The Changing Vocabulary of Food

By Kate Prengaman

Sometimes, it feels like there is too much advice for healthy eating. Health food fads like gluten free, or low sugar, or whole grain or eating only local, seasonal food have all become pretty popular recently.  Fads like low fat and no carbohydrate diets seem to be fading out in the enthusiasm for the new trends.  I recently discovered Google’s ngrams viewer, a tool that you can use to view the frequency of word use in a large subset of all of the books published every year. Search for a specific word that represents a cultural idea, like “low fat diet” and you can use the graph of it’s frequency to know when it became a popular.  I wrote a larger post about the science of the ngram tool, you can read it here.

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Orange juice science

Reading ingredients in the quintessential American breakfast drink feels good. It’s simply “orange juice.” I get a mental picture of a factory smushing the tangy orange balls until nothing else drips out. Then it strains some or all of the pulp and bottles the bright, vitamin C-filled juice. Three steps. At least, that was the picture I had until I overheard a conversation on my plane ride back from Science Online last month. A woman from the orange juice industry was explaining something I never thought to wonder about.

“You know how oranges taste different at different times of year?” she asked her seat partner.

“Yes,” I thought. There’s nothing more disappointing than a tasteless, or worse, bitter, orange.

“Well, that makes orange juice taste different at different times of year too,” she said.

“That makes sense,” I thought. And then she came out with the zinger.

“Except that every bottle of orange juice you’ll ever buy at the store tastes exactly the same.” Read the juicy details…

Quinoa Cookies!!!

Delicious quinoa cookies from Bon Appetit

By Kate Prengaman

I love Bon Appetite magazine, it’s like porn for foodies. I just look at the pictures, fantasize about making certain dishes or tasting certain recipes, but I rarely put any of these specific fantasies into action. I love to cook, but I’m usually too busy to devote myself to the drool-worthy recipes they suggest. But last month, I saw a recipe that I couldn’t resist, and I finally made them yesterday: Quinoa Cookies!

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Saturday Science Soup

Highlights from the week in food science news:

Genetically modified food’s DNA could be absorbed by our bodies and wreak havoc on our DNA! Wait, what? That’s right, the Atlantic published a very confusing food science column a few weeks ago, making a substantial leap from an interesting Chinese paper about mircoRNA from rice being found in people who eat rice, to aggressive GMO DNA invading our bodies. This week, Emily Willingham wrote a great analysis of the flaws in the Atlantic story, including that the paper referenced had nothing to do with GMO foods. You can find her excellent explaining here. Continue reading

Fermenting Flour

I started a new sourdough tonight. My last sourdough did not survived the long, hot drive from Vegas to Wisconsin in August. For me , sourdough is like a pet, albeit, a productive, delicious one.  You feed it, it grows, and feeds you in return. Best pet ever, honestly.

I caught my first sourdough back in 2007, when my New Year’s resolution was to bake all of my own bread for a year. Michael Pollan’s description of catching wild yeasts in a bowl of flour and water in the Omnivore’s dilemma really captured my imagination, and I caught my own, with a mixture of unbleached flour and water sitting on my counter. In addition to catching many yeasts out of the air, they also wait on the surface of the flour, for me to provide the perfect environment for them to grow and flourish.  Continue reading

How “good” is garlic?

By Emily Eggleston

Tis the season of new year resolutions. Health supplements, gym memberships, and cross trainers are probably flying off the shelves as I type. Thus it is also the season to be wary of hype, particularly regarding dietary claims. This is the perfect opportunity to bring up my fragrant friend, garlic. There is a wide range of positive health claims associated with eating garlic. People have ventured that garlic might help with everything from controlling acne to fighting cancer. The laundry list of garlic health claims includes: suppressing tumor growth, promoting cardiovascular health, reducing LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and thinning blood. Many garlic advocates mention in one way or another that garlic has a very long history of culinary and medicinal use, seemingly justifying their health claims with the fact that garlic has been eaten for thousands of years. Some garlic promotion can get a bit, er, sensational. For instance one website suggests that garlic is “possibly the number one healing plant known to Man.” Here’s what a few scientists have to say about garlic:

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Salted Caramels and Sugar Structures

Caramel cooking, by La Mia Cucina

So, I spent a delightful afternoon celebrating the end of the semester helping my friend Nora make her signature salted caramels, which she gives her lucky family every year for Christmas.  While we watched the sticky sweet solution bubble away, she asked me what happens to the sugar to make caramel sticky and fondant, her other favorite holiday candy,  so smooth?

I knew that we could find the answer in the science of sugar molecule structure, different methods of cooking, stirring, and cooling sugar syrups result in different sugar structures when the candy cools.  Continue reading

So, what do you really mean by virginity?

Olive Oil by Vicci from moonstarsandpaper

I heard something so amazing on Fresh Air the other day that I just couldn’t resist writing about it.  Terry Gross talked to Tom Mueller about his new book, Extra Virginity. Don’t worry, this is a food blog: he wrote about olive oil!

Terry asked him why olive oil was so much more interesting than other vegetable oils, why it was worthy of taste tests, fancy imports, and high prices. Mueller explained for vegetable oils, the oil is extracted from the corn kernel or soy bean, the seeds, Continue reading

Don’t Feed the Children: the growing problem of peanut allergies

Sign photo by vitamin sea

It’s hard to eat something that looks tasty, like a pumpkin muffin or a brownie, in front of children, without them asking for a bite. I coach a bunch of energetic 7-10 year old swimmers at the local YMCA, and at our meets, I have access to the hospitality table of snacks for coaches and officials.  Every time I try to eat something, I am swarmed by my athletes, asking if I can share a bite of a muffin, or get them some crackers. I have taken to telling them that I have a “Don’t Feed the Children” rule, just like when you go to the zoo, there is a “Don’t Feed the Animals” sign.  I explain that I don’t know if they have any food allergies, and if I fed them something that made them sick, I’d feel pretty bad.  So, if they are hungry, they have to go see their official keepers (aka mom and dad) to provide safe snacks.

I’m not sharing this simply to demonstrate my convenient excuse for not sharing my much-need muffin with my swimmers. Food allergies, ranging from digestive intolerance to full anaphylactic shock, seem to be on the rise in this country. A 2008 CDC study showed an 18 percent increase in food allergies in U.S. kids between 1997 and 2007.   Continue reading

Nutmeg’s bright red secret

By Emily Eggleston

Nutmeg is the spice of holiday cheer. And it is one of the most beautiful ingredients in my kitchen.

Photo by Nikita Avvakumov

Slicing into a whole nutmeg reveals the rivers of dark brown winding across a light tan surface. And from that surface pours a watershed of flavor.

Until mid 19th century, the only producer of nutmeg was a small group of Indonesian islands, the Banda Islands. Then the British managed to transplant a few of the lucrative trees to well-suited colonial climates. One of their transplant locations was Granada which is now the second largest producer of nutmeg. Indonesia still reigns the world of nutmeg by supplying 75% of the market and Granada comes in next with 20%. Interestingly, the flag of Granada featured nutmeg for a short time (1967-1974) before they gained independence and crafted a new flag. Keep reading for the secret…