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Gluten fad

Michael Specter has written for the New Yorker what is easily the the best article I've read to date on the gluten-free fad:

He writes

The fear of gluten has become so pronounced that, a few weeks ago, the television show “South Park” devoted an episode to the issue. South Park became the first entirely gluten-free town in the nation. Federal agents placed anyone suspected of having been “contaminated” in quarantine at a Papa John’s surrounded by razor wire. Citizens were forced to strip their cupboards of offending foods, and an angry mob took a flamethrower to the wheat fields.

“No matter what kind of sickness has taken hold of you, let’s blame gluten,’’ April Peveteaux writes in her highly entertaining book “Gluten Is My Bitch.”

and

Joseph A. Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease, has also studied wheat genetics. He agrees with Kasarda. “The wheat grain is not a lot different than it was fifty years ago,’’ Murray told me. “Chemically, the contents just have not changed much. And there is something more important to note. Wheat consumption is going down, not up. I don’t think this is a problem that can be linked to the genetics of wheat.”

and

While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society

The article does go on to speculate a bit about why some people lose weight when going on "gluten free" diets and why the rate of Celiac disease has risen to about 1% of the population.  Well worth reading.

 

A Foodie Repents

That's the subtitle of an interesting article at the New Yorker by John Lanchester.  He drives home the point I also made in the Food Police that food choices have often become political statements.  Here's one snippet:

I’m thrilled by this notion [that food choices are charged with political significance], and yet I find that I can’t submit to it. For a start, we can’t feed the whole world this way. Today, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities—which is a positive development, because, from an environmental point of view, density is good. At the same time, that world population, according to the United Nations, is heading for a total just below eleven billion by the century’s end. We can manage this, probably, but we can’t do so without industrial agriculture. This doesn’t negate the individual virtue of our consumer choices, but it does mean they take us only so far toward making a better world. If shopping and cooking really are the most consequential, most political acts in my life, perhaps what that means is that our sense of the political has shrunk too far—shrunk so much that it fits into our recycled-hemp shopping bags. If these tiny acts of consumer choice are the most meaningful actions in our lives, perhaps we aren’t thinking and acting on a sufficiently big scale. Imagine that you die and go to Heaven and stand in front of a jury made up of Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Your task would be to compose yourself, look them in the eye, and say, “I was all about fresh, local, and seasonal.”

When chefs meet geneticists

One would think that the people who create new foods and the people who whip up new ways of enjoying them would have long been partners. But cooperation between plant breeders and chefs is historically rare; traditionally, breeders stick to the field and chefs to the kitchen, opposite ends of an increasingly long and complicated food chain. Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University (OSU) and the emcee of the Portland feast, wants to change that. She recently founded the Culinary Breeding Network (CBN), a first-of-its-kind organization that fosters collaboration between cooks, farmers, plant breeders, and seed growers. Breeders are often “making a lot of the decisions alone, guessing what the consumer, chef, or institutional kitchen cook needs and wants from their produce,” Selman explains. She has chefs tour breeding plots to “witness diversity with their own eyes, hands, and mouths” and give breeders direct feedback. It’s a kind of immediate and powerful synergy that just makes sense: “Breeders bring knowledge of stored seeds and wild relatives. Chefs know how to evaluate flavor much better than we do.” Case in point: Mazourek was microwaving squash for taste tests until a chef educated him in proper roasting techniques.

That's from an interesting article in Pacific Standard arguing that fruits and vegetables are about to enter a flavor Renaissance.

What will the future of food look like?

Time.com recently asked a series of "experts" to opine about the future of food and predict how our plates will change.  The predictions are rather predictable as are the choice of experts.  

The selection of experts only included one scientists - nutritionist Marion Nestle - and her future look to me a lot like our past, as many of us: 

will enjoy home gardens and locally and sustainably produced food, at greater cost.

It is implicitly assumed that home gardens and "local" are the same as "sustainable".

Indeed, many of the answers fell prey to a kind of romantic traditionalism.

The list of experts mainly included chefs, journalists, and food activists.  Aside from Nestle, not one active food scientist was interviewed.  There was one restaurant consultant and one investor in "companies dedicated to solving food problems" interviewed, but not one person currently engaged in farming for a living, no food microbiologists, no geneticist, no agronomists, no animal scientists, no food engineers, no one working for today's largest food and agricultural companies.  In short, few of the kinds of people who are most likely to have the most substantive impact on the way we eat and farm in the future were interviewed.  

Its like our thinking about the future of food has become stuck in some sort of retrogressive mindset.  

Country of Origin Labeling

The WTO recently ruled against the US in the latest dispute over mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL).  Their latest ruling cites work I've conducted with Glynn Tosnor, Ted Schroeder, and Mykel Taylor at Kansas State, among others (not necessarily in an uncritical light).

In any event, I was skeptical of the way the US chose to respond to the original finding that they were out of compliance with the WTO, and the latest finding seems to only reinforce those views.

Darren Hudson had a few thoughts on the issue, with which I largely agree: 

Overall, Lusk and Anderson found that modest increases in total beef demand (2-3%) would offset any producer costs [Lusk note: subsequent research by Taylor and Tonsor have found no demand response to MCOOL]. But are we focused too myopically on U.S. beef/meat? If we step back and truly think about consumers and the functioning of markets, we have a highly integrated North American livestock complex. Does it help the consumer more to be able to identify which cattle are born in the U.S., or to have an efficient, lower cost movement of livestock to production and processing areas with comparative advantage to do those functions? That includes things like harmonized health and safety inspections and transport rules. Does COOL put a wedge between us and our North American partners so that we do not get those benefits simply for the possible benefit that someone out there would buy a rib-eye steak over another because it was born in the U.S.

The COOL ruling gives us a moment to step back and take stock of what is really important in this argument. I know there are those that value the information provided by the label, and I know there are those that are harmed by it. But we need to think big, strategically, and long-term if we are to remain competitive globally.