December 3, 2013
In the west, we have a cultural distaste for most bugs. We’re the land of pesticides, systematically going to great lengths to avoid or get rid of them. Even the word “bug” in everyday vernacular has evolved to connote unsavory behavior.
But to the chagrin of the most aversive entomophobes, much of the scientific literature has found that as many as 1,7000 species are not only safe to eat, they’re also nutritiously more beneficial than much of the food we normally consume. Compared to beef, “a six-ounce serving of crickets has 60 percent less saturated fat and twice as much vitamin B-12 than the same amount of ground beef,” according to a PBS NewsHour report. Besides being a good source of lean protein, bugs are genetically distant enough from us that transferable diseases such as mad cow or feral pig disease won’t ever be a concern. There’s a reason why, for 80 percent of the world’s nations, insects are actually an essential part of people’s diets.
Yet, to satiate the culinary preferences of the few, an agricultural system has been set up that devotes over two-thirds of the world’s farmland to raising livestock, while ultimately yielding only half an ounce of cooked beef for every pound of feedlot grain. The sheer amount of grain that goes into producing meat in the United States alone each year is enough to feed nearly 800 million people during that time. Meat production is also responsible for 20 percent of all the greenhouse gases, according to a report in the Guardian.
For San Francisco-based software engineer Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, this approach to food production for a rapidly growing population isn’t only inefficient, it’s simply unsustainable. His response was to develop, along with a team of entomological experts, a DIY open-source bug farming kit that he hopes to make commercially available in the near future, possibly as early as the beginning of 2014.
Each Tiny Farms kit comes with all the necessary equipment, including a bug starter pack, to hatch and cultivate your choice of insect. With an instruction guide, tutorials as well as software to track, manage and interact with a community of bug farmers, novices will be guided through all aspects of the process. Though a purchase price for the kit hasn’t been determined, the company promises the materials will be low cost and readily available worldwide.
The concept was designed for enthusiasts to take advantage of the fact that though the world is already crawling with these potentially edible critters, only a few large-scale, food-grade insect producers exist. Assurances of food-grade sanitation matters because wild insects may be contaminated with pesticides, metals and other chemicals. With the enclosed kits, owners can rear herds for personal consumption (silkworm pancakes, anyone?), to feed other animals or to sell them on the market for as much as $15 per 1,000 crickets.
“The bottleneck now is supply,” Imrie-Situnayak writes on Xconomy. “With only a couple of food-grade insect farms like World Ento and Chirp, the industry’s total production capacity is relatively small. At this moment, any entrepreneur with the resources to start a cricket farm has a guaranteed market for their produce.”
As cold-blooded invertebrates, insects generally don’t expend energy to keep warm and thus require less natural resources to thrive. For instance, they use their exoskeletons to seal in and preserve water when it’s hot rather than sweating the way mammals do. The United Nations, in encouraging insect consumption, points out that insects, such as crickets, require six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and two times less than pigs to reap the same amount of protein. On the whole, they’re much easier to raise.
“Insect rearing can be very simple and low-tech. Also, unlike grazing mammals, they don’t need large horizontal areas to live in, and they can be stacked in a vertical environment for maximum efficiency of limited space,” Phil Torres, a conservation biologist at Cornell University, tells Modern Farmer. “Many insects certainly do adapt well to farm-like environments. Numerous species can be raised in high densities, especially compared to mammals, so you can get a much higher nutritional output per unit area used to raise them.”
Besides Tiny Farms, a growing number of eco-conscious bugstock advocates are exploring various tacts to help change people’s perceptions of insects as food. In Spain, bug farmer Laetitia Giroud raises crickets to be milled into an unrecognizable fine powder that can be used as an ingredient in desserts such as cookies. And in Montreal, a team of students from McGill Univeristy has been awarded the 2013 Hult Prize ($1 million) to start grasshopper farms in developing regions in Mexico, Thailand and Kenya. The resulting yields would then be grounded and turned into flour for bread and other baked goods.
Tom Turpin, an entomologist at Purdue University and fellow insectivore, argues however that the only way for insect farming to reverse some of the environmental strain brought about by meat production is to scale it up to a similarly massive level. “It doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it,” he tells Business Insider. “But we haven’t spent the time culturing insects in the way we have cultured plants and animals for that food purpose.”
But for now, perhaps the biggest hump continues to be that much of the world’s food-producing systems and the communities built around them also depends on the eradication of bugs, rather than the harvesting of them. While agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and British Locust Control are geared toward preserving important crops such as wheat and barley, there’s a certain misguided irony in such efforts to wipe out swarms of insects that are essentially complete proteins in order to protect an incomplete one.
November 27, 2013
Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.
I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.
But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.
In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.
1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”
2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.
3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.
4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.
5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.
6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.
7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.
8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.
9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.
10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.
Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.
Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 25, 2013
Thanksgiving dinner has long been an all-day affair. But, we’re living in very different times than the days of the earliest feasts, when just cooking meat on a spit over a fire took several hours.
There are now three professional football games airing throughout the day, social media correspondences to keep up with and an implied obligation to get everyone’s belly stuffed in time for the ensuing shopping rush known as Black Friday, which, each year, seems to infringe more and more on the holiday. Oh, who are we kidding? Perhaps a lot of us have simply just become so lazy that we’d happily activate any device that reduces even the most mundane aspect of the cooking process to a push of a button. Automatic stirrer? Yes, please. Thankfully, we’ve got you—and even those who are the worst procrastinators (you know who you are)—covered with this high-tech guide for preparing an efficient and delicious traditional meal.
Let’s start with the customary centerpiece, otherwise known as the Thanksgiving turkey. Baking a bird typically requires going through a tedious process of rubbing, basting and slow roasting. An alternative, gaining in popularity over recent years, is an outdoor method of deep-frying turkeys so that the meat comes out moist beneath a layer of dark, crispy skin. Whereas cooking a turkey in the oven can take upwards of six hours, a 10-pound turkey can be ready to serve in 35 minutes with this method. Deep-frying kits, however, are potentially hazardous pieces of equipment if not handled properly, a fact proven year after year by the thousands of fires resulting from accidental turkey explosions.
Waring’s Pro Turkey Fryer/Steamer ($250), one of the few indoor fowl-fryer machines, is a godsend. Hailed by Newsweek as the one indoor fryer that can “save your Thanksgiving,” the all-electric rotating system allows home chefs to deep-fry turkeys weighing up to 18 pounds by simply lowering the prepped poultry into an oil-filled stainless steel reservoir. Built-in safety features include a magnetic breakaway cord, a basket that stays cool to the touch and lid vents that release steam to prevent boilovers. After about an hour, you get an evenly cooked turkey that’s ready to eat. As an added bonus, the device features a steamer function for other occasions, such as clam bakes.
Besides the inherent trickiness of serving up a well-cooked turkey, properly pulverizing potatoes into a thick creamy paste has also proven to be somewhat of an art. Shortcuts like tossing potatoes into a blender produce a watery goop that barely resembles the fluffy handmade goodness that everyone’s expecting. Potato ricers work well, but they are quite laborious to use.
The Better Potato Masher ($59.95), sold through Hammacher Schlemmer, functions like a mechanized ricer. Using a rotating motor, pieces of chopped and boiled potatoes are pressed and pureed through a sieve all the while “preserving their starch granules, breaking up any lumps, and yielding a smooth, fluffy batch of this beloved comfort food,” according to the product description.
Gravy is one aspect of Thanksgiving prep that should be easy enough to make itself, except the part where you have to stir…and stir…and stir again. The Uutensil Stirr ($25) automatic pan stirrer will literally take that tedious aspect of human labor out of your hands. Just place the device directly over the pan as you mix in milk, cream, flour and other ingredients. Reviews of the first version weren’t very positive, with Apartment Therapy concluding that the device is incapable of consistently stirring anything beyond “a thin liquid.” Tests carried out on oatmeal and milky sauces showed that the gradual thickening of the sauce caused the Stirr to grind down to a halt. But, the company has since released a new and improved model, which should (hopefully) have worked out these kinks.
Whether you augment the main course with a side serving of pumpkin pie or a heartier choice, such as mincemeat pie, the Breville Personal Pie Maker can enure that your dessert is loaded up and made piping hot within a fraction of the recommended 45-minute duration it takes to oven bake it. Kind of a like a waffle iron for pies, the mini-pie machine comes with a precut dough cutter and tamping tool to press the unbaked crust to fit each of the four (4-inch in diameter) pie molds. After adding and sealing in the filling, you simply close and lock the lid and in about 8 minutes, your pies are ready to serve. You can check out a thorough review of the pie maker on the site Baking Bites.
Even after the cooking is done, don’t let the nuisance of popping that all-important bottle of wine foil your Turkey day celebrations. For that, there are a number of electric corkscrews on the market that promise less fiddling around with broken corks. Though various models seek to differentiate themselves by offering a few unique features, the underlying mechanism is the same. Just remove the foil cap, fit the device over the cork and, with a simple press of a button, the winding metallic spiral worms itself securely into the plug before gently extracting it. Press another button and the device recoils, automatically spitting out the cork.
Wine tool specialist Metrokane is selling a version that includes an LCD screen that shows how many uncorkings are left before having to recharge. But a comprehensive review of select products in the New York Times found that the company’s Rabbit Corkscrew still needed some work, as a test run required a maddening intervention they likened to a “hasty C-section” to get the device to release the cork. Other models, such as the Oster Wine Vacuum Corkscrew, they found, were much more reliable.
November 14, 2013
From additives like trans fat to GMOs, food processing is often blamed for being the unsavory scourge behind the widespread nutritional deficiencies and overall decline of the modern-day diet. But what if you were able to process your own food? Or more specifically, 3D print it?
For Lynette Kucsma, it’s more than a half-baked idea. Kucsma, the co-founder of Barcelona-based Natural Machines is betting that, given the option, you’d load only the best ingredients into her new creation, the Foodini, a kind of meal-o-matic replicator. Though the former Microsoft employee will handily admit that the device is hardly anything close to the sci-fi synthesizing technology envisioned on popular shows like “Star Trek,” it has shown to be quite masterful at quickly and efficiently arranging various raw ingredients such as dough, sauces, purees and well-grounded meat fillings into a ready-for-the-oven meal. By experimenting with several recipes, the four-person development team found that the 3D food printer is particularly adept at preparing burgers, gnocchi, ravioli, cookies, chocolate sculptures and bread sticks—foods generally made from pasty ingredients. It won’t, however, do a meatloaf since the layered process generally only works well with materials comprised of a smooth, fluid texture. (The team’s burgers, for instance, are made from beans.)
“Its function is more like food assembly, so it’s important to not confuse what it does with actual cooking,” Kucsma says. ”It’s probably most ideal for deserts or dishes with a meat or cheese paste, like ravioli. But even then it can be useful with many different kinds of food.”
Kucsma got involved with the project after she was invited at an event to try out current Natural Machines’ chief executive Emilio Sepulveda’s cake and chocolate printer. She found it intriguing, but being a health-conscious foodie, thought a better use of the technology would be to develop it further, so that it would enable people to prepare healthier meals in a manner that’s convenient, rather than resorting to having to reach for the factory-processed packaged variety.
“I’d say people would love a eat a home-cooked meal made with nothing but the freshest ingredients, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “The dilemma is that many people feel its only worth the time and energy to whip up a big batch of something if they can continue eating the leftovers for days without getting tired of it. That’s enough so that it can deter most people from doing it.”
Take, for instance, well, ravioli. Even preparing a small serving involves rolling and cutting the dough before wrapping and sealing in the filling by hand. It’s either that or pick up a preservative-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket. So in a way, the Foodini can best be thought of as a happy medium where much of the redundant labor can be done by automation, making the process not only convenient for a simple one-and-done dinner but also a time-saver for cooking in bulk.
Kucsma emphasizes that the Foodini is unlike the type of food printing technologies often showcased to the public. Those machines, she points out, tend to be nothing more than basic garage-built contraptions merely re-purposed to work with the simplest culinary confections, such as chocolate. Whereas those raw devices often come with exposed electrical wires and moving parts, a huge contamination risk, Natural Machines’ concept is enclosed and designed to look and operate just like a common kitchen appliance. To be certified “food grade” and on par with the likes of toaster-ovens or blenders, the FDA requires that any piece of food preparation equipment comply with health and safety standards, a process, she says, the company is currently undergoing.
In redesigning a food printer from scratch, the founders wanted to ensure that their consumers identified their product more with Martha Stewart and less with MakerBot. So instead of relying on complicated operating systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), the team developed specialized software and a touchscreen interface that makes inputting recipe instructions and adjusting the settings as seamless and intuitive as using tablets or smartphones. Inside, the compartments for ingredients are comprised of five capsules, which the machine is programmed to pick out one at a time to print or, more accurately, excrete in the shape of predetermined patterns. Depending on whether it’s ravioli shells or the filling that it’s printing out at the time, each soft ingredient is squeezed out at different rates of pressure and temperatures; the machine has a built-in heater to ensure certain ingredients stay at the proper consistency. And going along with the kitchen-friendly theme, cleaning and maintenance is made simple as the ingredient capsules can be tossed into the dishwasher.
The Foodini also includes Wi-Fi so that owners can receive software updates and take part in what the company envisions as an online community of enthusiasts who interact and share recipes. (I’m imagining a popular recipe series called “Five-Ingredient Meals.”) Users can sign on to view video demonstrations and recommended recipes and to access tech support. “When we re-conceptualized the 3D printer as a kitchen-friendly technology, it was important to us that it didn’t end up becoming one of those super-specialized appliances that you use once or twice a year and the rest of the time it sits in the cabinet collecting dust,” Kucsma says. ”We wanted it to be useful enough to help prepare many types of food and for people to continuing playing with that idea.”
In the meantime, the company has already begun taking pre-orders, which start at $1,366, though the staff is still in the process of testing the models and tweaking the software in preparation for a launch they’re hoping will happen by the middle of next year.