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Don’t Call It Stinky Stout—Brewing Beer From Sewage Water Is an Idea Worth Toasting

Sure, this idea from a wastewater treatment company may sound gross, but the plan really makes a lot of sense.

When news of a bid by a Portland-area wastewater treatment company to turn recycled sewage into beer made headlines this week, it didn’t take long for at least one commenter to offer some cheeky suggestions for labels: Naturally Yellow, Distinktive Brew, Organic Beer, Second Time Around, Pissa Beer... But what’s surprising here isn’t that anyone would want to do such a thing—it’s how behind-the-curve hip, earthy, compost-happy Portland seems to be when it comes to turning toilet water into something well worth drinking.

While this marks the first time that the state has considered allowing residents to drink treated wastewater, utilities and regulators elsewhere in the country haven’t been so lucky. 

Although it at first may seem inevitable that toilet-beer would emerge from a city whose unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird”—at the very least it sounds like a sendup straight out of Portlandiaperhaps the notion of drinking something associated with human waste is causing a stir in 2015 is because of the Pacific Northwest’s rain-soaked reputation. If we were talking about turning sewage into, say, sunlight, the city may very well have emerged on the cutting edge.

In the Southwest, residents would gladly take some of Portland’s wet, gray weather—anything for a bit of rain. As it is, nearly a third of the country (including a significant part of southern Oregon) is enduring a prolonged period of moderate to extreme drought, a situation that experts say may only be exacerbated by climate change. Thus, parch-prone cities in the U.S. and around the world are focusing their attention on taking water that was once flushed and forgotten and turning it into ultra-pure drinking water.

Clean Water Services, located in Hillsboro, Oregon, just west of Portland, might get permission to supply treated wastewater to a group of local home brewers so that they, in turn, can produce small batches of novelty beer for special events. But it depends on the company’s ability to jump through a lot of regulatory hoops.

Thus far, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, Clean Water Services has managed to get the green light from the state health authority. Now it must secure approval from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which is holding a public hearing on the proposal next month. Even if that all goes well, the company “will still need additional state approvals for an amended Recycled Water Reuse Plan before the brews are cleared for drinking,” according to OPB.

In bone-dry California and Texas, those debates over health and regulatory considerations are over—toliet-to-tap is increasingly a thing. In November, San Diego’s city council voted unanimously to advance a $2.5-billion plan to recycle wastewater, with an eye toward supplying about a third of the city’s water needs by 2035. The vote signaled a stunning turnaround in public opinion: A decade ago, only one in four San Diegans favored turning wastewater into drinking water, according to Fox News. By 2012, three in four did.

Farther north, in Orange County (hardly a bastion of progressivism), the water utility has been transforming sewage into tap water since 2008. This year, it’s on track to expand its recycling operation from 70 million gallons per day to 100 million—enough to quench the thirst of about a third of the county’s population. Municipalities ranging from El Paso, Texas, to Fairfax County, Virginia, have also launched wastewater recycling programs.

“It’s a watershed moment right now. We’re seeing widespread acceptance of these technologies,” Mike Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, told CNN last year. “As the shortages become more extreme and water supplies are cut, it has raised awareness that we need to find alternative resources.”

So why not wastewater beer too? The process described by Clean Water Services in Oregon appears to be more or less the same one used in Orange County and elsewhere: a three-stage system whereby sewage goes through “ultra-filtration” followed by reverse osmosis and then exposure to UV light and oxidization, which kills off any remaining bacteria. The result, advocates say, is drinking water that’s cleaner than what most people get out of their kitchen faucets. That the treated water is often released back into the groundwater supply only to be collected and treated again is largely political (and unnecessary)—the trip down into the aquifer and back up again is essentially to mollify a squeamish public that fails to understand the basics of hydrology.

“It’s the same water now as when dinosaurs walked the earth,” Melissa Meeker, executive director of the advocacy group WateReuse, told CNN. “It’s about understanding the water cycle and how we fit into it. Once people think about it, they become more open-minded.”

To wit: rivers. If you live anywhere that gets any portion of its water supply from a river, you’re likely already drinking “recycled wastewater,” as the treated sewage from towns upstream gets cycled through your own municipal water system.

Thus, in the running competition to come up with a name for Portland’s newfangled brew, here’s a suggestion: Just call it beer.   

  • Food
  • How Your Tax Dollars Are Funding Brutal Animal Experiments

    An appalling investigation finds horrible abuse at USDA research facility.

    What do you call leaving dozens of starving lambs to die in a hailstorm, locking pigs in steam chambers to test their appetite at high temperatures, or subjecting a cow to such an hours-long breeding by as many as six bulls that it kills her? Your tax dollars at work!

    That’s right. In a sweeping exposé published on the front page of The New York Times this week, journalist Michael Moss homes in on a little-known backwater that operates within the sprawling bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

    It would certainly seem that a place that uses “meat animal” in its name could hardly be expected to be a haven for animals. But the experiments being conducted with an annual budget of more than $22 million in taxpayer money and little to no oversight by the USDA are truly shocking for their brutality—and all in the name of increasing profits for the American meat industry.

    Response to Moss’ investigation has been swift: The story has generated more than 1,000 comments on the Times website and loads of commentary in the blogosphere. For its part, the USDA released a statement Wednesday saying that it was “reviewing additional improvements in its animal science research, including in improving animal well-being,” according to Reuters.

    As whistle-blower James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for more than two decades, put it to the Times, “They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just pebble-sized concern to animal welfare. And it probably looks fine to them because they’re not thinking about it, and they’re not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things the center has done.”

    For example: Ongoing research to produce “easy care” sheep that don’t require special birthing barns has resulted in dozens if not hundreds of lambs being abandoned in the field by their mothers and left to starve. Efforts to dramatically increase the number of piglets in a litter—from eight to 14—have yielded smaller, weaker young that are prone to being crushed by their mothers. And a similar project to breed cattle that are more likely to produce twins has led to a litany of horrific consequences, including numerous twin calves dying at birth because their eight legs became tangled.

    As appalling as these twisted experiments are, what’s just as repugnant are the glimpses of day-to-day indifference to animal suffering at the center, such as the starving ewe encountered by Keen last March, “in plain view of center employees, unable to eat because of a jaw abscess that had likely been growing for months.” The animal later died. Or the email response from one of the center’s lead scientist to an animal manager who had raised concerns about the tiny 4' x 4' pens in which the facility’s pigs were kept. “A lot of time has been wasted addressing a nonissue,” the scientist wrote.

    How does a federally run research center get away with all this? It’s simple, really. Way back in 1966, when Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, it specifically excluded research on farm animals that was intended to benefit agriculture. Even as universities and some companies that conduct experiments on livestock have worked to adopt their own ethical standards and construct a checks-and-balances system that includes independent, third-party oversight, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center has resisted joining in—and its parent agency, the USDA, has, until this week, taken a more or less hands-off approach.

    “As a result,” Moss writes, the research center “has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.”

    Whether the department actually follows through on its promise to review the animal welfare practices at the facility—or is just biding its time with vague promises—no doubt depends on how quickly the controversy blows over. And while Moss’ report provides ample reason to shut down the facility simply for brutalizing animals on the taxpayers’ dime, it’s worth keeping in mind that the center’s $22.7 million budget is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the federal government’s subsidies for the commercial agroindustrial complex, which tortures animals and trashes our environment in order to produce the very sort of cheap food that is arguably wreaking havoc on Americans’ health.

    It’s a perspective that Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, helpfully provides in his response to Moss’ story report over at Huffington Post. “The Center is just a particularly morbid example of how the government is subsidizing factory farming to the tune of billions of dollars a year,” he writes, citing all the surplus animal products the USDA buys up only to “pawn off the hormone-laden, antibiotic-treated meat on poor schoolchildren and others who depend on food assistance programs.” That’s not to mention the billions spent by the USDA on crop subsidies for animal feed, crop insurance, predator control, and waste management.

    “The government of Canada doles out millions in subsidies to the sealing industry, the Japanese government funds the whaling industry’s killing and marketing, and the United States government breaks the bank to aid the factory farming lobby,” Pacelle writes. “This whole broken, busted, cruel system needs to be reformed from the ground up. The USDA needs to stop serving as the R&D arm, surplus buyer, feed subsidizer, and advertiser for the factory farming industry. Really, these guys can make it on their own. Let’s have a little bit of the free market back at work, and stop a program built on vast subsidies and few rules.”

  • Food
  • Wildlife
  • Shocking Undercover Videos Give 360-Degree View of Life on a Factory Farm

    Investigation brings to light the all-too-often hidden costs of our addiction to cheap meat.

    There’s a lot to loathe about factory farms, from the staggering amount of waste they produce that often pollutes our groundwater to their central role in the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs to their perpetuation of a market for cheap meat—which, in turn, contributes mightily to global warming pollution.

    As bad as these things are, though, they’re relatively easy to debate: just boil the issues down to a lot of abstract—if outsize—statistics. What’s harder to digest is the horrific suffering that a vast majority of the 10 billion animals forced to live out their lives in these euphemistically termed CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—must endure. A groundbreaking series of videos being released by the investigative arm of the animal rights group Last Chance for Animals shines a harsh, high-resolution light on just the sort of stomach-turning cruelty most Americans would rather not think about before double-dipping their next chicken nugget.

    No, these videos are unlikely to go viral like so many YouTube clips of cavorting puppies or grumpy cats—and that’s too bad. Because whether we’re talking about ordering a fast-food bacon burger or grabbing some dirt-cheap boneless chicken breast at the grocery store, it seems most of us still don’t really have the full picture when it comes to understanding the cost of all that plentiful protein.

    LCA’s videos provide that perspective: Taken with state-of-the-art digital video cams surreptitiously placed by investigators, they give an animal-eye’s view of what it’s like to live on a factory farm, in all 360 wrenching, soul-crushing, dispiriting degrees.

    Despite the windowless confines, rampant filth, and general atmosphere that can’t fail to call to mind some twisted horror movie, however, the footage stays just within the boundary of being watchable. It’s in the voice-over that we’re left to imagine the brutality unseen: that dead piglets, for example, are often gutted and their intestines fed to other pigs in a seemingly sadistic effort to immunize them, or that the ammonia rising from the copious amounts of manure at a chicken farm is so intense, it burns the birds’ feathers off.

    Where these factory farms are and how LCA’s investigative team managed to obtain its footage remain undisclosed. This is an industry with a litigious reputation, after all—one that has lobbied successfully for ag-gag laws, legislation that criminalizes this sort of whistle-blowing, in at least eight states.  

    It’s a campaign of intimidation that may very well backfire. By forcing animal rights advocates to go deep undercover and to keep the identities of these “farms” anonymous, the appalling evidence they gather ends up representing the entire industry—there’s no way to know that the bacon you had for breakfast didn’t come from one of the piglets in the video, nosing about the corpse of another piglet. With the quality of footage improving thanks to developments (and price reductions) in camera technology, and the reach of the images growing ever wider thanks to the Internet, investigations like this will likely continue to occur more regularly. There's nothing to suggest that footage from a group like LCA doesn't reflect standard, industry-wide practices.

    In the end, though, the only way for this kind of high-tech whistle-blowing to have any impact is if the rest of us swallow hard and muster the courage to actually watch it.

  • Food
  • Is Pizza Hut's New All-Gluten-Free Pizza Healthy or All Hype?

    The nation's leading pizza chain tries to capitalize on our collective confusion over the protein that allows breads to rise.

    It somehow seems oxymoronic to order a gluten-free pizza for your Super Bowl party, akin to swapping out the buffalo wings for crudités. Nevertheless, Pizza Hut is rolling out an all-gluten-free pizza at about a third of its stores come Jan. 26, less than a week before kickoff.

    That Pizza Hut would debut the pie right before a major televised sporting event (i.e., a pizza-delivery bonanza) is no surprise: Two decades ago the chain unveiled its game-changing stuffed-crust pizza just before the NCAA’s Final Four weekend.

    The 20-year gap is significant. Whereas Pizza Hut’s “revolutionary” stuffed crust boosted the chain’s sales by $300 million, its jump-on-the-gluten-free-bandwagon move hardly seems poised to have anywhere near the same impact for a company struggling to stay on top. That hasn't kept CEO David Gibbs from claiming the new crust will bring in the bucks, as he did in an interview with USA Today, saying the purportedly healthier pie “will get new users into the brand and existing users to visit more frequently.”

    On its face, that would seem absurd: “existing users” suggests there’s some significant number of Americans out there who are fastidious about their gluten intake yet, paradoxically, still visit Pizza Hut with some regularity. Yet as Jimmy Kimmel’s three-and-a-half-minute riff on the whole gluten-free fad suggests, there’s plenty of ridiculousness to go around when it comes to gluten.

    As is typical of so many “healthy” food fads, science has taken a backseat to the hype when it comes to substantiating the benefits of skipping out on gluten. No matter that what has passed for the “gluten sensitivity” reported by many non-celiac patients may be linked not to gluten—a protein found in a number of grains, including wheat, rye, and barley—but instead to a type of carbohydrate, as NPR reported last spring. Food makers have continued to flood the market with gluten-free products: 3,000 new ones from 2008 to 2010, according to market-research firm Mintel, which also tallied sales of gluten-free products surpassing $10 billion in 2013 and predicts the market will grow to $15 billion next year.

    No doubt, Pizza Hut put some serious effort into developing its new pie. Unlike the gluten-free crust offered by competitor Domino’s, Pizza Hut’s pizza is certified to be 100-percent gluten-free, from crust to toppings. The chain partnered with the world’s largest manufacturer of gluten-free foods, Udi’s, and it has implemented a strict gluten segregation policy for the 2,400 stores that will sell the gluten-free pizza: All ingredients will be stored in designated Gluten-Free Kits on separate shelves in the fridge, the pies will be prepared on parchment paper, and employees must wear gloves and use a separate “gluten-free” pizza cutter.

    Of course, Pizza Hut hasn't gone through all this trouble out of a noble desire to provide made-to-order pizza to the 1 percent of Americans who are believed to suffer from celiac disease and must forswear gluten forever. Like so many restaurant chains and food makers, Pizza Hut is looking to capitalize on the widespread confusion among so many of the rest of us that has given “gluten-free” its hazy association with “healthy”—a misapprehension all too readily on display when the Kimmel team asked a number of random gluten-free dieters the simple question, “What is gluten?,” only to be met with deer-in-the-headlight stares and befuddled answers.

    Thus, so much marketing buzz drowns out all appeals for reason, such as those of two prominent celiac researchers who, back in 2012, lamented in the Annals of Internal Medicine the proliferation of vague gluten-free health claims “with no adequate scientific support to back them up.” As Dr. Antonio Di Sabatino and Dr. Gino Roberto Corazza of the University of Pavia in Pavia, Italy, wrote, “This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become ‘the new diet villain.’ ” 

    Three years later, and Pizza Hut’s gluten-free pizza shows the clamor shows no signs of abating.

  • Food
  • Juicero Is the Future of Juice—and the Biggest Tech Start-up You’ve Never Heard Of

    The company is betting $120 million that at-home juicing could become a very different thing in the coming years.

    Last week’s CES tech extravaganza in Las Vegas gave gadget-loving food geeks plenty of reasons to start rethinking the real estate on their kitchen counter. There was the robo-chef called Cooki, and a 3-D food printer that prints edibles such as cookies, cakes, and even pizza. But one food-tech start-up was (in)conspicuously absent from the publicity fest, even as it has whetted the appetites of venture capitalists and industry insiders as it quietly works to raise some $120 million.

    Forget your average six-figure Indiegogo fund-raising campaign. Juicero, perhaps the biggest little start-up you’ve never heard of, has raised nearly $20 million thus far, according to Business Insider, and has its sights set on another $100 million.

    So what’s got investors so excited that they’re ready to pony up that kind of cash for a company whose name—as yet—pretty much no one knows quite how to pronounce? In a word: juice.

    Doug Evans, the company’s founder and the former CEO and chairman of health-food chain Organic Avenue, hopes to do for the home-juice market what Keurig did for coffee—that is, create an entire market culture (i.e., market cult) surrounding a countertop machine that will deliver superior juice from pouches of fresh-picked produce.

    Or at least that’s according to multiple unnamed sources talking to Business Insider. Evans remains mum about Juicero, and no one with any knowledge of the company seems to be talking either, at least on the record. For a tech start-up, a Google search turns up stunningly little—no YouTube demo videos, no breathless accolades from the tech press. Just a more or less blank home page where you can subscribe for updates—but no real indication of what those updates are for.

    While this cloak-and-dagger approach may just be a bit of smart publicity (never underestimate the power of mystery to pique the public’s interest), it seems more likely that right now, Juicero doesn’t need the PR—not when it reportedly has captured the interest of Google Ventures, Thrive Capital, and Vast Ventures.

    It’s not just the big money in Silicon Valley. As Business Insider reports, “Rumor has it the CEO of Campbell’s tried the juice and ran back to cut a $10 million check.” (Of course, a Campbell’s rep “declined to comment on the funding.”)

    One of the biggest names in processed foods would seem an odd bedfellow for a company that purportedly doesn’t just want to sell you a juice maker and shelf-stable pods of carrot or kale concentrate that could double as doomsday-prep fodder. Rather, Juicero wants to create “a whole agricultural arm to the business,” which would allow the company to run its own farms, where it can harvest the freshest fruit and deliver it quickly. The targeted $120 million could help fund a juice farmland grab, but as yet, the ag side of the business is a ways off. Still, there’s a beta product, so to speak. And the initial result? “It’s like freshly pressed juice…only better,” Business Insider reports, citing (again) unnamed sources who have tried it.

    Of course, it would seem the perfect time to jump on the juice bandwagon, as a profusion of cold-pressed juice joints have sought to transform our perception of squeezed fruit, effectively seeking to do to our morning glass of Minute Maid what Starbucks did to that lovelorn pot of coffee in the office break room.

    Delivering that kind of feel-good freshness at home is tricky, though. At this point, it would seem Juicero’s closest, and perhaps only, competitor would be LivBlend, which offers a sleek (self-cleaning, no less) countertop smoothie maker and delivers the produce to go with it—but only in San Francisco (and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, San Mateo, Redwood City, and Mountain View, California).

    Thus, the real innovation, if and when Juicero makes its splashy debut, may not be in its gadgetry but in figuring out how to get the closest thing to just-picked produce into consumers’ kitchens on a national, or even quasi-national, scale—and at a price you don’t have to be Bill Gates to afford. In the meantime, tossing those extra greens from the CSA box into the blender will have to suffice.

  • Food
  • Hate Making Dinner? Meet Your New BFF, Cooki the Robot

    Tech start-up debuts a countertop automaton that makes meals for you.

    Get in on the ground floor today and you could have your very own dinner-cooking robot by the end of the year.

    Meet Cooki, “the world’s first robotic appliance that cooks like you do—or better!” That’s according to the start-up team at Sereneti Kitchen, which has had a busy week. Not only has it been making the rounds at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, showing off a prototype of its newfangled robo-cook, but it has also launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise $100K to get Cooki to market. If they pony up $399, early adopters who love gadgets yet loathe chopping carrots can snag their own Cooki hot off the production line—which the company estimates will be in October.

    Although Sereneti’s campaign invokes (perhaps inevitably) such beloved blipping-and-bleeping pop-culture icons as Bender of Futurama and Rosie of The Jetsons, don’t assume Cooki is going to whip you up a four-course meal while delivering sassy rejoinders on the side. In terms of lovability, Cooki seems closer to your countertop coffeemaker than to C-3PO.

    Which is apt, because Sereneti is clearly shooting to capitalize on harried Americans’ demand for touch-of-a-button ease—the sort that has fueled the runaway success of Keurig and made those little metal K-cup trees fixtures on kitchen counters everywhere.

    Here’s how the Cooki “ecosystem” aims to work: Sereneti delivers little plastic trays of fresh, precut, premeasured ingredients to your home, based on the “chef-inspired” recipes you’ve selected from the company’s app. You tell Cooki what recipe you want it to make and when you want to eat, load the trays, and Cooki does the rest. Which is either impressive or not, depending on whether you’re measuring Cooki against The Jetsons’ Rosie or the Roomba roving around your living room.

    At this point, the robot’s culinary repertoire appears limited to dumping ingredients into its heated pan and stirring with its robotic arm. Thus the “range” of recipes Cooki can make is confined to a lot of stir-fries and pasta. Don’t expect perfectly pan-seared salmon with a citrus-soy glaze and a side of roasted potatoes when you get home. And don’t expect Cooki to do the dishes.

    For $600, which is what Sereneti expects Cooki to retail for, along with the cost of each meal ($4 to $5), you might just be tempted to order takeout. But Sereneti says its 21st-century gizmo isn’t just about the robotic wow-factor—there’s a bona fide social agenda behind Cooki too.

    “By preportioning just the right amount of healthy, fresh ingredients and reducing the amount of work required to prepare these meals, we not only help people save time—we also help conserve food and encourage healthier eating habits,” Haidee Chen, one of Sereneti’s cofounders, told a panel of tech-biz experts at CES this week. Cooki is the brainchild of 18-year-old Chen and her twin sister, Helen. (So even if Cooki flops, the high schoolers will still come away with a killer college admissions essay.)

    But despite Sereneti’s avowed mission to curb food waste and to slim Americans down with fresher, healthier, robo-cooked fare, it’s an innovation that seems like a step in the wrong direction. Sure, a Cooki stir-fry is likely better for you than cruising through the nearest drive-through, and the daily drudgery of coming up with home-cooked dinner ideas and getting them on the table can seem thankless (even for those of us who write about food for a living).

    Yet if there’s one thing that runs as a common thread through all our various modern-day issues surrounding food, whether it’s how much of it we waste or how it’s harming our health, it’s that by outsourcing so much of our prepping, processing, and making of food to others, we’ve lost an important connection to what we eat. “Mindful eating”? That’s harder to do when you take the mind out of the kitchen.

  • Food
  • Innovation & Technology
  • Go On, Live a Little (Longer): Eat More Whole Grains

    Yet another study adds to the growing evidence that whole grains are good for your health.

    For those who vowed to eat healthier in 2015, here comes a study out of Harvard just in time to fortify your New Year’s resolution.

    In particular, researchers found that eating more whole grains was linked to a significantly reduced risk of mortality—up to 15 percent—most notably when it comes to dying from heart disease. Eating bran, one of the components that makes a grain “whole” but that is often stripped out during the refining process used to make white flour, was associated with a 20 percent reduction in risk for heart disease.

    Unless you're of the Paleo persuasion, you're probably thinking, “Well, duh.” Given that nutrition experts have been imploring us for years to give up white bread and sugary cereals in favor of the more, um, toothsome texture of whole grains, it would seem the science behind those recommendations must have been long settled.

    Indeed, numerous large studies have linked consumption of whole grains with a reduction in risk for both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as better overall digestive health. But the new Harvard study, which was published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, appears to be one of the first—or at least one of the largest—to look at the connection between eating whole grains and mortality.

    Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health combed through data from two huge studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, amounting to a combined total of more than 115,000 women and men who had regularly completed detailed questionnaires about their diet from the mid-1980s to 2010. After adjusting for a number of factors—including whether participants smoked, their body mass index, and their level of physical activity—the Harvard researchers found that whole-grain consumption was linked to a decreased risk of mortality of up to 9 percent, and a reduction in the risk of death related to heart disease of up to 15 percent. Each serving of whole grains consumed (equivalent to 28 grams per day) correlated to a 5 percent reduction in the overall risk of death and a 9 percent reduction in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

    Another publicity-savvy tidbit: Replacing one serving of red meat per day with a serving of whole grains cut the risk of heart disease by 20 percent.

    “This study further endorses the current dietary guidelines that promote whole grains as one of the major healthful foods for prevention of major chronic disease,” said department of nutrition professor Qi Sun, one of the study’s lead authors, in a statement.

    No doubt, but there’s just one problem: It’s become inordinately complicated for consumers to determine what constitutes a good source of whole grains.

    As nutrition science has continued to ply us with ever more studies touting the health benefits of eating more whole grains, the processed food industry has, predictably, jumped on the bandwagon. As has so often been the case these past couple decades, the Food and Drug Administration has been of little to no help when it comes to clearing up the confusion associated with the proliferation of food makers’ “whole grain” claims.

    Thus, we now have such mind-bendingly ridiculous concoctions as “whole grain” Beefaroni and Cocoa Puffs, as well as “nutri-grain” Eggos from Kellogg’s, the same company that also brings us Cinnabon Crunchy Cinnamon Multigrain Cereal.  

    Although the FDA issued a “draft guidance” for the food industry back in 2006 regarding the claims that could be made about a product's whole-grain content on its packaging, the agency has yet to produce any final rules.

    Rather than hold your breath and wait for the FDA to deliver, here’s a quick whole-grain tutorial and some handy tips culled from nutrition experts.

    Whole Grains in a Nutshell 
    A whole grain has three basic parts: an outer layer of bran that surrounds the starchy endosperm and the germ, or seed, inside. Highly refined grains, like your basic white flour, strip away the nutrient-rich bran layer and the germ, leaving just the endosperm—which is largely devoid of both nutrition and flavor.

    Picking the Right Cereal...
    As you’d expect, the cereal aisle is ground zero when it comes to the explosion of whole-grain claims. But even a supposedly “whole-grain” cereal can include a heap of not-so-healthy ingredients. Experts tout the whole-grain wonders of steel-cut or old-fashioned oats—not, pointedly, instant oatmeal. But if you don’t have a half hour or more to wait for your oatmeal in the a.m., Harvard nutritionists recommend looking for a cereal that has at least four grams of fiber but less than eight grams of sugar per serving.

    …and Bread
    A close second to breakfast cereal in the whole-grain circus has to be the bread aisle. Here again it’s best to look beyond the splashy claims on the front of the package (e.g., “multigrain” = pretty much meaningless) and turn to the nutrition panel. Make sure that the first ingredient listed is a whole grain; yes, the word “whole” should be there, as in “whole wheat flour.” No matter what the front of the package says (or what the color of the bread is), if it’s made from, say, “wheat flour,” “enriched wheat flour,” “unbleached wheat flour,” or the like, you’re essentially getting highly processed white flour. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle has offered this advice to befuddled bread shoppers: “[Y]ou must inspect the label to make sure the first ingredient is whole grain, the total number of ingredients is small and devoid of unpronounceable chemicals, the fiber content is at least 2 grams per 1-ounce serving and the label says 100 percent whole wheat. Anything less is reconstituted white bread with occasional pieces of original grain added back.”

    Everything Else
    You probably don’t need me to tell you that when it comes to eating more whole grains, your best bet is to leave the processed food industry behind and stick with what we know are bona fide whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa. But that sort of recommendation can be about one step shy of exhorting you to bake your own whole-grain bread. Patrick Skerrett, the executive editor of Harvard Health, has come up with a pretty simple rule of thumb for cutting through the clutter of food makers’ whole-grain claims. If you’re trying to decide between two products that are touted as “whole-grain,” check their labels: There should be at least one gram of dietary fiber for every 10 grams of carbs. Yes, it requires a bit of math, but it’s math that’s easy enough to do in your head while you're standing in the aisle—and “dietary fiber” is always listed immediately below “total carbohydrates,” so the numbers can be found quickly.

  • Food
  • New Year, New You! A Diet for 2015 You Can Actually Feel Good About

    Forget the latest cleanse or superfood—there's no real secret to eating better for yourself, or for the planet.

    There’s something inherently disheartening about New Year’s resolutions, isn’t there? While we’d all like to preserve some sense of the bubbly midnight euphoria that typically fuels these annual declarations, alas, all too often they come to be associated with the cold gray winter’s light of January 1—a kind of memory of optimism as opposed to optimism itself (experienced alongside that dull little throb behind the eyes that frequently plagues the morning after). It’s no wonder that only a mere 8 percent of Americans say they end up fulfilling their resolutions.

    But maybe the problem with New Year’s resolutions isn’t the notion of making resolutions. Rather, maybe it’s with the kinds of resolutions we tend to make: lose weight, get fit, eat healthy. Among the most popular resolutions there runs a common thread, which is that in contemplating how to achieve them, we tend to stare down a long, dismal path of joyless self-denial, itself somehow bound up in our culture’s persistent attachment to a puritanical attitude toward pleasure. After a holiday season spent wallowing in all manner of self-indulgence, this dysfunctional logic goes, now we must punish ourselves with celery sticks and brown rice.

    Not only that, but so many resolutions are rooted not in empowerment but the kind of enfeeblement that’s best summed up in the feeling we get scanning magazine covers in the supermarket checkout line, with all those cover lines promising “New Year, New You!” alongside the impossibly perfect physical dimensions of some digitally enhanced specimen of humanity.

    It’s enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel on the whole resolutions racket.

    But what if…

    What if, instead of measuring our goals—and ourselves—against a media-driven standard of success, we measured our resolutions against a more benevolent standard? What if we expanded the notion of self-improvement beyond the self (and selfish)? What if we stopped searching for the secret to feeling better about ourselves, and instead of suffering from a chronic sense that we’re just not quite “getting it,” we celebrated our individual capacity to make a difference—both in our own lives and for the planet?

    "I used to feel powerless and bombarded with advertising," Frances Moore Lappé, a leading environmental and food activist, said of walking into a grocery store in a recent interview. “But now, with what I’ve learned, I have the knowledge and the power to make the choices that are best for my body, best for the earth, best for all people on the earth. And that is liberation. That is freedom. That is not restricting our diets, it is expressing our true humanity, our true nature. Because our fundamental nature is three things: Our need for connection, our need for meaning in our lives, and our need for power. Choosing food that is best for the earth, best for our bodies, best for all people—that gives us all three. That, to me, is the power of the food movement.”

    Indeed, Lappé’s seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet, argued that the problem of world hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food, but by a squandering of resources—most notably in the gross inefficiency of producing meat. When we eat beef, for example, we consume a measly 3 percent of the calories those cattle consumed.

    Incredibly, Lappé first made her case back in 1971, at the very dawn of the modern environmental movement. No doubt the passing of time has done nothing but strengthen her prescient arguments. Whereas four decades ago few people could imagine something as mind-boggling as global warming, today we know that livestock farming is one of the most significant factors contributing to climate change.

    Yet, according to a groundbreaking analysis published recently in the journal Nature, by adopting a more plant-based diet, we could keep the global warming pollution associated with agriculture from rising—even as the world’s population continues to grow. The study, which was led by G. David Tilman, professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, appears to be one of the first to rigorously examine the impact of global diet trends on both the environment and public health, and it not only confirms the environmental benefits of cutting back our meat consumption, but the health benefits too. The closer we come to vegetarianism, for instance, the lower our risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

    But Lappé, who in the 40 years since publishing Diet for a Small Planet has gone on to write nearly 20 more books and to cofound several nonprofit organizations, doesn’t simply advocate for vegetarianism—and the “diet” she promotes is about as far from your average flash-in-the-pan fad regimen as you can get.

    “The first rule is to eat as if every bite matters, because it does,” Lappé says. Her prescription for success: “We gain positive power by choosing organic every time we possibly can, eating low on the food chain, eating in the plant world as much as we possibly can, and eating from small farmers, local farmers, family farmers as much as we possibly can.”

    Note the emphasis on “positive power” there. That’s something a whole lot more of our New Year’s resolutions could use a healthy dose of.

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  • 2015: Year of the Great Tech-Enabled Takeout Wars?

    Two big technology firms appear to be eyeing the $70 billion restaurant-delivery market.

    Are we on the cusp of a major food-delivery revolution in 2015?

    Admittedly it’s been a long time since Santa had a lock on the market for jaw-droppingly fast delivery, and when it comes to getting your workaday lunch or dinner in a flash, Internet- and app-based ordering has steadily been gaining ground against dialing up the nearest sandwich shop.

    But while newfangled tech-driven schemes may garner headlines—whether it’s Pizza Hut pushing its product via Xbox or Domino’s launching a hands-free ordering app in new Fords—it turns out there’s a whole lot of room for growth when it comes to online ordering.

    Americans spend $70 billion a year on food takeout and delivery, according to Business Insider, and yet only $9 billion of that comes from online ordering. With a pie that size, it’s no wonder a couple of Internet giants appear to be sniffing around trying to grab a piece of it.

    In near-simultaneous moves, both Amazon and Uber quietly began testing their own online restaurant-delivery programs in December. These are small operations—almost too small to qualify as news. Except, of course, we’re talking about one of the biggest Internet companies on the planet on the one hand, and one of the fastest-growing tech concerns on the other.

    Amazon began testing its restaurant-delivery service in its hometown of Seattle earlier this month, allowing users to order from about 100 local eateries, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. If the online retailer is essentially a gigantic, Internet-sized mall, then this new service would appear to be the food court—a bunch of menus all in one place, with Amazon allowing you to pay via its site. But Amazon is just providing the digital real estate; the restaurants themselves are still delivering the food.

    Meanwhile, the much-hyped (and controversial) alternative taxi service Uber started its own restaurant-delivery service in Los Angeles, UberFresh. It’s hardly eye-popping in scope: Not only is the service currently limited to three areas, there are just a handful of participating restaurants—and not everything on those restaurants’ menus is available for delivery, according to the Los Angeles Times.

    Still, Uber promises you’ll be chowing down on your lunch or dinner in 10 minutes or less, with none of the headaches of standing in line or trying to find a place to park. No word yet on whether the company’s notorious surge pricing will apply to late-night Thai takeout.

    Neither company appears to be saying much about its entrée into the food-delivery biz, no doubt wary about stirring up a bunch of publicity before they’ve had a chance to work out the kinks in their respective systems.

    Both still have a long way to go to challenge the dominance of market leader GrubHub, which, after merging with competitor, went on to raise a heady $192 million in its IPO last April. The company currently features nearly 29,000 restaurants on its site in 600 cities, from San Francisco to London, and it remains something of a Wall Street darling, currently trading at around $32 a share, higher than its $26 per share IPO. 

    But despite its success thus far, GrubHub may well be poised to be overtaken by a more innovative competitor, going the way of, say, MySpace. Of the $9 billion market for online restaurant ordering, GrubHub has only managed to capture 19 percent—and that’s just a mere 2 percent of the total $70 billion delivery market overall.

    “There are several start-ups going after food, but there are over 600,000 restaurants in the U.S.,” one big tech investor told Nation’s Restaurant News recently. “If the market has already proven that it can support that many restaurants, I would argue that there is room for one, two, five or 10 more [online delivery services] coming at it from a completely different angle.”

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  • 20 Top Food Trends for 2015: Eat, Drink, and Be Savvy

    Get ready to trade your Sriracha for jalapeño honey and your kale for cauliflower.

    It’s that special time of year, when restaurant gurus and industry analysts gaze into their crystal balls to tell us all the sorts of wacky things we’ll be eating and drinking in the coming year—and beyond.

    Still think quinoa and kale are the superfoods du jour? Convinced you’re on the cutting edge because you’ve mastered speed-dialing your local pizza place using Siri? Haven’t shifted to quaffing your cannabis yet? Leave dusty, dowdy 2014 behind and embark on the brave new world that is dining in 2015! Best of all, you don’t have to sift through all the various trend reports to come away with the most intriguing predictions—I’ve done that for you.

    Whether you’re a I’m-not-a-hipster hipster prowling for the next culinary craze or a health fanatic dying to get your hands on the newest up-and-coming superfood, there’s a trend here for everyone.

    4 for the Foodie:

    • International “It” Cuisine: Asian, and not your corner Chinese takeout or sushi joint, but more like regional Vietnamese, creative Korean, and “funkier” Filipino, according to industry analyst Sterling-Rice Group. Surging popularity of all things ramen is forecasted to continue a pace too.

    • Flavor of the Year: bitter. As consulting firm Technomics puts it, “Customers are developing a taste for bitter flavors. That means deeper chocolates, hoppier beers and darker coffees.”

    • Flavor of the Year, Part Deux: sweet and hot. Building on the runaway success of Sriracha and Americans' love of sweet things, food wizards are rolling out blends like habanero honey, jalapeño honey, and ghost chile honey.

    • Think Small: Seems like nothing new here, since tapas took the country by storm, oh, a decade or more ago. But while big chain restaurants may continue to pile on the portions, at trendier spots, as Technomics predicts, “diners demand small plates and flexible portions.”

    4 for the Food Activist:

    • Loco for Locavores: The trend in local eating shows no sign of losing steam. Take the top 10 trends gleaned from a survey of almost 1,300 professional chefs by the National Restaurant Association, for example. Topping the list are “locally sourced meat and seafood” and “locally grown produce.”

    • Hyper-local? In fact, some industry watchers are predicting the die-hard locavores will take the movement even further toward “hyper-local” or “micro-local” sourcing.

    • Where’s the Beef? As public awareness grows about the double-whammy health-and-environmental costs of meat eating, Food Genius predicts that “restaurant operators should expect to see an uptick in vegetarian orders.”

    • People Power: “The meaning of corporate social responsibility evolves as consumer concerns shift to the human factor,” Technomics predicts. In other words: More Americans are likely to support a living wage for restaurant workers.


    4 for the Tech Nut:

    • Tablets: Touch-screen ordering is the wave of the future. Even McDonald’s and Pizza Hut are experimenting with it.

    • Online Delivery: Tech giants Uber and Amazon recently dipped their toes into the multibillion-dollar restaurant delivery market; expect fierce competition to ensue with established rivals like GrubHub.

    • Google Glass: In one of the creepier predictions, industry consultant Baum + Whiteman foresees a not-so-distant future wherein waiters use face-recognition software combined with Google’s next-gen eyewear to identify everyone at your table—and make personalized menu recommendations.

    • Reservation Revolution: B+W also posits that we’ll be seeing more nonrefundable prepay reservations at some of the hottest restaurants, in other words “people buying ‘tickets’ for dinner like seats on an airplane.”

    4 for the Health Nut:

    • Amaranth: This gluten-free, protein-packed "grain" (it's really a seed) is poised to become the next quinoa for the superfood set. It also happens to be a close relative of the Andean crop.

    • Cauliflower: Forget steamed-on-the-side; cauliflower is cropping up in everything from pizza dough to porridge as an alterative to grain-based flours.

    • Fermentation: Probiotics aren’t just for yogurt anymore. Think kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and even DIY pickles as vehicles for getting good bacteria into your system.

    • Matcha: Described by some heath gurus as the “superpower green tea,” this traditional powdered Japanese tea is supposedly jam-packed with antioxidants.

    4 for the Foodie Futurist:

    • “Cannabis Cuisine”: Sterling-Rice Group predicts, “Cannabis will move beyond pot brownies to confections, bars, simple syrups, and bottled cold-brewed coffee.” The latter, however, has already happened.

    • Neurogastronomy: Baum + Whiteman sees a big future for this mouthful of a concept, which it describes as “how our senses cumulatively react to food.” In other words, restaurants manipulating your entire environment through shifting high-definition imagery on restaurant walls or pervading the space with different aromas.

    • Outsourced Grocery Shopping: Among the proliferation of food-service options, Technomics notes the rise of web-based subscription services like Blue Apron, which delivers dinner recipes—and the fresh ingredients to make them—right to your door. 

    • Ten-Year Trends: The National Restaurant Association asked chefs to gaze a decade into the future to predict what would still be hot in 2025. Top picks included environmental sustainability, local sourcing, and healthier fare—yep, it's 2014 all over again.

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