Here’s a fascinating piece on the sources of food myths, and the scientific truth about MSG: How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia, written by Anna Maria Barry-Jester for FiveThirtyEightScience.

MSG was developed in Japan as a flavour enhancer, and was popular in North America for more than half a century.
But then…

In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from a doctor complaining about radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He mused that cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might be to blame. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints…

In other words, anecdotes and confirmation bias. Early research seemed to support the anecdotes. But…

Subsequent research has found that the vast majority of people, even those claiming a sensitivity to MSG, don’t have any reaction when they don’t know they are eating it….
…a small subset of people do have negative reactions that are directly due to glutamate, but the science to date shows that is likely to be a rare phenomenon.


“It was the misfortune of Chinese cooks to be caught with the white powder by their stoves when the once-praised flavor enhancer suddenly became a chemical additive.” [emphasis added]

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Are Hybrid Fruits & Vegetables Safe?

Are hybrid fruits & vegetables safe? The short answer from this educated layperson is “yes, of course, generally.”

I’m not terribly worried about the dangers of the limequat, or the ugli fruit or the plumquat.

But still. To the best of my knowledge, none of them has ever been tested — that is, subjected to the sorts of long-term safety assessment that would involve feeding these things to generations of, say, mice or rats. The sort of assessment that critics of GMOs typically insist ought to be done on, say, Roundup Ready soybean.

The question arises because, in a very plain sense, hybrids are genetically modified foods, crosses between plants from two different species. But when people worry about GMOs, almost no one is ever thereby worrying about hybrids.

There are quite a few online sources that attempt to reassure people about the safety of hybrids, while at the same time demonizing genetically modified foods (i.e., GMOs in the modern sense). All such sources that I’ve found so far are full of fallacious reasoning — faulty logic through and through. There are claims that hybrids are “natural” whereas GMOs are not. There is no more common error in online debates over food than the mistaken assumption that natural means “safe” and artificial means “dangerous.” (Is naturally-occurring cyanide safe?) Such defences of hybrids also tend to be factually misinformed (‘hybrids are more nutritious’ or ‘GMOs always combine DNA from different sources’). False, and false.

Consider this: when a scientist creates a new kind of apple by, say, deleting the gene known to code for some particular trait (say, its flesh browning when exposed to air), it has to go through a scientific assessment before it can be sold. But hybridize two apple varieties — or cross an apple with a plum — any number of genes get scrambled, and no scientific or regulatory scrutiny is required at all. If blind faith in hybrids isn’t based on pure emotion and prejudice, what is it based on?

This blog entry was reposteded over at the Biology Fortified blog, where, at 301 comments, it was their most discussed posting of 2015.

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Uncompromising Veganism

These days vegetarianism and veganism come in dozens of varieties. There are part-time vegans, flexitarians, and those who observe “Meatless Mondays,” just to name a few examples. And some of us (me included) take an approach according to which we try to reduce the harms inherent in eating animals by reducing consumption, rather than adhering to a strict rule. Whether that makes sense or not depends on the basis for your dietary restrictions.

Here’s an interesting discussion of the problem:

When Vegans Won’t Compromise, by By Bob Fischer and James McWilliams for the NY Times.

…Strict veganism, of course, would be better on all counts. But any tactic that aims to lower demand for animal bodies has a moral benefit — not because it’s the ideal, but precisely because it isn’t. These compromises are responses to reality that lower demand for animal products far more than the vegan fringe, however ideologically pure, ever could….

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Artisanal Water

What could be more authentic than artisanal water? What could be more hilarious? Check out this great Parody of Artisanal Food Makers. It’s a lovely sendup of the view that food ethics is really all about authentic experiences and food with ‘soul’.

See also this Authenticity Hoax Interview, which includes a critique of the craze for all things artisanal, as well as Culinary Modernism: A Defence of Processed Foods

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Should Food Grown in Space Be Labelled?

Photo by NASA

Photo by NASA

People are big on food labels. Some people want labels on genetically modified foods. Others want foods labeled if they contain so-called “pink slime” (LFTB, or ‘lean finely textured beef’). Others want animal welfare labels. Lots of concerns, for reasons good and bad. For my part, I’ve argued before that labelling isn’t always the answer.

What about food grown in space? A recent story revealed that astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been dining on red romaine lettuce grown aboard the station. The question occurs to me: were it available to the public, should space-lettuce and other space-grown foods be labeled? It’s obviously not for sale on earth — and likely never will be. NASA wants to figure out how to grow food in space so that it can be eaten during space exploration and colonization. But that doesn’t mean the labelling of space-grown food, sold here on Earth, is not an interesting hypothetical question.

One of the characteristics that tends to make people ask for labelling is when the food is produced in some way that is seen as “unnatural.” It’s hard to imagine anything that fits the bill better than space-grown lettuce:

Each of the six planting “pillows” [seed beds] had a growth medium that includes a type of clay used on baseball fields and controlled-release fertilizer. Red, blue and green LED lights and water injections activated the seeds and allowed them to flourish for 33 days of growth.

Oh, and all of this is done under zero-gravity conditions.

The result? Astronauts reported that the lettuce was somewhat bitter. More information about nutritional composition and microbial activity will have to wait until chemical analysis is completed by NASA scientists back on earth. And if that analysis reveals that space lettuce is fundamentally the same as Earth lettuce? Surely that would obviate the need for labelling, in the very hypothetical case of selling space-grown produce on Earth. Some people would surely still call for labelling — namely, the people who are currently calling for labelling of GMOs. Some such people point out that we “don’t know the long-term effects” of GMOs, because they haven’t been subjected to long-term controlled trials.

Well, the same goes for space food. Such food never will be subjected to long-term controlled trials, either in space or on Earth. But they’ll be tested here on Earth for toxicity and nutritional composition. Stuff that matters. And then astronauts on long missions will eat them, and enjoy them, and be glad of them. How unnatural is that?

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Who Feeds Farmers?


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Food Ethics vs The Food Movement

Paul Thompson is one of the real stars of the food ethics realm. He’s a smart philosopher and well informed about the relevant issues. In the blog entry linked below, he considers the difference between the “food movement” and what he calls simply “food ethics.”

Real change in food systems needs real ethics

…it is not clear to me that the “social movement” framing is the best way to understand food justice…
…“Food ethics” is less sure that we have the answers than the food movement, but it shares many of the same concerns with our existing food system. Food ethics would be the cultivation and dissemination of a more reflective, more open-minded and more compassionate consideration of the way that food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed at both local and global scales. It sees many of our current problems as a failure to think broadly and deeply enough about food and agriculture. It hopes to mobilize the resources of philosophical ethics—a rich moral vocabulary and a willingness to engage in serious debate—both as social critique but also within the corridors where key decisions about food system policy and practice are currently made….

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