Technically, Soylent isn’t really a food at all. It’s a drink mix designed to replace actual food in order to make your diet easier, cheaper and more convenient. Soylent was created by a 25-year-old software engineer named Rob Rhinehart, as a solution, in part, to his own dilemma. The entrepreneur was on a tight budget, which meant subsisting on a steady diet of ramen noodles, fast food and frozen burritos. In search of something healthier but even cheaper, he started researching nutrients and eventually came up with this concoction of protein, carbs, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Read more
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In this week’s news: Seafood guidance for kids and expectant mothers; the next iteration of futuristic faux food; and a reminder from Mark Bittman to just eat the real thing.
Pass the Salmon
This Tuesday, federal officials announced that they’re for the first time ever recommending a minimum of two weekly servings of low-mercury seafood (think salmon, shrimp, cod and light canned tuna) to children and pregnant or breast-feeding women. Back in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency had set an upper limit to these foods. And though this proposal, too, suggests an upper limit of three servings, the shift is noteworthy. According to a recent FDA analysis, one in five pregnant women in the United States currently eats little or no fish, and the new recommendation is said to reflect concern that these individuals are missing out. Indeed, a number of studies show that children born to women who eat fish have better cognitive development and higher IQs than those born to women who eat little to no fish. Still, the recommendation isn’t without controversy: Some environmental groups expressed concern that this will ultimately increase mercury consumption. One particular worry is packaged fish, especially tuna, from which Americans get approximately a third of their methyl mercury exposure. Interestingly, other groups fear that the measures don’t go far enough. Bottom line: Know where your fish is sourced, and also remember that while plenty of research suggests taking Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, there remains a wide variety of nutrients in fish worth tapping.
Will Gluten-Free Go the Way of Fat-Free?
Gluten-free. Paleo. Vegan. According to an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week, someday we’ll likely look back on the current crop of diet trends with the same regret-slash-sheepishness we now view our fat-free binge of the 1980s and ’90s. (“Think of all the money and meals you wasted on fat-free ice cream and bone-dry chicken breasts that didn’t do you a lick of good,” writer David Sax admonishes us.) As the story points out, Jimmy Kimmel’s hit skit on gluten last month — featuring hilariously cringe-worthy responses from dieters who seem to shun gluten strictly for the cool quotient — perfectly capture our collective dietary cluelessness. But there are some winners out there: Fad diets appear to be big cash cows for food manufacturers, especially when they market products capitalizing on the nutrition words of the moment.
Walnuts and hummus dips were on the recent food recall hit list. Last month, Sherman Produce Company, based in St. Louis, voluntarily began recalling 241 cases of walnuts, after routine sampling of the product purchased by stores in Illinois and Missouri found traces of listeria. Also in May, Massachusetts food manufacturer Lansal Inc. (aka Hot Mama’s Foods) voluntarily pulled 14,860 pounds of their hummus in various retailers, including Target and Trader Joe’s. This was done after a single 10-ounce container tested positive for listeria.
If fat was the star dietary villain for the past few decades, sugar is quickly stepping up to take its place. The sweet stuff figures prominently in the recent documentary Fed Up. There are websites, such as I Quit Sugar, devoted to eliminating sugar from the diet. And several books published this year chronicle or advocate similar nutritional journeys, including Year of No Sugar — which recounts a family’s quest to rid their lives of added sugars — and The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, written by Dr. Mark Hyman, who just so happens to advise the Clinton family on matters of healthy eating.
In this week’s news: Michelle Obama hits a spork in the road to school lunch reform; researchers give a quick lesson on food costs and weight gain; and a former restaurant critic says it’s time to give up on the miracle diet pills already.
First (Lunch) Lady
Segments of the food industry and Republican legislators have criticized the 2010 federal dietary school lunch standards (called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), citing lack of flexibility and questioning their cost and effectiveness. The School Nutrition Association, a group representing cafeteria administrators, say enrollment has gone down after the standards — which limit sodium, fat and calories, and require that fruits, vegetables and whole grains replace unhealthy menu choices. Adding bite to that bark is a new measure that would allow poorer school districts to opt out of the program. This week, Michelle Obama has been speaking out strongly against this move, penning a New York Times Op Ed that cites some tough numbers: One in three children is overweight of obese, one in three children is expected to develop diabetes, and currently $190 billion a year is spent treating obesity-related conditions. These lunch regulations can help, says Sam Kass, White House chef and the director of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, who cites academic studies showing that all children were eating healthier after the standards were established.
Baby corn has long been a stir-fry staple, and those so-named baby carrots have become the obligatory sidekick to hummus. But small vegetables only seem to betting bigger — at least in supermarkets and restaurants. Earlier this year, California’s Shanley Farms introduced “single-serving” avocados (trademark name: Gator Eggs) sold in clever packages reminiscent of egg cartons. Produce titan Green Giant sells Little Gem Lettuce Hearts, a lettuce hybrid that resembles romaine in miniature. Not to mention the countless iterations of baby broccoli — in fact, a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale — that appear in grocery stores everywhere. Are bitty vegetables merely an eye-catching novelty or are there culinary benefits to downsized produce?
At least for chefs, the most desirable baby vegetables are generally the ones that are indeed babies — that is, harvested young. “When grown well and picked fresh, baby vegetables eat beautifully,” says Aimee Olexy, chef and owner of Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily, in Philadelphia. “Often tender and sweet, they require less overall cooking and retain a more perky mouthfeel and appeal on the plate. Young baby peas and beets are almost always wonderful, and a dainty little treat worth the work,” she says.
Later, Gluten; Hello, FODMAPs
Studies show that 30 percent of us would like to cut down on our gluten consumption. For many, this stems from the belief that eating gluten can lead to gastrointestinal distress, an idea that drew attention after a 2011 Australian study. Thorough as that investigation was, the fact that it resulted in no real clues about why people might be so sensitive to gluten had puzzled the researchers. Recently, they headed back to the lab to give the experiment another go using an even more water-tight protocol. The results threw a wrench in prevailing thinking about gluten intolerance: Study participants reported little change in how they felt based on how much gluten they were or were not consuming. (Important note: Although gluten intolerance might be in question, celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten consumption, is real but rare.) What did seem to make some difference, the scientists note, was the amount of a specific category carbohydrate found in wheat, known by its acronym, FODMAPs.
In this week’s news: A buzzkill study related to red wine emerges; a documentary suggests not all calories are created equal; and food dyes appear in unexpected places (et tu, pickles?).
Glass Half Empty, But Cheers Anyway
In 2006, Harvard scientists won the hearts of red wine and chocolate lovers everywhere by reporting that obese mice that were fed huge amounts of resveratrol — a polyphenol antioxidant found in those two foods — tended to live longer and stay healthier. Fast-forward eight years: Resveratrol supplements are a $30 million dollar industry, Dr. Oz enlisted the antioxidant for his “Ultimate Anti-Aging Checklist” and we’ve all been happily drenching ourselves in wine and chocolate. In light of this, a new Johns Hopkins study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine was, well, a bit of a downer. Researchers who studied a group of 783 elderly people in Tuscany’s Chianti region found no association between lifespan and the amounts of reseveratrol these individuals had consumed (presumably mostly through wine). That said, there’s still plenty of reason to raise a glass, says David Sinclair, the lead scientist behind the 2006 study. While it would take 100 to 1,000 times the amount of resveratrol you’d get from imbibing to have the kind of health impact he saw in mice, he points out that there are over three dozen other polyphenols in wine, many with similar and complementary sorts of benefits.
Tofu, Always Blending In, Takes a Mainstream Approach
Given tofu’s admirable protein content, lack of cholesterol and relatively high amount of calcium, you’d think health reasons might be its biggest selling points. Yet those qualities didn’t seem to matter so much among women ages 20 to 35 in new research from Brian Wansink’s Cornell Food and Brand Lab. When the researchers told the study’s non-tofu eaters about the health benefits, just 12 percent said they’d consider giving it a go. But when the scientists talked about price or showed an easy ten-minute recipe with the tagline “Cooks Like Chicken,” nearly 50 percent of non-users jumped on the bandwagon. Whether it tastes like chicken seems beside the point: The three most popular uses — tofu scramble, tofu stir-fry, salad mix-in — seem to accommodate just about any mystery meat.