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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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

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

The Tale of Tapioca

Tapioca Pudding by Dobrin Isabela, via Flickr

By Kate Prengaman

Here’s a question: What do tapioca pudding, bubble tea, Brazilian slash and burn agriculture, and subsistence farming in Africa have in common? The simple answer is in botanical latin: Manihot esculenta. Called manioc, cassava, mandioca, yuca, tapioca, and sago, people world-wide eat foods produced from the starchy tubers of the M. esculenta, a member of the botanically diverse Euphorbiaceae, which includes poinsettias. According to the UN, it’s the third most important food in the tropics, after rice and corn. However, it’s also poisonous- two cyanide compounds, linamarin and lotaustralin, require careful processing before the tubers can be eaten.  Continue reading

Thanksgiving Science

My Dad, taking the turkey on one last flight around the kitchen

Happy thanksgiving everybody!  It’s my favorite holiday ever, because it’s a chance to celebrate food and family. We just eat, hang out, eat, hang out, eat, drink wine, and hang out. But, there’s also a lot of science to this celebration, so here are some highlights:

Does Turkey make us sleepy?  I’m sure that you’ve heard the claim that the tryptophan in Turkey is what makes you feel lethargic after the meal. Tryptophan is an amino acid that we have to eat, because our bodies can’t produce it, and it functions in the production of niacin, vitamin B3. Niacin plays a role in serotonin production, and serotonin helps us feel happy and relaxed.  However, do we feel happy and relaxed after Thanksgiving dinner from consuming all of that tryptophan? Continue reading

The Story of Soy

Edamame, or soybeans, Japanese style with salt, by Framboise, via flickr

By Kate Prengaman

Soy has become both famous as a health food and infamous as a health risk after it’s introduction to the western world as an alternative protein. Health claims include that soy protein products can help lower your cholesterol and prevent cancer. Soy supplements have been touted for menopausal women as estrogen supplement. On the other hand, that same estrogen in soy has been considered a serious risk, potentially making our children gay! (Just kidding, this claim has no scientific merit)  But what does the science really say about soy consumption and our health?  Continue reading