Round Up Ready: Gluten Edition

Gluten, or rather gluten intolerance, has been making a lot of headlines the past couple of years, and thanks to a recent article there is the suggestion that non-celiac gluten intolerance in bunk. So here is a round-up of some of the information about this recent gluten controversy (not to be confused with “articles” which blame Roundup® for all the ails of the human body, including celiac disease and gluten intolerance, note: reading these articles are a great opportunity to test your critical reading skills).

First up some background information, mainly, what is gluten? Jimmy Kimmel recently asked a bunch of fitness enthusiasts, many of whom practice gluten free diets, that very question.

ASAPScience took a bit more of a scientific approach in answering that question.

Both of these videos rightfully note that there is a significant portion of the population (~ 2 million, or 1 in every 141 Americans) that has celiac disease, for which eating gluten has very serious and unpleasant effects. The latter video also notes that there is a portion of the population that has non-celiac gluten intolerance. This discovery stemmed from a 2011 paper which, based on a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial (pretty much a gold standard), concluded that a non-celiac gluten intolerance may exist, but they weren’t able to determine a mechanism by which to support this conclusion. This paper helped usher in an era of awareness about gluten intolerance as well as a boom in the availability of gluten-free products.

However, the authors weren’t quite satisfied with their results and wanted to explore the issue further. They designed a more rigorous study, aiming to control some of the factors they weren’t able to in their 2011 study, involving 37 non-celiac subjects who self reported as feeling better on a gluten-free diet. In this new study (published in August 2013 to little fanfare until Real Clear Science brought it to light on May 14th), subjects were provided with all of their meals which allowed the researchers to removed any other dietary triggers which might confound their results, such as lactose, benzoates, propionate, sulfites, nitrites, and what would turn out to be most import, fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates or FODMAPs (the short hand coming from fermentable, oligo-, di-, mono–saccharides and polyols). In the study the subjects were fed a diet low in FODMAPs for two weeks to establish a baseline, then they were randomly and blindly assigned to one of three diets (low gluten, high gluten, or placebo, which was whey protein) for a week. Over the course of the study each subject was exposed to each diet, allowing them to act as their own control. The results are a bit confusing, but in each treatment, whether it included gluten or not, subjects reported a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms. A secondary experiment, where the placebo was the exact same as the baseline diet, still saw subjects reporting a worsening of symptoms! The short of it was, that subjects were reporting gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause, this is not a placebo, but rather a nocebo effect, which New York Magazine writes about quite nicely. This suggests that gluten’s horrible image, which is perpetuated by some best selling books and questionable TV personalities, is enough to set off a very real negative physical response (e.g., bloating, general gastro discomfort) in some people after they have eaten it.

In addition to somewhat exonerating gluten in its role in gastro distress, this paper casts light onto a new food villain, FODMAPs. The results demonstrate that a reduction of FODMAPs in the subjects diets uniformly reduced gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue. Some of the largest dietary sources of FODMAPs are bread products, so by going gluten-free, you also reduce your FODMAPs intake (and possibly even increase your calorie and fat content as many gluten-free foods, such as gluten-free pizza crust, need to add extra calories and fat to make a crust that tastes good and holds itself together, but that is another issue). While this study does have some very interesting conclusions, it is just one study, with a very small and unique population, and as always, more research is needed.

So for the millions of people who have felt better after going gluten free, consider that it might not have been the gluten that was the culprit, but FODMAPs, or a nocebo. Eating food should be fun, and should only ever be complicated or restrictive when there are valid scientific and medical reasons, and not because of a fad or TV personality claims.

A local Guelph barbershop. I think I will hold out for the FODMAPs free cuts.

A local Guelph barbershop was quick to jump on the gluten free bandwagon. I think I will hold out for the FODMAPs free cuts.


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Round Up Ready: Asparagus Edition

With June coming to an end, we are approaching the sad end of asparagus season here in Ontario. I had my first Asparagus of the season back in April while in San Francisco, it was fresh from the farmers market, and perfectly grilled on the BBQ. Grilled is without a doubt one of the best ways to eat asparagus, and below is a round up of some of the other great ways we’ve enjoyed asparagus this season.

1. Straight up raw

Fresh bunch of asparagus

2. Pickled, is an excellent way to ensure you enjoy Ontario asparagus year round, a great recipe can be found here, but definitely play around with it to suit your tastes. The batch pictured below had garlic, mustard seeds, pepper corns, red pepper flakes, fresh dill, and a lemon slice. Spicy pickled asparagus make great garnishes for Caesars.

Pickled asparagus

3. Pan-fried with a poached egg, pretty self explanatory, fresh pepper and Bacon Salt really helped to compensate for the slightly over cooked egg.

Pan fried with a poached egg

4. Asparagus risotto, a slight modification of this recipe, instead of chicken stock, we used vegetable with a couple of stalks of asparagus pureed into the stock.

Asparagus risotto

5. Asparagus antipasto, this jar of Barrie’s Farm Asparagus Smokey Antipasto was bought in Grand Bend at Foodies, and was a great side for a raclette brunch.


6. Potato salad, we modified this recipe, opting not to roast the potatoes as our apartment was already roasting

Potato and asparagus salad

7. Pasta primavera, this was just a quick pre-frisbee meal with sauteed vegetables tossed in with pasta

Asparagus with pasta

8. Asparagus Tart, we have previously tried this recipe with tomatoes, and it held up nicely with asparagus.

Asparagus tart

9. Bacon wrapped asparagus, like most foods, asparagus can be a great vehicle for bacon

Asparagus wrapped in bacon

Hope you have enjoyed these tips, happy eating.

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SCOTUS Decision on Bowman v. Monsanto Co.

Today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the Bowman v. Monsanto Co. case in favor of Monsanto. The Atlantic described the case as a story about technology and innovation and investment, about legal standards and appellate precedent and statutory intent, about the nature of nature and how the law ought to answer the basic question of who owns the rights to the seeds of planted seeds“.  The case centers around 75 year old* Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, and his decision to plant a second crop of soybeans. Below is a brief overview of the case and some of the implications of the verdict.

*(every article about this case needs to point out his age)

Background Information

Obligatory file photo showing a farmer holding Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soybean seeds (AP Photo/Dan Gill, File)

Obligatory file photo showing a farmer holding Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybean seeds (AP Photo/Dan Gill, File)

For a thorough and legalese heavy primer on the case, read the summary put together by the Cornell University Law School, here, for a less technical primer, continue reading. Mr. Bowman had originally purchased Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybeans and planted them as his main crop in the spring. When a farmer buys seed for planting (genetically engineered or not), that seed usually has a contract associated with it that says that the farmer can not replant the harvested grain, Mr. Bowman signed that standard licensing agreement. Up until this point everything is on the straight and narrow, but then Mr. Bowman decided to plant his second crop of soybeans later that year, but he didn’t want to pay for Monsanto’s seed, instead Mr. Bowman purchased his seeds from a grain elevator, what are commonly called “commodity seeds”. The grain elevator would contain the harvest from local farmers, the majority of whom would have likely used Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. In their licensing agreement Monsanto authorizes growers to sell second-generation seed to local grain elevators as a commodity, without restricting grain elevators’ subsequent sales of that seed. Biofortified notes that “the natural and foreseeable purpose of commodity soybean grain is for feed, processing into oil and textured vegetable protein, etc – the purpose is to enter the food supply, not to be planted“.

Mr. Bowman planted these commodity seeds, without a licensing agreement, and used Roundup as a weed control on this second crop. In choosing Roundup Mr. Bowman ensured that only soybeans with the resistance trait (i.e., Roundup Ready soybeans) would flourish in the crop. According to The Atlantic, Mr. Bowman repeated this practice from 2000 through 2007, and unlike his first planting, he saved the seeds (those selected by him through his use of Roundup to contain the Roundup Ready trait) from his subsequent harvests and replanted them as additional second-crops in later years.

Enter the Courts

Monsanto filed suit against Mr. Bowman claiming that by not buying seeds for each generation he had infringed upon their patents associated with genetically engineered soybeans, which contain patented biotechnology that enables the plants to tolerate glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Mr. Bowman contended that Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted once he bought the seeds and that use of progeny seeds is an expected use of the product. Monsanto responded that in the case of self-replicating technologies the patent extends to the technology, in this case, herbicide resistance, rather than the seed itself.

The Federal Circuit upheld a District Court decision awarding Monsanto $84,456.20 in damages for violation of their patented technology, reasoning that Monsanto’s herbicide resistant technology was covered by patent regardless of whether it was the original seed or a product of the original seeds. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court, where it was argued on February 19, 2013, the full transcript is available here. After the arguments were heard, many news outlets and organizations seemed to think that the decision would once again favor Monsanto, and on May 13, 2013, Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court ruling in favor of Monsanto. From the opinion:

By planting and harvesting Monsanto’s patented seeds, Bowman made additional copies of Monsanto’s patented invention, and his conduct thus falls outside the protections of patent exhaustion. Were this otherwise, Monsanto’s patent would provide scant benefit.

After inventing the Roundup Ready trait, Monsanto would, to be sure, “receive [its] reward” for the first seeds it sells. But in short order, other seed companies could reproduce the product and market it to growers, thus depriving Monsanto of its monopoly. And farmers themselves need only buy the seed once, whether from Monsanto, a competitor, or (as here) a grain elevator. The grower could multiply his initial purchase, and then multiply that new creation, ad infinitum – each time profiting from the patented seed without compensating its inventor.

Innovation and Investment

This verdict is good news for innovation and investment in technology. If the courts had ruled in favor of Mr. Bowman, there would be little incentive to invest in not just agricultural biotechnology, but also other innovations in computers, medicine, and other technologies. Without protections provided by patent law, anyone could create a virtually limitless supply of patented technology, thereby eliminating the incentive to invest in research and development for fear of not recouping costs. Monsanto invested 13 years and hundreds of millions of dollars into developing herbicide-resistant seeds, and regardless of your personal feelings towards the company, they deserve to recoup and profit from their investment. 

That is not to say that the only reason to invest in research is for profit, as the President of the National Research Council of Canada would have you believe (his actual quote “scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value“). Quite the contrary, profit is the result of doing research, and should not be the reason to do it, or invest in it. Phil Plait notes that “basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which“. Basic scientific research eventually paved the way for Roundup Ready technology, and that investment and foresight, should be rewarded with patent protection. Ensuring protection for investments in innovation and technology through patent law, also ensures that basic scientific research, not just applied, can continue to be funded, and that is a good thing.

Round Up Ready – Food Controversy Edition

Here is a round up of some of the food stories that were causing a bit of a controversy this week.

Starter: Quinoa

Dinner tonight, and lunch this week, beef vegetable quinoa soup

Dinner tonight, and lunch this week, beef vegetable quinoa soup

Main: Salmon

  • In December 2012 the FDA concluded that the AquAdvantage salmon, would have no significant impact on the environment. This was one of the last hurdles in getting this fish (which is already approved for human consumption), onto dinner plates, a process that has been ongoing for 17 years. For an excellent backgrounder on the issue, check out this post on BioFortified, and this piece by Slate.
  • The AquAdvantage salmon (AAS) is in most respects identical to an Atlantic salmon, except it has been genetically modified to include a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from an Ocean pout to keep that hormone turned on. This allows the AAS to produce their growth hormone (the Chinook and Atlantic growth hormones are the same, but the Chinook hormone is expressed differently), all year long, and in turn grow twice as fast as conventional salmon.

Dessert: Girl Scout Cookies

Beverage: Orange Gatorade

Trying to sort out and make sense of all the food related controversies can be a daunting task and is enough to build up quite an appetite. And if you are tempted to cook something up, a frozen dinner might not be such a bad choice, especially when compared to many TV Chefs dinner options, just don’t waste your food, because almost half of all the world’s food is thrown away, and that is a crying shame.

Cooking the Tree

This post is a little late (and short), but here none the less.

Shortly after Christmas I came across a post on Well Preserved titled Eating the Christmas Tree… Christmas Tree (Fir) Brined Pork Tenderloin and decided to try out that recipe with our tree needles. The preparation was really easy, and the end result was very delicious.

Ingredients for making a Christmas tree brined pork tenderloin

Ingredients for making a Christmas tree brined pork tenderloin

It turns out that there are lots of ways to cook with Christmas trees. The New York Times ran an article titled Evergreen, Ever Delicious which offered “inspired” recipes for spruce butter, oil, and vinegar. More adventurous recipes out there include these delicious looking roast potatoes, spruce duck, pine smoked mussels, and spruce tip shortbread cookies. The needles can also be innovatively used for toppings, such as a gremolata or a powder. And what better way to use the leftover Christmas tree then to make some holiday drinks, like beer as seen on Spruce on Tap, or gin, or tea. Taking the Christmas tree beyond decoration and bringing it to the plate, or mug, is very cool, and a neat reminder of the edible parts of nature that we might take for granted.

Check out the links below for other uses for spent Christmas trees.

Coasters made from a tree trunk, another great way to use up your spent Christmas tree.

Enjoying a beer (not a spruce beer) on coasters made from a spent Christmas tree trunk.

Boxed Wine Revolution

Boxed wine turned out to be the perfect drink for a late October camping trip to Tobermory. While the temperature never got up to 10oC, the wine wasn't stored for very long, and was delicious.

Boxed wine is the perfect drink for a late October camping trip to Tobermory.

In getting back to Foodie Friday themed posts, here is a post about the wonderful product that is boxed wine. The perks of boxed wines are numerous; they have greatly improved in quality, they are generally cheaper in price, they hold more wine than a single bottle, they are light and recyclable (making them ideal for camping), are easy to open, they chill quickly, they won’t break if you drop them, they aid in the removal of “ladybug taint”, they are good for table wines that don’t need to age, they may be more environmentally friendly, and saving leftovers (if you have any) is much easier.

That last point was the subject of a recent study on The Combined Effects of Storage Temperature and Packaging Type on the Sensory and Chemical Properties of Chardonnay in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In the study, Californian Chardonnay was stored in five different wine-packaging configurations, (three different bottle closures [natural cork, synthetic cork, and screw cap] and two bag-in-box, or BIB, configurations [with and without modified atmosphere packaging, or MAP]) at three different temperatures (10, 20, and 40 °C) for a period of 3 months. The authors wanted to study the combined packaging and temperature effects on the sensory and chemical properties of the wines. Sensory properties were evaluated in triplicate with a descriptive analysis for aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and color attributes by twelve very lucky panelists. Oxygen data (head space and dissolved oxygen) were measured throughout the 3 month period. Changes in the chemical composition of the wine were determined in triplicate at the end of the storage period by measuring TA (as tartaric acid equivalents, TAE) and VA (as acetic acid equivalents, AAE), pH, ethanol, and SO2 (free and total).

The largest changes were observed with the highest storage temperature of 40 °C, and were independent of the packaging. All samples showed signs of oxidation at the 40 °C, and were described by the sensory panel as oxidized, musty, and sulfur. The wines were lower in lightness and green color, and higher in yellow color. Similarly, the chemical analyses revealed that the 40 °C samples had lower amounts of free and total SO2, ethanol, and lower TA, and the volatile pattern contained increased concentration of oxidation and aging compounds (diethyl succinate, TDN, and straight and branched alcohols), and a decreased concentration of fruit-related compounds (acetates and terpenoids). So the lesson is not to store your wine at 40 °C, and if you do, maybe you deserve what you get.

In addition to the influence of temperature, packaging type also influenced the properties of the wines, notably the BIB samples. The BIB wines (there was no appreciable difference between the two types of BIB packaging) showed severe and accelerated aging as compared to the three bottle treatments. However, this was only significant for the two higher storage temperatures of 20 and 40 °C; at 10 °C there were no significant differences, either sensory or chemical, between the packaging treatments.

A glass of boxed wine on the rock beach.

A glass of boxed wine on the rock beach.

In summary, as long as you keep your Californian Chardonnay chilled, there is no need to worry about change in sensory or chemical properties as compared to the bottled wine (here is hoping for a follow-up study with red wines, I know where they could find some panelists!). So don’t worry about serving wine out a box this holiday season, it is a perfectly practical and delicious decision.

Food for Political Thought

After last nights heated Vice Presidential Debate, I thought it would be good to take a lighter look at politics-particularly the intersection of politics and food.

There are numerous ways of predicting the next President of the United States, be it candidates height, number of letter in their last names, the performance of the American League team in the World Series, or whether the Washington Redskins won their last home game before the election, but some of the more interesting ways of predicting the President involve food. It has been suggested that peoples eating habits can be good predictors of how they will vote, and even the restaurant make-up of a city can be a predictor, be it the sushi-to-steak house ratio or the number of Starbucks. Recently the Los Angeles Times examined the eating habits and political affiliations of American restaurant goers. The basic conclusion was that Democrats like fast food, and Republicans prefer pricier, sit-down chains.

The larger the bubble, the more people patronizing the restaurant. The further the bubble is to the right (or left), the more conservative (or liberal) the patrons, and the higher the bubble, the more politically active the voters there described themselves as being. Cracker Barrel patrons are a powerful voting block.

Daily Finance took the analysis a little further and examined the recent sales of the restaurants in comparison to the previous year. Their theory is that if a restaurant is doing well, then lots of people are visiting that restaurant, and perhaps the politics associated with that restaurant are also gaining favour. They found that restaurant chains favoured by Democrats were enjoying strong sales growth; however, each and every “Republican eatery” was enjoying at least some growth, while some “Democratic eateries” show declining numbers. This data would seem to indicate a groundswell of support for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Restaurants have taken advantage of the public’s interested in voting with their stomachs and have been offering candidate specific meals. California Tortilla started using red and blue tortilla chips, as well as presidential themed meals – Romney’s Mexican Loaf Bowl and Obama’s Chicken Teriyaki Luau Bowl to predict how the California voters will lean in the upcoming election.

The predictive power of coffee, is there anything it can’t do?!

While that might work for the state of California, what about the rest of the USA? Fortunately, LaMar’s Donuts is using a sales of the Dough-Bama and Mitt Yum-ney donuts to get a feel for how the Nation will vote (as of this writing, Obama 51.5%, Romney 48.5%). However, with locations in only 6 states the results might not accurately reflect the whole Nation. Fortunately, 7-Eleven is a nationwide franchise that might be better able to get a feel for America’s political flavour. 7-Eleven has a great track record when it comes to predicting the President. With their 7-Election campaign, customers vote by purchasing a coffee cup in either Romney red, or Obama blue. The sales of each cup are tracked in real-time (as of this writing, Obama 60%, Romney 40%). In addition to 7-Eleven’s prognosticating prowess, Family Circle also has a good track record for predicting the next President, based on their wives’ cookie recipes. This year, Michelle Obama’s White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies edged out Ann Romney’s M&M’s Cookies by a mere 287 votes!

To re-cap, Romney is winning based on restaurant chains’ growth, Obama is winning in donuts, coffee, and cookies. When it comes to predicting who will win the election you can go with your gut, or alternatively you can look at Halloween mask sales.