Monday, September 20, 2010

A little food for thought

A Little Food for Thought
By: Cristian Feher

It's the year 2010 and there are almost as many different types of foods as there are people. But the really interesting part is looking back at where some of these foods have come from, and where some of them are going. I give a few examples that have caught my attention below.

Many people take modern refrigeration for granted and do not realize that it's not until recently that this technological advance has been shaping the way foods are stored, prepared and consumed. Many of the foods that have been around in the world were developed in cultures where no refrigeration was available. Take curry, for example. The flavorful spice mixture we know today as curry was used by several cultures for hundreds of years as a method of keeping meats from spoiling. Picture a hot day in India where the temperatures rise way above 95 degrees on a regular day. A fish was cleaned, cut up and cooked in a clay pot with a heavy dose of curry, spicy peppers (capsicum), herbs, vegetables and water. If covered with a cloth, this dish might have lasted up to three days in ambient temperature without becoming spoiled (bacteria would have found it difficult to grow inside the spicy curry mixture). In colder climates, Vikings might have kept a freshly killed elk buried in ice and snow while consuming over a period of time. Severed slices of flesh would have been roasted over a fire and enjoyed with dried berries and leaves. A series of sharpened wooden sticks jutting out from around the elk would have kept bears and wolves from stealing it during the night. Today, there are many backyard Vikings that still enjoy this ritual on Sundays! In the South Pacific fish were wrapped in leaves, clay and sometimes raw sea salt crystals. These packages would be buried underground with hot coals and rocks, and dug up to eat up to two days later. Many tourists enjoy this method of cooking while on vacation in the South Pacific today, and it's a popular attraction on the food networks. The Aztecs would steam rudimentary corn dough wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves for preservation, and you can still enjoy them at your local Mexican restaurant today. You can also fast forward to the perfection of this particular method of cooking and visit Venezuela during the Christmas season for an amazing "hallaca" (a savory saffron and raisin meat stew encased in corn dough with annatto, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to perfection). However, the most common method of ensuring fresh food, which is still seen today in many cultures, is the ritual of going to the market for food on a daily basis. Whether in France, Trinidad and Tobago, or Argentina, this is a ritual that I try to take part in whenever I travel. Food prepared freshly in a culture with a high turnover of meat, fish and vegetables has always yielded the best results in my opinion.

You wouldn't think of it at first glance, but war and conquering has done a lot to change the food scapes of many cultures. This is evident in Japan and especially the Philippines where hot dogs and Spam (an American canned meat product) have become national staples. Filipinos consume more spam per capita than Americans do! And if you ever get a chance, try some Filipino hot dog stew. It will make you wonder why you've wasted so many years plopping it on a bun. The Spaniards can be traced by the chickens (and diseases) they left behind as they conquered, and if you've ever had the pleasure of sampling French-Vietnamese cuisine, you know what I mean. Every cloud has a silver lining, and this is probably the silver lining of war - the seed of culinary creativity that it leaves behind.

I can only imagine what the future holds for combinations of new foods. I'm sure that preservative-laden meat patties, processed cheese and apple pie are leaving their mark in the Middle East as we speak. And you may visit Afghanistan or Iraq fifty years from now and wonder how they ever got along without them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Propylene Glycol making you fat?

Is Propylene Glycol making you fat?
By: Cristian Fehe

Most of you are probably wondering, "What the heck is propylene glycol?". Propylene glycol may sound fancy and scientific, but it's really just a clear, odorless liquid made from petroleum. It's used as a stabilizer (to keep things held together, and keep them from evaporating), and to keep foods moist. It's used in many of the foods that we eat, and the FDA deems it safe for human consumption. Sounds harmless enough, right? But I stumbled upon a little something that you may not know about propylene glycol.

I promise this is the only other scientific word I will use - Ketosis. Ketosis is simply nerd-talk for when your body burns fat. So if you're overweight, and you start to lose fat, it's called ketosis. I'm sure most of us can agree that ketosis is a good thing - especially in America, where we have the most overweight population on the planet!

So what do ketosis and propylene glycol have to do with being fat? Good question! There is an industry where fat is money. It's the cattle industry. Simply put, the cattle ranchers don't want cows to get skinny. When an overweight American goes into ketosis, we congratulate them and tell them how good they're looking! But when a cow starts to lose fat, the veterinarian is called immediately. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual "Ketosis is a common disease of adult cattle." And according to this manual, one of the treatments for this condition is Propylene Glycol. The cow is injected twice per day with propylene glycol until it gets fat again. This stops the cow from losing fat and keeps them nice and plump. The cow can then be sold, butchered, and a beautiful, fatty, rib eye steak can be enjoyed.

I am definitely not against a big fatty steak with proper marbling (the fatty beads throughout the steak). But I do wonder if propylene glycol is having the same effect on humans, and making it harder for a person to go into ketosis and lose fat. North Americans probably eat more propylene glycol than any other people on the planet, and we happen to be very fat. Coincidence? I am not saying that propylene glycol makes people fat - I can't, the FDA wouldn't let me say that. But it certainly poses an interesting question. By the way, here's another little tidbit; the Merck Veterinary Manual also states, "Overdosing propylene glycol leads to CNS depression [central nervous system failure]." But again, they're talking about cows here, and it's very unlikely that a human being would eat that much propylene glycol in one sitting. However, I wasn't able to find out how much propylene glycol it would take to kill a cow or give it brain damage. I also was not able to find if propylene glycol taken over time can have a damaging effect.

Here are some common foods that contain propylene glycol: certain mustards, food coloring, artificial flavors, certain chips, certain soy sauce, fried onions, certain strawberry and chocolate syrups, certain icing, canned coconut milk, certain salad dressings, certain ice creams, maple flavored bacon, certain juices, certain sodas, certain cake mixes, certain chicken bullion, fast food burgers and dipping sauces, certain yogurts and the list keeps going. After only 10 minutes of research I was able to find over 1200 food items that contain propylene glycol. And not all of them listed it as an ingredient. For example, a food's ingredient list may include "artificial butter flavor". The butter flavor is made with propylene glycol, but since it came into the factory pre-made and was added as an ingredient in the process of another food, that manufacturer is not obligated to list sub-ingredients.

So we come again to the big question; is propylene glycol making you fat? I can't answer that. All I can do is present you with very interesting information and let you think for yourself.