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Paul Thompson

Dr. Paul Thompson, a PhD in philosophy, is a professor at Michigan State University and the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics. He has served on many national and international committees on agricultural biotechnology and is the author of From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, among many other books discussing ethics in food biotechnology, agriculture, and the environment. His research focuses on the ethical and philosophical questions regarding agriculture, food, and especially the development of agricultural techno-science.

See Paul Thompson March 8, 2016 at “The Impact of What We Eat: From Science & Technology, to Eating Local”.

Paul Thompson

What hooked you on cooking? On science?
My mother was a terrible cook. Lots of canned spinach, frozen fish sticks and macaroni & cheese out of the blue box. Both of my brothers and I learned to cook out of self-preservation.
The science thing is more complex. I trained in the philosophy of science and technology and I have studied the strengths and weaknesses of using science in assessing both food-related and environmental risks.
The coolest example of science in your food?
Don’t eat a potato after it has turned green. That’s a sign that the toxin-producing genes (normally active only in the leaves) have been activated in the tuber (that is, the part we eat).
The food you find most fascinating?
Maize (or corn). It couldn’t exist without human help. I’m fascinated in thinking about how native populations in Mexico managed to develop it from teosinte.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
Sustainability. And how it depends on systems thinking.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
The strawberry we know and love would not exist if the genes from two species of berry had not been crossed by French monks back in the 16th century.
We love comparing the gluten in bread to a network of springs. Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?
I do like to think about how the medieval concept of gluttony had nothing to do with physical health or obesity. It was about being too interested in the bodily experience of eating, not only eating too much, but being picky about one’s diet, eating at the wrong time of day, being too eager or preferring fine as opposed to coarse (e.g. peasant-style) foods.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Garlic press
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Cottage cheese, pickles, half & half, tortillas (can’t get fresh ones in Michigan) and (of course) milk.
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
Onions. Everything is better with them.
Favorite cookbook?
I almost never use a cookbook, but my favorite would be The Vegetarian Epicure.
Your standard breakfast?
Oatmeal. It has to be steel-cut, preferably with dried Michigan tart cherries thrown in while it cooks.

From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone – An Excerpt

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 “You are what you eat.”

This aphorism is consistently used to fit different scenarios, but are we really what we eat? Author Paul B. Thompson begs to differ. In his book, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone, Thompson presents his case against this statement and brings light upon many ethical food dilemmas, including obesity, livestock welfare, and the environmental impact of food systems. He structures his thoughts around the idea that food ethics are being revived in the contemporary world. Regarding the aforementioned axiom, Thompson explains that food is more than just substance for your body’s functioning. Here is an excerpt analyzing this issue:

“On the one hand, dietetics has become a domain of personal vulnerability calling for regulatory action on moral grounds. What is vulnerable may be one’s health, as in the case of food safety or nutrition, but it may equally be one’s identity or solidarity with others as people attempt to achieve social justice and environmental goals through labels that promise ‘fair-trade’ or ‘humanely raised’ foods. On the other hand, practices that promote hospitable respect for personal dietary committees or solidarity may run afoul of a philosophy of risk that emphasizes classic hazards to health and physical safety. All told, it begins to look less and less like food choice can be confined to the prudential realm” (p. 29) [1].

In this passage, Thompson emphasizes that people may no longer be able to use good reason and judgment when choosing their food. The foods you choose to eat not only affect your body and health, but it also affects people and ideas around you. There is potentially harm being done on third parties connected to certain food purchases.

Thompson’s take on this statement is just one of the many issues he delves into in From Field to Fork. He offers deep philosophical and ethical analyses while integrating economics, history, science, psychology, and politics. For example, when discussing food systems, Thompson addresses multiple factors to consider when ensuring food sufficiency. Environmentally, a growth in monoculture production systems to mass-produce certain crops can tax natural resources. Socially, these industrial systems can destroy healthy rural communities. Politically, there are injustices that make it difficult to distribute these resources fairly. An extensive framework is given regarding how to approach food sufficiency and other issues in the book.

As a philosopher and current W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics, Paul B. Thompson provides a comprehensive guide to food ethics in his book. From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone will not only give you a deeper insight into food, but also into our society.

References Cited:

  1. Thompson, P.B. (2015). From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 


Catherine HuAbout the author: Catherine Hu received her B.S. in Psychobiology at UCLA. When she is not writing about food science, she enjoys exploring the city and can often be found enduring long wait times to try new mouthwatering dishes.

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The International Year of Pulses

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Photo credits: (flickr/Jessica Spengler)

The 68th United Nations General Assembly has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. [1] Pulses – that throbbing sensation of your carotid artery after a workout or during a first date, right? Nope. The UN suggests we celebrate the pulses that are leguminous crops harvested solely for their dry seeds. All lentils, and all varieties of dried beans, such as kidney beans, lima beans, butter beans and broad beans are pulses, as are chick peas, cowpeas, black-eyed peas and pigeon peas. Seeds that are harvested green, like green peas or green beans are classified as vegetable crops, not pulses. Legumes used primarily for oil extraction, like soybeans, are also not pulses. [2]

Why are pulses getting a year-long, world-wide campaign?

A global push for pulse production would address many problems of our global food system. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’s campaign highlights these key benefits to pulse cultivation [1]:

  • Pulses are highly nutritious – they are excellent plant source of protein, and contain the B vitamins that our bodies require to convert food to energy
  • Pulses are economically accessible and contribute to food security at all levels – from farmers to consumers
  • Pulses foster sustainable agriculture, thus addressing agriculture’s role in climate change
  • Pulses promote biodiversity in agriculture

 

Now that we know the basics of pulses and why they’re important, let’s get scientific.

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Photo credits: (flickr/Kelly Garbato)

Pulses in the nitrogen cycle

Pulses are legumes, or plants in the family Leguminosae. Thanks to their symbiosis with many members of the diazotrophic, or nitrogen-fixing bacterial genus Rhizobium that live in their roots and feed them with nitrogen from the air, pulses have a particularly high protein content compared to non-legumes. [3] Within the bacterium, atmospheric nitrogen (N2), which is typically unusable to plants, is converted to ammonium (NH4+) via the activity of the enzyme nitrogenase. The nitrogen of ammonium is converted to other more complex compounds that are beneficial to humans, like amino acids – the building blocks of protein. In exchange for fixing nitrogen, the bacterium receives food from the plant — carbon in the form of glucose (C6H12O6).

 

This remarkable bacterial symbiosis also enriches the soil in which pulses grow with nitrogen compounds like nitrite (NO2) and nitrate (NO3), which is the preferred nitrogen source for other green plants. For this reason, farmers who crop-rotate with legumes don’t need to apply nearly as much fertilizer as farmers who don’t. [3]

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Pulses in a changing climate

Many pulses are also hardy and drought tolerant crops – lentils, broad beans, peas, and chick peas are all native to the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, and have adapted to sprout quickly and reproduce in the rainy season before the hot, dry summer [3].

Anatomy of the pulse

All food seeds consist of three basic parts: an outer protective coat, the small embryonic portion that develops into the mature plant, and the storage tissue that feeds the plant embryo. [3]The bulk of the seed consists of storage cells are filled with particles of concentrated protein and granules of starch, or organized masses of starch chains.

Cooking and starch retrogradation

When we cook pulses, hot water permeates the starch granules. As the water molecules work themselves between the starch chains, the granules swell and soften. When the pulses later cool down, the starch chains bond to each other again in tighter, more organized associations, resulting in firmer granules. (This process is called retrogradation.) [3] Consider leftover lentils or beans: they’re always harder and drier the next day, and they never get quite as soft as when they were first cooked. This is because during the process of retrogradation, some starch molecules form granules that are even more tightly associated than the bonds in the original starch granule. They form small crystalline regions that resist breaking even at boiling temperatures. [3]

Retrogradation of starch might foil your plans for leftover lentils, but it does do our bodies good: Our digestive enzymes cannot easily digest retrograded starch, so eating it results in a more gradual rise in blood sugar compared to the effects of non-retrograded starch. [3] Our intestines need help breaking down this tough starch, and the beneficial bacteria in our large intestines are happy to be of assistance. Just as the diazotrophic bacteria in soil work in harmony with leguminous plants, our intestinal bacteria digests what we cannot. Thus the retrograded starch functions as a prebiotics, or food for the probiotic bacteria in our guts. Well-fed gut bacteria make for healthy digestive tracks and happy bowels.

Will this pulse promotion save the world and fix the global food economy? Perhaps. We can all do our part by making a hearty spinach dal for dinner tonight, and sweet red bean paste for dessert.

 

Works Cited

  1. “”Save and Grow in Practice” Highlights Importance of Pulses in Crop Rotations and Intercropping.” Pulses – 2016 | 2016 International Year of Pulses. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.
  2. “What Are Pulses? | FAO.” What Are Pulses? | FAO. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.
  3. McGee, Harold. “Seeds.” On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Elsbeth SitesAbout the author: Elsbeth Sites received her B.S. in Biology at UCLA. Her addiction to the Food Network has developed into a love of learning about the science behind food.

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Gluten-free & Egg-free

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Wheat provides about twenty per cent of the world’s calories and more nourishment than any other source of food over the course of human civilization, yet more and more people in in the last few years are coming out as gluten sensitive and moving towards gluten-free alternatives. The question is, should we go gluten-free? In the meantime, start-up companies like Hampton Creek Foods are working on creating more sustainable plant-based foods such as egg-free mayonnaise.
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Square Pies & Salmon Farms

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Math can explain why square pies taste better than round pies and environmentalism can explain why land-based salmon farms are more sustainable.
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Primitive X Modern

Primitive X Modern: Cultural Interpretations of Flavors
Featuring Alex Atala
April 17, 2013

Chef Alex Atala joined Science & Food to discuss his approach to food, how his cooking has been impacted by science, and how cooking is fundamentally tied to larger issues of natural conservancy and humanitarianism. Atala is renowned for pioneering regional cuisine using indigenous Brazilian ingredients and works closely with anthropologists and scientists to discover and classify new foods from the Amazonian region. Watch the entire lecture or check out some of the shorter highlights below.

On creativity, innovation, and a vegetarian tasting menu

“For me as a chef creativity is something very, very, very important. In my personal perspective or professional perspective, creativity is not to do something that no one has done before. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s to do something that everybody does in an unexpected way. This is creativity. I make food, I don’t make miracles . . . It is almost impossible to make something new. It is possible to make something unexpected.”

On black rice and helping local producers thrive

Atala tells the story of a small rice producer in Brazil who, unable to compete with big agribusiness, turned away from traditional white rice and started growing black rice. At the time, black rice was thought to be “diseased,” and many laughed at the producer for growing such an undesirable commodity. But Atala disagreed – he met the producer, tried the black rice, and started cooking with it. He began sharing with other chefs and showing it to the media. By embracing black rice and using it in a new way, Atala was able to change the producer’s life.

“Sometimes creativity is not doing something that no one has done before, it’s doing something that you’ve known for your entire life in an unexpected way.”

On tucupi and making poisonous plants edible

Tucupi is a traditional Brazilian sauce prepared from lightly fermented manioc juice. Because yellow manioc contains high levels of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, it must be boiled for an entire day to make it safe to consume.

“In Brazil, we have manioc, yucca, it’s very important for us. We have two families: the white one who is friendly and the yellow one who is poisonous. Natives prefer the poison one . . . it tastes better.”

On mandioca and the challenge of being simple

“Being simple is a challenge for a chef, because being simple is not easy. It’s so complex. Having one dish with three ingredients is a huge challenge for a chef.”

On cultural interpretations and eating insects

“I was very deep in Amazonas, and I went to a tribe, and an old lady gave me a small sauce with a few ants inside . . . and I tasted it and said ‘Wow, beautiful. What herb do you put in here?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Ants.’ . . . There’s this beautiful taste . . . cardamom, lemongrass, ginger. We didn’t have these flavors in Amazonas . . . I went back to Amazonas with my lemongrass, my ginger, and I made the same sauce, and I gave it to her to taste. And she tasted it: ‘tastes like ants!’”

On priprioca and discovering new ingredients

Atala has worked with scientists in the cosmetics industry to analyze the components of priprioca and evaluate its safety as an edible ingredient. He hopes that Amazonian natives will soon be allowed to produce and sell priprioca essence to restaurants and food companies.

“I was in the lab working, and I look at the analysis of priprioca, and I say ‘maybe this can be edible.’ … [we] put it in a chromatographer and made the analysis, and there are  no alkaloids and no representative toxic levels . . . So we started to use it.”

On our relationship with food

“My prep doesn’t start in my kitchen, it starts with natural conservation. It’s clear protecting the river, the sea, the lands, the fields, the forests—but we can forget a natural being, called a human being. People from the forest, from the sea, from the lands, from the fields must be supported as well. Our relation with food must be reviewed.”

10 Things We Learned at MAD 2013

Last month, the third installment of MAD took place in Copenhagen, Denmark. MAD—Danish for “food”—is an annual symposium that brings together world renowned chefs, scientists, writers, and other notable luminaries to discuss and share stories about all things food-related. Hosted by Rene Redzepi and the MAD and noma team and co-curated by Momofuku’s David Chang and Lucky Peach magazine, this year’s symposium focused on “guts,” both in a literal and metaphorical sense.  Here are ten things (among many!) we learned from our visit to MAD 2013: Read more

Microwave Cuisine & Sustainable Meat

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The New York Times takes another look at an under-appreciated kitchen appliance, while Scientific American asks: are mealworms the sustainable meat of the future? Read more