Knipper from the Curt Engelhorn Center Archaeometry, the paper’s lead author.

The team used carbon dating and nitrogen isotope analysis on artefacts recovered from two El Algar hilltop settlements: a large fortified urban site (La Bastida, in today’s Murcia region) and a smaller settlement at Gatas (in today’s Almería region). The samples analyzed include remains from 75 different individuals across all social levels, 28 domestic animal and wild deer bones, 75 grains of charred barley and 29 grains of charred wheat. All the samples hail from the middle to late El Algar civilization.

The findings showed no significant difference in isotope values between males and females, which is indicative of the fact that both genders shared similar diets. However, the team did find a difference between individual social strata — remains from individuals that made up the elite of La Bastida showed higher levels of both carbon and nitrogen than their peers. This could be indicative of individuals here eating more animal-based products (nitrogen concentrates the farther up you go along the food chain). However, the team further reported that while the nitrogen values for barley were similar at both sites, domestic animals at La Bastida showed higher nitrogen values. This means that the same general diet at both sites could still have resulted in the different nitrogen levels seen.

The latter view is further strengthened by the finding that these communities relied heavily on cereal farming, which they only supplemented with livestock. Analysis of the wheat and barley suggests that the landscape they grew in were dry and unirrigated, but likely fertilized with animal manure, judging from the high nitrogen levels they contain. Cereals and their by-products also seem to have provided most of the forage of domesticated animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs).

The study is based on a small sample size, which limits the reliability of the results. However, it does highlight the role trophic chain analysis plays in helping archeologists piece together the past from human remains. It also goes a long way to show that El Algar farmers had developed relatively sophisticated practices for their time, which allowed them to feed a thriving community.

The paper “Reconstructing Bronze Age diets and farming strategies at the early Bronze Age sites of La Bastida and Gatas (southeast Iberia) using stable isotope analysis” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Predators can learn what food to avoid from watching TV

New research from the University of Cambridge found that blue tits and great tits can learn to avoid unpleasant foods by watching their fellow birds eat on TV.

Two Blue Tits sharing food.
Image credits Dave Croker.

Seeing the ‘disgust response’ in their fellows helped the birds that took part in this study to avoid dangerous or unpleasant foods without having to try them themselves, the team reports. Later on, they recognize distasteful prey by their markings, potentially improving their survival rate.

The findings offer insight into how species share information regarding prey or food socially and help showcase the evolutionary benefits of banding together in groups or flocks.

Foodie shows

“Blue tits and great tits forage together and have a similar diet, but they may differ in their hesitation to try novel food. By watching others, they can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat,” said first author Liisa Hämäläinen, formerly a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and now at Macquarie University, Sydney.

“This can reduce the time and energy they invest in trying different prey, and also help them avoid the ill effects of eating toxic prey,”

The team worked with blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tits (Parus major), in order to understand how and why prey avoidance behaviour spreads through populations of predators.

Blue tits and great tits forage together in the wild, so have many opportunities to learn from each other. If prey avoidance behavior spreads quickly through predator populations, this could benefit the ongoing survival of the prey species significantly, and help drive its evolution.

Many species of insects use bitter or toxic chemicals to deter predators. They usually advertise this with bright coloring and conspicuous markings. However, these ploys only work after a predator has learned to associate them with ‘undesirable’ prey. The findings of this study, however, shows that predators can learn which prey to avoid by watching other members of their group while trying to consume different insects.

The team showed each bird a video recording of another as it was eating distasteful prey. Some of the recorded birds displayed a disgust response (including vigorous beak wiping and head shaking) which the team hoped would help inform the watchers. This behavior was sometimes edited out to see if it would affect the watchers’ behavior.

The ‘prey’ shown on TV consisted of small pieces of almond flakes glued inside a white paper packet — some of these packets were soaked in a bitter solution. All packets had a marking on the side to help the birds better differentiate between them: a cross symbol that blended into the background for tasty packets, and a conspicuous square for the bitter ones.

When presented with these packets later on, the TV-watching birds (both blue tits and great tits) ate fewer of the bitter ones if they witnessed a disgust response to those packets in the footage, the team reports.

“In our previous work using great tits as a ‘model predator’, we found that if one bird sees another being repulsed by a new type of prey, then both birds learn to avoid it in the future,” said Dr. Rose Thorogood, who led the research.

“By extending the research we now see that different bird species can learn from each other too. This increases the potential audience that can learn by watching others, and helps to drive the evolution of the prey species.”

The paper “Social learning within and across predator species reduces attacks on novel aposematic prey” has been published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Americans don’t talk about the environmental impact of their food — and that’s a problem

Tackling climate change isn’t just about expanding renewable energy or setting up clean public transportation. Changing diets also plays a big role, as food production accounts for up to 30% of the total global emissions. Nevertheless, not that many are aware of that, a new survey showed.

Reducing meat consumption is one of the most eco-friendly things you can do — but we don’t really talk about it enough. Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons

The report “Climate Change and the American Diet” showed that 51% of those surveyed in the US are willing to eat more plant-based foods but claimed not to have sufficient information about the footprint of their food choices.

Up to 70% don’t talk about the link between food and climate change with their friends and family, the report showed. At the same time, almost two-thirds said they were never asked to change to a diet with more plant-based foods – with half of those surveyed claiming to have never heard about this topic in the media.

Only 4% of Americans described themselves as vegan or vegetarian, but up to 20% said to eat plant-based food two to five times a week or even more. About the same percentage of people claimed to avoid companies not addressing their environmental impact.

The findings are part of a national survey done in December 2019 to 1.043 American adults, carried out by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Earth Day Network.

“Many American consumers are interested in eating a healthier and climate-friendly diet,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “However, many simply don’t know yet which products are better or worse — a huge communication opportunity for food producers, distributors and sellers.”

Information wasn’t the only barrier identified by Americans to shift to plant-based diets. As part of the survey costs, taste and accessibility also ranked high. Almost half of those surveyed (49%) think a mean that has a plant-based main course is more expensive than a meal with meat as the main course.

More than four in ten Americans said they dislike the taste of plant-based foods, with two in tree claiming they would be open to eating them instead of meat if they tasted better. At the same time, 77% of those surveyed said to ease and speed of preparation is important when choosing to purchase or eat plant-based food

Changing food production and consumption is critical to reducing the impacts of global warming, but not many made that connection. More than half of those surveyed said meat production only contributed “a little” to global warming. Four in ten Americans think beef doesn’t contribute to global warming at all.

“This data is a wake-up call for the climate movement,” said Jillian Semaan, Food and Environment Director, Earth Day Network. “Animal agriculture is one of the major drivers of our climate crisis, we need to provide people with the relevant information that connects food choices, animal agriculture, and climate change.’

Without drastic changes in the way we eat, use the land and farm, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change will fall short, climate experts have repeatedly warned.

It’s not that you have to completely give up meat (though that can help) — a balanced diet with more plant-based options presents more opportunities to adapt and mitigate climate change. It’s something we should definitely consider, and start talking about more.

Global diets are converging, and that’s good news for our health and the environment

Global food trends showcase both how far we’ve come, and what problems still need to be addressed.

Image via Pixabay.

New research at the University of Kent found that diets are undergoing complex changes worldwide. The team reports that parts of the world are shifting towards healthier diets, while other areas are still experiencing malnutrition and obesity as a result of poor food access and security. The overall dynamics also have important implications for environmental sustainability, both good and bad.

What’s cooking?

“There are clear shifts in global food supply, and these trends may be responsible for strong improvements in nutrition in some parts of the world,” says Dr Bentham, co-lead author of the paper and a Lecturer in Statistics at Kent’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science.

“However, obesity remains a long-term concern, and we hope that our research will open doors to analysis of the health impacts of global diet patterns. Equally, we must also consider carefully the environmental impacts of these trends.”

For the study, the team analyzed food supply data for 171 countries from the 1960s to the 2010s. They report that South Korea, China, and Taiwan have experienced the largest changes in food supply throughout that timeline, with animal-sourced foods (such as meat and eggs), sugar, vegetables, seafood, and oil crops becoming a much larger proportion of the area’s overall diet. Such a shift in diet is to be expected in developing countries, as more disposable income means people can afford more varied meals with more expensive ingredients.

On the other hand, many Western countries have seen a decline in animal-sourced foods and sugar consumption; this trend is especially noticeable in high-income English-speaking countries such as the UK, US, Canada, and Australia, they report. This is likely the product of increased public awareness of the role our diets play in our health and of the latitude to pick what we eat offered by such rich countries (a product of varied supply and high incomes). But this trend isn’t limited to the western world. Many countries around the world have seen an uptake in vegetable-based diets, the team explains.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst-off of all global regions in this regard. It still lacks adequate access to a diverse food supply, which the team notes can help explain why the region is still rife with malnutrition.

Despite the limitations here, shifts towards diet adjustment in the rest of the world remain significant. The decline in consumption for animal-sourced foodstuffs and sugar and the greater availability of vegetables are very encouraging to see. Such shifts may be paving the way towards more sustainable, healthier, and more balanced diets, at least in some parts of the world. The team notes that in South Korea, China, and Taiwan in particular, the greater consumption of sugar and animal foodstuffs is correlated with a dramatic rise in obesity rates. Taken together, these findings showcase just how important diet is to public health and environmental protection efforts at the same time.

“Advances in science and technology, together with growing incomes, have allowed many nations to have access to a diversity of foods,” explains Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, the paper’s other co-lead author.

“We must harness these advances and set in place policies that provide healthier foods for people everywhere, especially those who can currently least afford them.”

The paper “Multidimensional characterization of global food supply from 1961 to 2013” has been published in the journal Nature Food.

Better diets could save billions in U.S. health care costs

Healthier diets could save the US around $50 billion in healthcare costs annually, according to a new study.

Image credits Ylanite Koppens.

Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of poor health, as they promote the development of cardiometabolic diseases (CMDs) such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. A new study led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers estimates that unhealthy diets can account for 45% of all CMD-related deaths in the US, leading to a national healthcare burden of around $50 billion nationally.

Fooding the bill

“There is a lot to be gained in terms of reducing risk and cost associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by making relatively simple changes to one’s diet,” said corresponding author Thomas Gaziano, MD, MSc, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Brigham. “Our study indicates that the foods we purchase at the grocery store can have a big impact. I was surprised to see a reduction of as much as 20 percent of the costs associated with these cardiometabolic diseases.”

In collaboration with researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the team looked at the impact of 10 dietary factors — fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-3 fats, and sodium — on one’s diet on annual CMD-related health costs.

Towards this end, they used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), to create a representative U.S. population sample of individuals aged between 35 and 85 years old. Then, using a model they developed, the team analyzed how the individual risk of CMDs shift based on the dietary patterns of respondents to the NHANES study. Finally, they calculated what the overall CMD-related costs would be if everyone followed an optimal diet in relation to the 10 factors.

They conclude that suboptimal diets cost around $301 per person per year, for a total of over $50 billion nationally. The team explains that this sum represents 18% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes costs in the United States. Costs were highest for those with Medicare ($481/person) and those who were eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid ($536/person).

The consumption of processed meats and low consumption of nuts, seeds, and omega-3 fat foodstuffs (such as seafood) were the highest drivers of CMD risks and additional costs, the team explains.

“We have accumulating evidence […] to support policy changes focused on improving health at a population level. One driver for those changes is identifying the exorbitant economic burden associated with chronic disease caused by our poor diets,” said co-senior author Renata Micha of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

“This study provides additional evidence that those costs are unacceptable. While individuals can and do make changes, we need innovative new solutions — incorporating policy makers, the agricultural and food industry, healthcare organizations, and advocacy/non-profit organizations — to implement changes to improve the health of all Americans.”

The results of this study may underestimate the total cost of unhealthy diets, the team explains, as it can contribute to other health complications aside from CMDs. Additionally, other factors beyond the 10 used in this study could drive health risks and costs, they add. Finally, the NHANES study relied on self-reported data — participants were asked to recall what they ate in the past 24 hours — which isn’t very reliable.

The paper “Cardiometabolic disease costs associated with suboptimal diet in the United States: A cost analysis based on a microsimulation model” has been published in the journal PLOS Medicine.