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Understanding food science

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As noted in class, ensuring that students, from K-12 to college, are science-literate is now recognized as one of the more important missions of our schools and universities.  Given all the issues we’ve discussed this semester, a list that includes organic foods, GMOs, food safety, obesity, and allergens, one can argue that food science literacy is particularly important. Indeed, so important is this topic that the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences convened a workshop in Fall 2015 to address Food Literacy.  The proceedings (down-loadable for free) were then published earlier this year. There were plenty of opinions on how to promote food literacy, from childhood education to training physicians.  Perhaps one of the main challenges was stated by one author as “how to deliver knowledge to people whose lives are too busy for them to take on any more chores”. Credible food-in-the-news stories are published every day on-line and in print newspapers and magazines.  Yet the number of people who actually read those articles is probably a small percent of those that read or “hear about” what the Food …

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Food science goes molecular

In Featured Posts by Prof13 Comments

The topic for this week is one that will probably be new to most of you.  It’s called “Molecular Gastronomy”, and although you might not be at all familiar with this, it has been spreading across the cyber-globe.  There are cookbooks, websites, and restaurants that feature this cuisine.  Who knows, maybe it will even get to Nebraska before the end of the decade.  Until then, you will have to learn about in 280 class.  

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Crime and punishment

In Featured Posts by Prof9 Comments

Of all the food issues discussed in class, perhaps the one that hits closest to home is food safety.  It’s important not only personally (who wants to spend a nice fall day in the bathroom), but also as professional food scientists. Hopefully, you will eventually graduate and get a job in the food industry.  The worst think that can happen to a food company, whether it’s small or a large multinational, is to have one if its products implicated in a food poisoning outbreak.  That’s why knowledge about food microbiology, quality assurance plans like HACCP (to be discussed in class), and appropriate testing methods are so important. The consequences of sending contaminated food into the marketplace can be significant.  Even if the contaminated food is detected before any consumer actually gets sick, recalls are very expensive.  If there is a disease outbreak, then civil law suits will surely follow.  The more serious the outbreak, the higher will be the cost.  It’s not unusual for a companies literally to go broke from food poisoning outbreaks.  This is true for larger companies, …

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Thankful for food safety

In Featured Posts by Prof17 Comments

This is the time of years when the food sections of nearly every newspaper will contain articles on food safety and tips to make sure your holidays are disease-free. No matter, the odds are there will be plenty of day-after stories of people eating undercooked turkey, raw oysters, or some other ill-prepared or contaminated food. One of the questions we will address is who exactly is responsible for foodborne disease outbreaks. Is it the consumer who may not have followed the instructions? Or is it the manufacturer, processor, restaurant, or retailer who sold contaminated foods? What about the government who is supposed to keep us safe? Another issue we will discuss concerns the issues of safety and the level of risk we are willing to assume. Can foods ever be 100% safe? What level of exposure is reasonable? If the government said no food (raw or otherwise) could contain any Salmonella or Campylobacter, none of us will be eating turkey next week.  

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Pop taxes

In Featured Posts by Prof7 Comments

The voters have voted, and they have made their choice. No, I‘m not referring to the Trump upset, but rather to the 4 ballot initiatives on soda pop taxes.  Starting next year, it will cost a bit more to buy soda in three California cities, San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, as well as in Boulder, Colorado.  Is this the start of even more such initiatives? We’ll see.  

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Food safety has my vote

In Featured Posts by Prof12 Comments

As noted in the previous post, there are several very specific food-related issues that will be on voters’ ballots in various states or cities.  However, nationally, food has hardly been mentioned at all.  Indeed, the candidates for President have not discussed (in public at least) anything specifically related to food, agriculture, or nutrition (except that they like the food in whatever state they are campaigning). Nonetheless, food-related issues are relevant in several major respects.  Immigration policy will have a major impact on agriculture as much of the fruit and produce we eat is harvested by guest workers from other countries.  More restrictive immigration laws will also affect the restaurant and food service industry who depend on foreign-born workers.  Likewise, minimum wage laws could certainly affect this industry. As food scientists, perhaps the most serious concern is whether the next leader of the free world will continue to support regulations and agencies responsible for ensuring food safety.  This has been one of the few issues for which bipartisanship exist.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed by Congress in 2010 and …

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Food on the ballot

In Featured Posts by Prof10 Comments

On Tuesday, voters in America will make decisions other than which candidates they dislike more than the others.  There are also many local and state-wide ballot initiatives, including several that involve food-related issues. As we discussed in class, proposals for soda pop taxes have passed in only two cities, Berkeley and Philadelphia. On Tuesday, residents of Boulder, San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, California will decide whether to impose a 1 to 2 cent per ounce tax on pop and several other sweetened beverages. In Fairfax, Virginia, there is a ballot measure that would impose a 4% tax on prepared meals and beverages purchased from restaurants and grocery stores.  This measure, however, seems to be more about raising revenue than improving health.  Corporate farming and animal welfare measures are also on ballots in several states. According to the very useful website ballotpedia.org, perhaps the oddest initiative was in California.  Called, the “California ‘Shellfish Suppression’ Initiative”, it failed to get the required number of signatures and was not placed on the ballot.  Had it done so and passed, it would have made …

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The $99 gut microbiome

In Featured Posts by Prof10 Comments

We’ve been talking in class about the bacteria that live in your intestinal tract – how they get there, their role in various diseases, and how to shift the microbial population to promote better health.  Of course, before trying to change your gut bacteria, it might help to know what’s actually there.  Doing so is not as difficult as you might think.  In fact, if you have $99, you can have your gut analyzed and get a profile of your very own microbiota. So far, more than 6,000 people have joined the “American Gut Project”.  It’s very easy to participate – they send you a sample kit, you collect the sample, mail it back, and wait for the results.  One has to be careful, however, about interpreting the data.  For example, how would you react if you learned you were harboring bacteria associated with particular diseases?  Bioethicists are also concerned about privacy issues.  Nonetheless, collecting data from thousands of people is great for scientists who are studying the gut.  

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For real

In Featured Posts by Prof5 Comments

I will talk about this topic in class, but there is now a rather unconventional medical practice being used to treat antibiotic-resistant Clostridium difficile infections.  This organism, called “C. diff” in the popular press, causes a truly miserable disease.  Patients that have this organism in their gut can be chronically ill, with a terrible quality of life.  In severe cases, the infection can be so bad that removal of the colon is sometimes the only remedy. A few years ago, a handful of medical researchers developed a novel idea – why not replace the gut microbiota of these C. difficile patients with gut contents from healthy donors.  When I say “gut contents” you should realize that I am referring to poop.  Guess what?  It works.  As a matter of fact, these so-called Fecal Microbiota Transplants (FMT) work great, with success rates of 90% or higher. Scientists are now creating fecal banks – collections of gut bacteria from donors that can be stored away and used to treat patients without having to round up fresh material.  They are like blood banks.  …

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The western food industry in the developing world

In Featured Posts by Prof14 Comments

We discussed how the food industry can play an important role in addressing the world hunger problem.  Food scientist certainly know how to preserve foods and reduce spoilage and waste.  Food scientists know how to develop pasteurization and other technologies to make sure foods and beverages are safe. One concern of some nutritionists, however, is that some food companies may also view the developing world as just another market.  As noted in this recent article (October, 2016), they suggest that globalization, urbanization, and technological progress may lead to many of the same Western diseases that afflict the developed world. In other words, they ask, does the introduction of salty snack foods or sugary beverages really improve the lives of the intended populations?  They contend that sales of highly processed foods in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East grew at rates 25 – 30 times that of North America.  Soon they predict, obesity will be a problem, even while malnutrition remains a serious problem Among the solutions they suggest is one we’ve heard before in the west.  Processed foods should …

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Global warming and Prof’s nightmare

In Featured Posts by Prof3 Comments

As noted in class, climate change is already affecting important agricultural products.  Whether its drought or warming or sunlight hours, these changes can have profound effects on crops as well as in animal agriculture.  Unfortunately, several of these products are very dear to me, personally. Among the products perhaps most sensitive to a change of just a degree or two are wine grapes.  Interestingly, as noted in a series of  recent papers, there will be winners and losers.  The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon grapes do well in Bordeaux, for example, is because the temperature, moisture, and sunlight hours are perfect for that particular grape cultivar in that specific region of France.  If the climatic conditions are altered, then those grapes will not have the proper level of sweetness, acidity, or color necessary to make a good Bordeaux wine.  The same considerations exist for other grapes grown throughout the rest of the world.  Of course, as the temperature rises, colder regions (Nebraska?) may become the “new” Napa Valley. Then there are my two other “cannot-get-through-the-day-without” foods – coffee and chocolate.  The …

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Guts and glory

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Probiotics, prebiotics, and gut health is one of up-coming topics, but I could not resist posting this interesting story that appeared on the UNL website.  Let me know if you agree that this is a terrific story.  

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Biofuels of the future

In Featured Posts by Prof14 Comments

Next week, we will discuss the so-called “food versus fuel” issue.  Briefly, the issue addresses the practical, economic, and environmental questions related to the use of corn, soybeans, and other food crops for biofuels.  Of course, perhaps the most importantly issue is the moral question of whether food crops should be used at all for biofuels, given the  world hunger problem. Recently, scientists have suggested that a relatively new category of crops be used for biofuels.  These so-called “energy crops” are defined as cellulosic plants that can be grown at low-cost, with few inputs and little maintenance for the expressed purpose to be used as biofuels.  They contain enough potential energy (i.e., carbohydrates that can be fermented to ethanol) to make economic sense.  Examples include woody or herbaceous plants and grasses (like switchgrasss that grows so well in Nebraska). The challenge is that these crops must still be processed to convert the cellulose into fermentable sugars.  One possible way to address these concerns is via biotechnology.  I suppose that would make the biofuel GM, but would that really matter, even …

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GMOs on campus

In Featured Posts by Prof18 Comments

Think of all of the contemporary issues in food science, and GMOs are probably at the top of the list.  Here in America’s farm belt, genetically modified (GM) agricultural crops like corn and soybeans are as common as, well, as common as a Nebraska cornfield.  Of course, when corn and soybeans are GM, the hundreds or thousands of food products and food ingredients made from those commodities are also GM. Needless to say, there are a considerable number of consumers opposed to GM technology.  While most consumers have gone happily on their way eating these products, others have sought out GMO-free products. This has led to an entire market devoted to non-GMO foods.  New labeling laws for identifying GM and non-GM foods will eventually go into effect. We will address the GMO issue this week.  In doing so, I will try to take the emotion out of the discussion and focus on the science.  In the meantime, I encourage you to attend the Heuermann Lecture on Monday afternoon at 3:30 in the NIC Auditorium.  Mark Lynas, will be speaking about …

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Perfect timing

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OMG, what perfect timing.  We just watched Fed Up, a critical examination of the role of the food industry in the obesity epidemic, and now here comes the New York Times with an entire series of articles on the food industry.  Plus there is a gorgeous photo essay of modern agriculture and food processing.  I am just starting to read these articles myself, and will discuss in class next week.  

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Now showing

In Featured Posts by Prof8 Comments

Films about foods and beverages have long been popular, in part because of how familiar the subjects are to film-goers.  Of course, there are documentary and non-documentary films, with many of the latter actually about something other than food.  Some of my favorites include: Sideways, a buddy movie, a road movie, and a love story, all told while the protagonists make their way through the California wineries and restaurants. Julie and Julia, a past and present film about the famous TV chef, Julia Child. Waitress, a movie about love, marriage, and pies. Chocolat (needs no further description!) Chef, Big Night, and The Hundred-Foot Journey are great movies about restaurants and chefs. There are also plenty of provocative documentary films about food.  Many have an obvious political viewpoint (like Fed Up, Food Inc., and Supersize Me).  It’s important to watch these films with a critical eye, as there are many counter-arguments that can be made contrary to the views of the film-maker. In any event, I imagine you have your own list of favorite movies about food.  Yes?  

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Eating as a political choice?

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We already covered the topic of “why we eat what we eat” and the social, cultural, and psychological factors that affect out eating decisions. I could not resist introducing another factor – specifically, one’s politics. Here’s a thought experiment. Gather a group of political conservatives for a pot luck and another of liberals, and see if they have brought similar foods and have similar dietary preferences. Or poll individuals coming out of a Buffalo Wild Wings or a Panera and then ask if they are voting Donald or Hillary. There are actually a few sociologists and political scientists that have studied this issue. In one such study, entitled “Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?”, published in the American Journal of Sociology, the authors developed a complicated mathematical formula to answer this question. I read this paper three times and could not figure out how they arrived at their model or even what it meant. Another study (a Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Kentucky) addressed this question in a way I could understand. The author reported that conservative restaurant patrons made …

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The Food Allergen Generation

In Featured Posts by Prof8 Comments

Throughout the semester we’ve discussed how food science has changed in the past century, the past 50 years, and even since you guys entered the scene 20 years ago. To this point, the food allergen issue is one you’ve been hearing about probably since you were in 1st grade.  But for your parents’ generation (and certainly mine), we never heard of food allergies and never knew someone who could get sick (or die) from eating peanuts.  Before your generation, there was no labeling and the food industry paid little attention to this issue. This situation, as you know, is completely different.  Over the next two lectures, Dr. Taylor will explain how we got to this point.  He will also conduct case studies so you have a sense of the sometimes difficult decisions a food company could have to make when faced with the prospect of multi-million dollar recalls.  

ProfThe Food Allergen Generation
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Food icons go organic

In Featured Posts by Prof5 Comments

The list is long, so hold on to your peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  As we will discuss in class, the organic category has become so large that almost every major food company has introduced their own organic product line.  Below are some of the most recognizable food products, each with their own organic version. Hunts Tomatoes Healthy Choice frozen meals Orville Redenbachers popcorn Pam cooking spray Gatorade Heinz catsup Heinz beans Triscuit Ritz Fig Newton Chips Ahoy Dole bananas Welch’s grape juice Rice Krispies Raisin Bran Lay’s Potato Chips Tostitos Cheetos Gerber’s baby food Dannon yogurt Campbell’s Soup Lean Cuisine frozen meals Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Smucker’s jelly Smucker’s peanut butter Tropicana orange juice  

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Not your father’s food choice

In Featured Posts by Prof9 Comments

The food business operates on tight margins, meaning that the difference between the cost of the goods and what it receives from the sale of those goods is small.  Still, if a company can sell a lot of product, they can be profitable. As noted in this report, many of the great American food companies that sold iconic food products are now faced with sluggish sales and sagging profits.  This includes Cheerios and other breakfast cereals we grew up eating, Coca Cola, the taste that refreshes, and Kraft Mac and Cheese.  You might remember that the manufacturer of Twinkies even went bankrupt a few years ago. Now comes news of declining sales of another iconic American food product – Campbell’s Soup.  According to this report, even their organic line has been hurting. Business experts have suggested that Millennials simply do not share the same brand loyalty as their parents and grandparents, at least for food.  iPhones are another story. Nonetheless, this may explain why small food brands, especially those for natural, organic or healthy products are so popular among Millennials.  …

ProfNot your father’s food choice