Think About It

Over the last three weeks, I have come to greatly enjoy this course. However, to say this course was easy would be a lie. The work itself was not too difficult, (unless you can’t read, but then you might have bigger issues…) but there sure was a lot of it. The most challenging aspect of this course was the thinking that came along with the information learned in class. The way I look and think about food has been completely changed since the first day of class. My advice: do not take this course if you are completely content with not knowing what really goes into your food. I cannot go to the store or into Cowan without being skeptical about what really went into the food I am eating. Also, I cannot look at labels or food nutritional information the same way anymore knowing that there are so many regulations about what does not actually have to be included on food labels. It’s hard wanting to know yet simultaneously not wanting to know what is in your food all at the same time; it is very conflicting.

Despite this, the class as a whole was very enjoyable. The most enjoyable parts were the lab activities. They were surprisingly helpful; it was nice to actually see the differences in flour and gluten by making and trying different types of bread. Plus, they served as a great reprieve to a three-hour long class.

All this being said, there is some advice I would give to future students: go into this course with an open mind. You will be shocked, and food will never be the same, but just know that ideas and conceptions can change. Many people are uncomfortable with this, but accepting the fact that you will change how you look at industry, agriculture, and food will make this course a much more smooth-sailing one.

Enjoy.

The Making of Maker’s

Many of the differences between Wilderness Trace and Maker’s Mark stem from the long established history of the Maker’s Mark Distillery. When it comes down to history, Maker’s and Wilderness Trace are complete opposites. While Maker’s Mark is the oldest established bourbon distillery, Wilderness Trace has yet to bottle or sell any of its product. Similarly, much of the distilling process at Maker’s is based on long-practiced tradition. For example, the process of fermentation at Maker’s takes place in huge, wooden-planked vats that have been used for years and come from a very specific type of wood. Wilderness Trace, on the other hand, ferments its one small batch in a small metal container. Similarly, despite the lack of efficiency, Maker’s rotates their barrels in the warehouses (which are open to the air on the bottom to regulate the temperature) every three years to ensure that all the barrels taste the same. Meanwhile, Wilderness Trace has yet to even need to move their barrels. Wilderness Trace Distillery, in comparison, just began producing its own product. Instead of having a rich history of alcohol production, it started as a company hired to help other companies improve the taste of their alcohol using chemistry. Despite Maker’s insistence on tradition, there are new innovations being made using chemistry as well. Both distilleries have chemistry labs on sight to test and monitor the alcohol flowing through their facilities. Maker’s, though, also has a panel of workers to taste and smell the bourbon at different stages of production to further insure quality and uniformity. Thus, it can be noted that many of the differences between the two distilleries come from the sheer difference in their backgrounds.

This being said, there are a few fundamental differences in the way these two distilleries choose to produce their bourbon. For example, Maker’s uses a sour mash (where they add part of the last batch’s mash to the mash) while Wilderness Trace uses a sweet mash to produce their bourbon. Both use a combination of pot still and column distillers to distill their alcohol, but Wilderness Trace uses the pot still first while Maker’s has it as the second step in the distilling process. Other than this, the process of the production is largely the same between the two. It was interesting to see how many similarities existed between the two very different distilleries. Most important was the emphasis on quality and taste that both put so highly. Even though Maker’s is so much larger, the company is not nearly as industrialized as I imagined; they strive to achieve a high level of quality rather than a high level of production. Thus, it is this goal that ties the two together most. Despite this, it is clear that the two produce the same, yet clearly different, quality product.

Benzaldehyde

Benzaldehyde is a member of the aldehyde family and is the simplest aromatic aldehyde. It consists of a -CHO group attached to a benzene ring, having the formula C6H5CHO. It is a colorless liquid with a distinctly almond-like odor. This makes sense, as benzaldehyde is the chemical compound in almonds responsible for giving their “almond-y” taste. Pure benzaldehyde gives a bitter almond flavor and is found in both natural and artificial almond flavorings. Though benzaldehyde tastes like almonds, it is also found in many fruits such as peaches, apricots, and figs. This is because these and other fruits high in the compound amygdalin can produce benzaldehyde as amygdalin breaks into benzaldehyde, hydrocyanic acid, and two molecules of glucose when catalyzed by enzymes.

Benzaldehyde was first extracted from almonds in 1803 and shortly after, in 1832, was synthesized in a lab for the first time. Now, benzaldehyde is almost exclusively synthesized and industrially produced. In fact, more than 18 million kilograms of synthetic benzaldehyde are produced annually per country. Benzaldehyde is synthesized through the chlorination and oxidation of toluene or through the oxidation of benzyl alcohol. The synthesis of benzaldehyde through the oxidation of benzyl alcohol helps give it its classification as an aldehyde, as aldehydes must have a -CHO group as well as be formed by the oxidation of an alcohol.

Despite the fact that benzaldehyde is largely synthesized, there are no real health risks associated with its consumption. It can be found in a wide variety of foods, including frozen dairy products, baked goods, and candies. The consumption of benzaldehyde has not proven to be carcinogenic and benzaldehyde has been deemed as safe by the FDA. The USEPA, on the other hand, has classified benzaldehyde as a hazardous substance. This is not due to risks associated with consumption, however. As a pure liquid, benzaldehyde is highly flammable. Also, prolonged overexposure to benzaldehyde vapors can be irritating to the upper respiratory tract and can eventually lead to central nervous system depression or respiratory failure. No consumer would ever be subject to this type of exposure, though, so benzaldehyde can be deemed safe to eat and keep around the house in the form of almond extract. The main problem with benzaldehyde is that it has the potential to be extremely detrimental if released into the soil or water. However, this is not an extremely pertinent issue but rather serves as a warning to synthetic benzaldehyde producers. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with consuming as much benzaldehyde as you want. Almond is a great flavor and the chemical that gives it its almond taste causes no harm, so enjoy all the almond flavored treats your heart desires!

 

Awfully Corny

The one thing that I will never forget from this class can be summed up in one word: corn. It is safe to say that I will never look corn in the same way ever again. Corn is not just a yellow vegetable anymore. Corn is meat; it is feed for animals. Corn is processed food. Corn is a representation of the corrupt industrial agricultural system. How is it possible for corn to be so many things yet look so simple?

There are so many displeasing things about corn and its production that I will ever be able to forget. First, corn is in everything. Literally everything. Corn can be processed down to the very molecules that make it up. Since corn is so overproduced, large quantities are able to be processed into different chemicals and molecules like sugar. Because corn can be broken down into such a wide array of molecules and there is such a large abundance of corn, it is only natural that these processed corn products make up all processed foods. For some reason, this makes me very wary. It just sounds bad that there is corn in almost everything we eat; it really do not like knowing this. I know that it is not even necessarily a bad thing either, but it still bothers me. I cannot eat food anymore without thinking about how much corn there really is in my food. The statement by Pollan that we eat about a ton of corn in a year haunts me. Granted, this has caused me to eat less processed food. This, however, is only slightly comforting as I know that I am still relentlessly eating corn when eating meat.

Another reason that I will never forget about the impact of corn is because of its presence in meat. “You are what you eat eats” after all. And almost all meat nowadays is fed corn. I also find this very disturbing,  as cows are made to eat grass. It breaks my heart hearing about how feeding cows corn will make them sick over time and about how animals are treated so horribly in CAFOs. Avoiding eating corn-fed meat sounds easy enough to do, but it is not. It is becoming harder and more expensive to buy grass-fed and pasture-raised meat. After visiting Marksbury farms, the difference between grass-fed and corn-fed meat has become even more apparent. We as humans should not be consuming as much corn as we do and animals definitely should not be eating corn either. It is completely unnatural, and for this reason I will not forget how much corn goes into the meat we eat.

Last, corn represents all that is wrong with industrialized agriculture. Though I may be more inclined to forget this, for now it is ingrained in my mind. Large companies ( Monsanto, cough cough) who develop genetically modified seed will ruthlessly go after small farmers for no legitimate reason and claim they had “suspicion” to believe the small farmers were breaking patent laws. It seems so wasteful and illogical to me to have to buy new seeds every year, and it is just wrong for big companies to bankrupt small farmers for no reason at all other than to assert dominance and fear. It is just wrong. It almost makes me want to stop eating corn and corn products from these companies but then I remember that it is impossible to do so… For these reasons, I will never forget the impact of corn on agriculture and on all the food we eat and learning about corn has definitely had the greatest impact on me and how I look at the food industry as a whole.

Bourbon

The process of making bourbon is a long, multistep process. First, you must start with a combination of milled grains and corn. For the drink to be considered “bourbon” it must contain at least 51% corn. The rest of the grain can be either barley or rye. Next, malted grains are added that have started the germination process. Malting releases the natural enzymes that are in the germinated grain that convert the starches to sugar, which eventually leads to the formation of alcohol. This completes the process of mashing. The mash is then fermented by adding yeast to the mixture. Yeast feed off of the sugars released in the mash, forming ethanol and carbon dioxide as byproducts. Wilderness Trace Distillery lets their bourbon ferment for three to three and a half days. By the end of fermentation, the alcohol can be collected from the mash. The alcohol is then distilled, which can be done by using pot still or column distillation. Either way, the alcohol is heated until the different components reach their boiling points and vaporize. The whole process of distillation revolves around the differing boiling points of the substances that were also collected after fermentation. Distillation allows for the head and tail to be separated from the heart of the alcohol, cleansing the product and separating out the potentially harmful chemicals that were previously present that distillers do not want in their bourbon. At this time, the desired proof for barreling can be adjusted for and the alcohol is ready for barreling. Bourbon must be aged in a new charred white oak barrel for at least two years. The charred barrel gives the bourbon its color and added rich flavors. The longer the bourbon is aged, the stronger these flavors become. Typically, bourbon is aged anywhere between two and five years. After aging is complete, the bourbon is bottled and sold.

After visiting Wilderness Trace Distillery, I learned that boiling points are crucial for the distillation process. They are able to separate out unwanted chemicals by vaporizing and re-condensing the alcohol at different temperatures to cleanse the product. The more times this process occurs, the higher the proof of alcohol will be coming out of the distiller. For example, vodka is distilled twelve more times than bourbon to get the extremely pure alcohol. Before visiting the distillery, I had no idea how much chemistry was involved in the whole process of making bourbon. Our visit further solidified the extent to which chemistry is involved in food (and drink) production that I was not aware of before taking this class.

Changes…

Before this class, I had never really thought about my food a whole lot. I mean, I had considered what was healthy and what was not, but I had never really thought about what goes into my food as much as I have since the beginning of this class. In fact, saying that reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, visiting Marksbury Farms, watching Food, Inc., and learning about GMO’s has changed the way I view food would be a vast understatement.

I must admit that I am one of those consumers who has become completely detached from food, agriculture as a whole, and the land. I never imagined just how industrial, mechanized, and corrupt the whole food system has become over time. I don’t know if I was just choosing to ignore what was happening with agriculture and the food industry or if I was really just clueless as to what was actually taking place. Either way, there is no ignoring the fact that food is not just food anymore; it is corn. Specifically, it is processed corn. Before reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I had no idea the extent to which corn was in our diet. It is disgusting to think about the fact that each person consumes a ton of processed corn in a year and to think that I (and I would assume the majority of the general population) had no idea that it was happening. Now, I cannot look at food or a nutritional label without seeing the endless amount of processed corn and corn products that is in the food. When I eat, the fact that I am largely consuming processed corn products now lingers at the back of my mind. For better or for worse, though, knowing this has made me more conscious about what and what goes into the food that I eat.

Similarly, after watching Food, Inc. and reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, meat is no longer just meat. Meat is corn. Meat is inhumane treatment of animals with no regard to their health. Before this class, I never used to take into consideration (or care, really) where my meat came from or what it was being fed. It really hit a nerve with me to read about how detrimental a diet of corn is to the animals we eat. I don’t really care if there is surplus corn or not. When I go out to eat or eat in Cowan, I am now curious as to whether the meat I was eating was unnaturally corn-fed or not. Like I said, this class has changed the way I think about food by making me much more aware as to what exactly is in the food I eat.

Despite this, knowing that GMOs are in my food has changed my thoughts on food the least. Before learning more about GMOs, I already had a base understanding of what they were and how they were made. I did not know, though, exactly the extent to which GMOs are in the food we eat. I am interested to know exactly how prevalent they are in our food, but the fact that we are eating genetically modified food does not really effect me in any way. In fact, it is more incredible that science can do such things. I don’t really understand why genetically modified organisms are such a controversial topic… In all, learning about what goes into my food (with the exception of DNA) has greatly changed the way that I think about food in general and has made me much more conscious about what I am eating.

Our Fatal Character Flaw

In Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Berry addresses three crises currently plaguing american society: a crisis of character, agriculture, and culture. While it is clear that there are indeed claims to support all three arguments, it is most clear that the crisis of agriculture is a direct consequence of our flawed character and culture.

The real problem that Berry notes is that we, as a country, have so indefinitely separated ourselves from the land. But why? The answer lies in the typical american today. It comes as no surprise when Berry notes that America “has shifted its emphasis, and its interest, from quality to quantity,” (42). Why is this not a surprise? Because people (especially now) always are wanting more. One of the most obvious character traits that we possess as a country is that we are reckless consumers. As consumers, our current goal is to make more money in order to buy more things. When we buy these “things” (including food), we want them to be as cheap as possible and also want to accumulate as much as possible. There will never be a time when anyone decides they have enough and starts “responsibly consuming” by buying only the things they need and in as limited quantities as possible. Having more things and more money to buy things is a status symbol. Consequently, industry and agriculture conformed to this demand for more and in the end, easily sacrificed quality for quantity. When this mechanization hit agriculture, though, is where the real ecological problem began.

Our nature as consumers and our culture of exploitative industry has lead directly to the downfall of agriculture. As people become increasingly separated from the land (becoming solely consumers rather than producers), the relationship between people and the land completely disintegrates. Agriculture, in order to meet the demand of the ever-demanding American society, has become completely industrialized. Nowhere does the “quality vs quantity” debate come more into play. In order to mass produce food as “agribusiness” sees fit, farms needed to become bigger and have better technology and equipment to stay afloat and compete. This industrial upgrading of farms and equipment is never ending: there will always be more and better technology for the farmer to purchase in order to keep up with the growing agricultural production rates. Not only is the producer now turned into a consumer, but small farms and farmers are being overrun by the bigger and more industrialized “farms”. Go big or go home is the name of the game now. The problem with this is that the sole goal of industrial farms is maximized production with no consideration to the health of the land whatsoever. This type of agriculture is virtually destroying our land and the “agribusinessmen” responsible for such destruction think nothing of it, deeming it a necessary sacrifice for such “extraordinary production” (much like the displacement of small farms, it is all necessary for the goal of efficiently maximizing production). While the quantity of farms may be going down, the size of these farms are going up and most notably,, the quality of their products and their land are significantly decreasing. If our culture was not one of competitive consumers, this agricultural crisis would have largely been averted. Thus, it can be concluded that agricultural crisis today directly stemmed both from our flawed character individually and corrupt consumerist culture.

More GMOs, Please

I can see it now: my mom having a panic attack after finding out that she had been eating genetically modified food without even realizing. My dad, on the other hand, would not really care and continue eating his meal anyway. To soothe my mom, I would tell her that GMO’s are nothing to be worried about. I would first explain how eating transgenic foods will not cause health problems. Despite how it sounds, the fact that there is foreign DNA in your food does not actually alter the composition of the food all that much. Corn is still corn even if it can withstand pesticides and tomatoes are still the same tomatoes even if they can survive in cooler temperatures. It is not like transgenic foods have chemicals in them or are dangerous for human consumption in any way, they simply have different DNA. For example, tomatoes are a food that are commonly eaten in our household. There are types of genetically modified tomatoes that are resistant to “frost and cold storage” that have become this way through the addition of a gene from the arctic flounder (“Genetically Modified Tomatoes”). Flounder is edible and if eaten by itself, no one would think twice about eating its DNA. So why question the safety when the same DNA is inserted into another source of food?

Next, I would try to explain how GMOs are not even that bad for the environment, either. Yes, I would acknowledge that there are some fears regarding the potential for cross-pollination. This is a valid point to make. However, the only problem this causes is when companies that produce GMOs (like Monsanto) come after farmers who were not originally using GMOs but whose crops had been contaminated by GMO seed due to wind or other natural circumstances. While this is notably unfair to the unsuspecting farmer, this does not pose a real threat to the environment. Many people argue the potential for “super weeds” and other resistant plants as a result of cross-pollination with genetically modified crops. If this were to actually happen on a large scale, which seems highly unlikely, a new and stronger pesticide can be developed or people could pull out the weeds by hand and avoid the use of chemicals all together. Cross-pollination with genetically modified plants does not cause some large and permanent threat to the world of agriculture. Similarly, there would be no way that the foreign DNA inserted into the plants could be transferred to non-plant life, as foreign DNA would never be accepted by these organisms. Thus, GMOs really can cause no serious harm to the environment. In fact GMOs are actually safer for the environment, especially those that are altered to be pesticide resistant. Chemical pesticides are no longer needed, eliminating the extremely detrimental side effects that these pesticides can cause. Less chemical pesticides means less runoff into water and less toxins spread in the air that can be ingested by humans and later cause serious health problems. On top of this, the precious soil and soil life will not be destroyed, which is critical for the health of the crops and for the longevity of the land in general. Thus, in my eyes, GMOs can only do good for the health of the environment and do absolutely nothing to the health of the consumer. It is a win-win situation, Mom.

 

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/dna/pop_genetic_gallery/index.html

Is all science for good?

I would definitely be lying if I said that this class has not changed the way I look at food and, more drastically, the way I look at science as a whole. Up until recently, I had generally thought that science in the realm of food was a good thing. That being said, I had never really thought too much about the subject before. I knew that chemicals were used on produce and that most meat was corn-fed when supposedly grass-fed meat was actually the good stuff. But none of that really bothered me. Until now.

The thing that really gets me going about science and the food industry is corn. I honestly just cannot comprehend the fact that virtually everything we eat has corn. Not even real corn corn, but molecules that come from corn. What. At first thought, it seems incredible that the realm of science and agriculture has become so advanced as to be able to use the entirety of the corn plant to produce chemicals and other minute particles that can be found in almost every processed food as well as in plastics and waxes and even fuel (in the form of ethanol). Think too much about this though, like I have since taking this class, and this fact becomes almost terrifying to believe. Literally everything you will eat from the grocery store has corn. I mean, what if I do not want to eat corn in my meal? The food options that contain zero corn-based products are dwindling, making eating a meal without corn even harder to do. I knew that our food was processed, but I never wanted to know that our food is so scientifically altered that it can be used in the processing of other food. It’s great that science can accomplish these things but its power is almost daunting. Even though many of the products derived from corn are not actually that bad when added into food, the fact that it is everywhere further emphasizes the all-reaching influence that science has in food. And that is a little frightening.

However, beyond reconsidering the scope of science, my eyes have been opened to how much science there really is in food. Of course I knew that there were fats, proteins, lipids, and sugars in food. I never really understood the science behind how certain foods behave as they do and the science behind food as it changes when cooked, like how eggs act as emulsifying agents due to the fact that they have molecules attracted to both polar and nonpolar substances. Also, I had never really thought to incorporate my knowledge from general chemistry with the science in food, such as learning that redox reactions occur in foods, especially when considering the browning of fruit.  So, it is safe to say that this class opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about science: as related to food. As I have discovered, this can be both an interesting and a slightly disconcerting thing… Either way, this class has brought the science behind food to the front of my mind.

McNever Eating That Again…

When reflecting on Pollan’s two meals, it is clear that the two can hardly be compared. Pollan’s McDonald’s meal and his local, fresh, grass-fed meal are on two completely different levels. In fact, Pollan does not even bother to compare the two, inherently noting their differences instead. The most obvious difference that Pollan notes is the extreme difference between corn-fed and grass-fed food. Pollan’s meal from McDonald’s was literally corn. Every single food item in the meal from McDonald’s had corn without really containing any corn (traditional sense). The meat – the little real meat that there was – was corn-fed. Thus, relating back the importance of the phrase “you are what you eat eats.” On top of that, processed corn products made up a large percentage of every other meal item (averaging more than 50% of all the food items). This is completely contrasted with the composition of the meal in chapter 14. All of the food was fresh, not containing large quantities of processed corn. In addition, the chicken was grass-fed; this means that the chicken was actually eating what chickens are biologically made to eat. As a result, the quality of the food was much higher than any fast food could even strive to be. Another difference to be noted is that both meals seem to be dependent on one thing: corn in the fast food meal and the chicken in the home cooked meal. Like it has been noted, the entirety of the fast food meal was dependent on and was centered around corn; it was the essential ingredient for the meal and not one item on the menu actually contained corn! Meanwhile, the home-grown and home-cooked meal was equally as dependent on the figure of the chicken. Like Pollan notes, the main dish he serves is a freshly killed and cooked, grass-fed chicken. The dessert was also dependent on those same chickens, as they were the ones who provided the farm fresh eggs for the soufflé. Pollan even notes that the corn (ironically) was the result of the chickens, “grown in a deep bed of composted chicken manure,” (265). Last, Pollan notes the difference in the nutritional quality of the meals. It is no secret that a fast food meal is extremely unhealthy and that a fresh meal is significantly healthier, but Pollan goes further into the chemical composition of both to explain why. It is said that in McDonald’s chicken nuggets alone there are 38 ingredients, including many “synthetic ingredients” that are not really even supposed to be edible like dimethylpolysiloxene and tertiary butylhydroquinone (113). Meanwhile, the grass-fed meat and eggs in Pollan’s other meal are much better for you than even the healthiest meals containing the corn-fed version due to the presence of things like conjugated linoleic acid that “may help reduce weight and prevent cancer” (267). Most importantly, grass-fed products contain much higher levels omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to the body and significantly lacking in the modern corn-based diet.

It is obvious, then, that these meals are clearly different in Pollan’s eyes, or really anyone’s eyes for that matter. There is no way that these meals could be considered to be the same in any way. Yes, they both relied on one central item, but the McDonald’s meal that was centered around corn did not actually contain unprocessed corn in the meal itself. Thus, I find it would be difficult to equate these two meals for any reason.

When considering the differences between these two meals, though, I think that more than just the composition of these meals must be considered. What stood out the most to me was that the quality of the meals corresponded to the quality of the experience of the meal as well. For example, Pollan noted that the whole family finished their meal in the car in under 10 minutes and purposely did not take the time to enjoy or savor the meal. On the other hand, Pollan prepared by hand his grass-fed meal and enjoyed it in the company of good friends, taking the time to note every fresh flavor of the meal. Thus, it is without a doubt that the two meals Pollan has presented are different in almost every way possible, for better or for worse.

 

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.