Sunday, February 24, 2013

How Accurate is Calorie Information?

Since January of 2011, California law has required restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie information for each food item on all menus in order to give consumers the information they need to make healthy choices when dining out. This may be easy for fast food places to calculate since most of their products are assembled with uniformity and consistency in mind. Each burger always has a specific amount of sauce on it, exactly three pickles, and always on the same bun.

But what about restaurants where the food is actually prepared to order? Counting calories now becomes a tricky operation even though the number is on the menu. Corporate may have formulated a dish to contain one cup of pasta, one tablespoon of butter, and two tablespoons of parmesan cheese in order to calculate the calorie content, but in reality, cooks don't have the time to pre-measure ingredients, especially when the front of the house is packed with customers who wanted their food five minutes ago. One cup of pasta becomes one handful, one tablespoon becomes a spoonful, and two tablespoons of cheese? Just grab some parmesan and add it to the pasta until it looks right. Full service restaurant chains have a much harder time maintaining consistency than fast food and quick service restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden are among those whose menu items have been tested to reveal that they actually have contain more calories than advertised to customers.

So if restaurants can't be consistent, we can count on packaged products to be, right? Not really. Filmmaker Casey Neistat purchased a variety of food products from both markets and fast food restaurants to see if their reported calorie content matched their actual calorie content. With the help of two food scientists and a calorimeter, he found out that even labeled food was not accurate. You can see the full results here:

I understand that for places like Chipotle and Subway, it's easy to deviate from the reported calorie content since the amount of components in the sandwich or burrito varies depending on who's making it (and whether or not you're a nice customer...). But labeled foods are produced in places where portions can be controlled. Of course, I wouldn't expect the reported and actual numbers to be exactly the same, but with such large discrepancies, I can't help but wonder if I'm being lied to every time I buy something packaged.

Surprisingly, lying is legal. After digging around the internet a little, I found out that the FDA (who is responsible for enforcing food labels) allows a 20% margin of error when companies report the caloric content of their product. So that means a frozen dinner that claims to be only 500 calories can actually contain up to 600 calories. This margin gives room for inevitable discrepancies, but is 20% too much of an airbag? Should the Nutrition Facts panel contain some kind of disclaimer?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Food Waste

Along with inconsiderate people, overuse of the work "like," and tailgaters, waste is one of my biggest annoyances. We live in a world where an island of garbage in the middle of the ocean is a real thing and there is no doubt that waste accumulation is becoming an increasingly bigger problem.

Last semester I gave a presentation on food waste for my Ecology class and the statistics I found were surprising, to say the least. In 2011, approximately 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption was wasted, adding up to 1.3 billion tons (about 20% of all global waste) [1]. This includes pre-consumer (contaminated food, trimmings, overproduction) and post-consumer waste (plate scraps, spoiled leftovers, returns). Not only does this reduce Earth's limited space, but it also becomes an environmental problem: water and fossil fuels are consumed for producing food that will end up in the trash, and composting food waste in landfills emits methane and carbon dioxide.

Of course, this 1.3 billion tons of food in the trash is not solely one person's fault. It takes a collective effort to generate that amount of garbage. So I examined the places and people that are responsible for generating the most amounts of waste: the producers, the vendors, and the consumers.

The Producers

As observed during our Food Industry Tour, every company we visited had their own way of dealing with waste. The most impressive program was Gills Onions who invested $10.8 million to create an award-winning system that would turn their onion peels into usable energy. Smaller companies who do not generate that amount of waste rely on cattle and pig farmers who buy the scraps to feed their livestock. This includes anything from misshapen cookies to almond meal to bruised tomatoes. So ironically, waste unsuitable for human consumption is eventually fed to a pig which will ultimately feed you. Produce that is less than appealing can be sent to juicers and plant trimmings from farms can be composted and aerated, to produce nutrient rich fertilizer. Recycling waste in these manners will not only reserve space in landfills, but it also cuts down on the producers' disposal costs.

The Vendors

After food is produced and distributed, it will most likely end up in a restaurant or in your grocery store. As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for  more than five years, I can confidently say that there is a 99.99% chance* that all waste generated in food service ends up in the trash bag to be sent to the landfill. This includes carrot tops, the fat trimmed off your steak, the lemon slice in your water, and the last chicken wing no one wanted to eat because they didn't want to be "that guy." Fortunately, that might change soon. The East Bay Municipal utility District in San Francisco, a city that is always environmentally aware, has implemented a system that converts restaurant waste into energy. Hopefully it is effective enough that the majority of the country will follow.

*The other 0.01% is that hungry server who has been working for six hours straight without a break, so yeah, he'll eat your leftover fries.

Grocery stores, on the other hand, are a bit different and this is where it can get interesting. While it's great to know that your neighborhood store has high standards for the items it sells, what happens to that one dented cantaloupe? Years ago, that melon could have been chopped up behind the deli counter and sold as an on-the-go snack. But not anymore. Your typical grocery store nowadays will prepare most of its food off-site to reduce staff size and labor costs [2]. In addition to mistreated produce, retail food waste includes overstocked items, expired Sell By dates, outdated promotional items, and unpopular products. Interested to find out where my local grocery stores sent their waste, I went on an adventure to Trader Joe's and Sprouts.

Trader Joe's touts itself as "your friendly neighborhood store" so I decided to go there first and find out where its unsold food went. There I met a crew member who was indeed friendly and happy to tell me. Each section of a Trader Joe's has an assigned manager who is in charge of seeing that the shelves are neatly arranged, older items are rotated to the front, and that there is a sufficient amount of inventory in the back room for restocking. These managers are also in charge of ordering items for their respective sections and need to make sure that there is enough, but not too much back stock. It is during this ordering process that managers set goals for themselves to minimize waste. This can be a difficult task since waste is dependent on demand for the product, which can be unpredictable. It is also more difficult for those in charge of the produce section because, unlike peanut butter or cereal, produce can go bad within a short amount of time. Each day, the staff inspects the shelves according to a log that tracks Sell By dates and removes the items that have passed their date. Loose produce does not have a Sell By date but is inspected daily for bruising, blemishes, and softening. Store employees are not allowed to take home or eat the removed items, which are placed in the stock room to be picked up and donated to shelters and soup kitchens. Trader Joe's donates 95% of removed food, a fairly equal amount from each section and enough to fill up several shopping carts daily.

Sprouts Farmers Market is in the same plaza as Trader Joe's but has a very different practice for getting rid of food waste due to it being more of a supermarket than a grocery store. The bulk of their food waste comes from produce which is trucked in everyday in small quantities in order to provide the freshest product and to keep the stock room from filling up. Produce that is no longer fit for sale is taken off of the shelves and thrown into a garbage disposal. Food is not donated for liability reasons. Prepared foods from the deli counter reaching their expiration date as well as overstocked items are put on "Manager's Special" to encourage purchasing, but are thrown away when no longer considered safe to eat. Sprouts minimizes waste from the deli counter by only defrosting what they need (meaning that the potato salad you got on sale wasn't even mixed in the store). Products that are discontinued are placed into a bin in the back room for employees to take and are the only items allowed to be taken by them free of charge.

Some grocery stores try to reduce their waste by lowering prices on meats and prepared foods after a certain time while others try to get rid of their non-perishables by designating a bargain shelf where customers can buy "castaways" for less. I once bought a dark chocolate bar reduced from $6 to $2 because the store decided to stop carrying it. Other chains such as 99 Cents Only fill their shelves with overstock and just-about-to-expire items from regular grocery stores. It's great for when you're on a budget, but you can never rely on them having what you need since their inventory is based on what other stores need to get rid of.

The Consumers

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American throws away $28-43 in the form of about 20 pounds of food each month [3]. As a student who relies on her own money to pay for most things, I've developed a pretty good grasp on how to reduce my food costs and maximize my "food mileage." However, a few of the girls I share a house with have the luxury of a larger budget and don't quite realize the extent of their waste and how it can be avoided. I can't keep track of the number of times that I've seen leftovers turn moldy, unopened bags of produce rot, and quarts of milk curdle. Not only does their spoiled food occupy space in the refrigerator, but it also creates a food safety issue (not to mention a yucky smell). Sell By and Best By dates are also a concept they have yet to learn. These dates are not federally regulated nor are they indicators of safety, but instead are the manufacturer's suggestion for optimal quality [4]. Many unopened foods will be perfectly fine consumed after their Use By dates. Thankfully, the EPA website provides helpful suggestions on how we can reduce our waste and where to donate our excess food.

The goal of this article isn't to scold people for wasting food or to preach that no food ever be thrown away. I simply want everyone to be more aware of how food waste is produced and where it goes. Even if you make the smallest effort to reduce the amount of food you throw away, whether it be using stale bread to make french toast or taking home leftovers from a party, it makes a difference. And with a combined effort, we can significantly reduce the amount of food wasted which has substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits.


[3] [4]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Microfoodology (or Your Next Desktop Background)


Raw meat

Romanesco broccoli

Sugar crystals

Salt crystal

Click HERE to see instant coffee, chocolate, chili pepper, aspartame, and more food up close!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions as a Food Science Student

Food Science is a severely underrated field. While many understand the importance of eating, few understand the processes and technologies responsible for the food on your plate. When I tell people that I am studying Food Science I often find myself lacking the time it takes to explain what exactly this is. So in no particular order, here are the questions I am most frequently asked and my answers.

"So you're going to be a nutritionist/dietician?"

No. But to be honest, that was a path that I considered a few years ago when my grandpa's health started to decline. His diet consisted of mostly pork, beef, and butter, with some bread here and there and needless to say, he's not doing so well now. This inspired me to encourage a more balanced diet to my parents and siblings but I soon realized that giving encouragement and support to people who don't want it won't get you anywhere. They will continue to eat potato chips everyday if they want to. Generally, a nutritionist's job is to provide education and practical instruction to people in areas like sports nutrition, nutrient deficiencies, and use of nutrition to cure and prevent disease. They often work with schools, public health agencies and community organizations. Clinical dieticians have a similar role but work with physicians to prepare meal plans for special diets such as cancer patients, those with high blood pressure, and diabetics. I like food and studying how it works in the human body, but the aspect of meeting with patients who can be stubborn and critical of your plans for them is discouraging and can feel hopeless at times when they refuse to follow your advice. I would much rather provide people with information so that they can educate and motivate themselves to eat what's right for them.

"So you're going to be a Chef?"

As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry since 16, I know that the life of a chef can be exciting. You're able to use a your creativity to make something new and exciting, the stress of the kitchen is exhilarating, and chances are your sous chef knows a guy who knows a guy that can get you any type of drug you can think of. But while I love experimenting with new food and trying new dishes, the life of a chef is not for me. And anyone who has read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain knows exactly what I'm talking about. The Food Network and shows like Top Chef have glamorized the job of a chef to the point where everyone thinks that all you need is talent, some personality, and a good back story. But what they don't show you is that before they were famous, these chefs worked 15+ hour long days, constantly on their feet, surrounded by hot stoves and ovens. Days off are never guaranteed and taking a break is out of the question even if it is required by law because this is a kitchen, not a corporate environment. They've also burned and cut themselves, and have probably sliced off a good chunk of flesh more than once. Not to mention the damage to your ego that occurs when someone sends back your food. So, no, I am not going to become a chef. I will, however, continue to cook and will gladly eat food made by chefs.

"What are you going to do with that?"

Food scientists can do a number of things. Which of them do I want to do? I don't know yet, but as I continue my education, I'm sure I'll figure our what I want to do.

"What's the deal with ____? Are they ok to eat?"

Chances are, if you're asking me this question, then there isn't enough scientific evidence to draw a definite conclusion (eg. plant-derived saturated fats and GMOs). And sorry, I can't answer your question because I'm not a registered dietician or nutritionist. But I'd be happy to point you in the direction of some peer-reviewed papers that may be helpful in your decision!

"So you're going to work for Monsanto and make those GMO things?"

First of all, I would need to improve my molecular genetics skills drastically before even considering a job at any biotechnology company. Second, please don't turn this into an hour-long discussion on why genetically modified organisms are "bad" when, like any company and their product, there are pros and cons to using it. No matter how many arguments you have against it and no matter how many scientific studies I use to counter them, it's obvious that neither of us are going to budge on our opinions. In my opinion, when it comes to the debate of GMOs, there is no right or wrong answer.

So these are my FAQs, but I'm interested in what yours are. Is there anything that people constantly ask you?

Monday, February 4, 2013

National Pancake Day Means FREE Pancakes from IHOP!

I do not work for IHOP nor am I being paid by them to promote this offer. It just so happens that this has to do with breakfast and a good cause, two of my favorite things.

Tuesday, February 5 is National Pancake Day and IHOP is celebrating by offering a short stack to everyone who walks in their door, on the house. All they ask is that you leave a donation (and a tip for your server) for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, an organization that raises funds for 170 nonprofit children's hospitals. Click here for details and to find an IHOP near you!